A look back at media innovation in 2017, and what we learned from it

From optimism to pessimism, then back to optimism again, let’s see what we learned in 2017 through our interviews, events, and programmes

We started 2017 with optimism (really) with a fascinating interview with Amy Webb (see below). This optimism turned out to be both right and wrong.

Towards the augmented newsroom

On the positive side, we learned how machines can better serve journalists, as AP’s Francesco Marconi told us:

‘Streamlining workflows, taking out grunt work, crunching more data, digging out insights and generating additional outputs are just a few of the mega-wins that have resulted from putting smart machines to work in the service of journalism.’

This ‘augmented newsroom’ can make repetitive tasks automated, can extract hidden insights from raw data, transcribe interviews in real time, etc.

Lisa Gibbs, global business editor & automation co-lead at AP, told us: ‘Machines have overall a slightly lower error rate than human writers, for example due to them not being able to make spelling or math errors,’ even if AI is only as good as the data journalists feed it.

But when asked if automation threatened jobs at AP, she reassured us: ‘We have not decreased our staff by a single employee, it was certainly possible to lower costs that way, but we had very clear communication about the situation to avoid confusion and only used it to remove low impact tasks.’

Misinformation & fact-checking

In 2017, we obviously could not escape talking about fake news, post-truth, and the new era of misinformation and fact-checking. At the GEN Summit in Vienna, Timothy Garton-Ash argued that national narratives represent an even bigger challenge than fake news:

‘The biggest problem we face is not fake news but Fox News. It is Fox News that essentially won the election for Trump.’

He specified that he was talking about ‘Fox News’ in the broadest sense possible. According to him, the real challenge for journalism is to produce ‘powerful and emotionally appealing simplistic narratives’. ‘Make America Great Again’, ‘bring back control to Brexit’: How do you get into the echo chambers of populism and reach people?

Social media has completely changed the face of political campaigning

‘Algorithms play an increasingly important role in our societies. They influence the results of search engines, how we move in traffic, and how police officers operate. The mechanisms behind these systems are crucial, but most people are completely unaware how they work.’

This is what Christina Elmer, head of data journalism at Spiegel Online, told us. She is convinced that it is up to journalists to make the workings of algorithms transparent as well as classifying and evaluating them. According to Elmer, newsrooms have some catching up to do in this field, as most journalists lack the skills, making collaborations with experts and researchers on a national and international level all the more important.

Alexios Mantzarlis, from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network, shared his expertise with our network, giving tips on what makes fact-checking impactful and the respective role of humans and machines when it comes to uncovering the truth:

‘While confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, or a lack of media literacy might cloud our judgement, we are only ‘fact-resistant’ and not ‘fact-immune’. Drawing our attention to correct information does not lead to a backfire effect, but forces us to reconsider what we already believe to be true.’

Visual journalism

Another obvious challenge for journalism still remains its format and distribution. Video was in the spotlight in 2017 with the now infamous ‘pivot to video’. Someone at the forefront had a positive take on it: ‘We are in the early stages of visual revolution in journalism’, said Mic’s Cory Haik. ‘New mixed-media formats in social video —primarily short- and mid-form— offer a rich opportunity to deliver complicated news in compelling ways.’

The key ingredients of successful videos are ‘people, curiosity, and technology’, according to Millán I. Berzosa. ‘The YouTuber phenomenon should be a great source of inspiration: more focus on the audience, more focus on connections.’

Coda Story sets itself apart from the video-is-king approach through their determination to tell stories in the best format for each narrative. Rather than making news stories fit into short articles or ‘snackable’ videos, Coda Story uses intimate storytelling methods, animations, and various mixed formats to create meaningful content with a long shelf-life.

Mobile

Vice President and Executive Editor at Hearst Newspapers David Ho debunked the biggest myth in mobile news: that mobile equals short, when in fact mobile equals relevant. Mobile news has to be tailored to your exact target audience, making them feel that their unique needs as a group or community have been taken into consideration. Visuals have to be made from the start with mobile publishing in mind. He warned at the GEN Summit 2017:

‘News has to be beautiful because it is a battle for time. There are a thousand other things to do on your phone that is enjoyable or entertaining. Why would users choose to struggle with your ugly product?’

Monetisation

Winter has come for media organisations — and so far it’s brutal. The future looks bleak for ad-supported media: even successful companies like BuzzFeed and Vice Media missed their revenue goals, and Mashable has been sold at just a fifth of its value from a few months earlier. Maybe it is wise to look at alternative revenue streams for publishers. We looked into the trendy model of non-profit news, to see if it represents a viable alternative.

Blockchain and journalism: what is behind the jargon?

Later during the year, we talked to blockchain experts to try to understand what this new technology could mean for newsrooms and journalism. GEN board member and advisor at Hubii, David Schlesinger, told us:

‘Whether it is the panacea or not, I don’t know that. But I do think there are many aspects to it, particularly the smart contract, particularly the distributed ledger, particularly the notion of community trust that could help form the news ecosystem of the future.’


Editors Lab

Editors Lab team at work in Lisbon, October 2017

Editors Lab had a huge year of real solutions built for newsrooms, by newsrooms. In the spring, we had two hackathons in India dedicated to improving coverage of gender-related topics. WTD News’s winning prototype MissManage recently launched as a full-scale product to empower women financially. Sydney and New York hacked for improved audience engagement and the results were new ways to think about encryption and paywalls.

Environmental coverage was another big theme in 2017. Natural disasters challenged teams in earthquake-prone Italy and Japan to improve coverage, while Portugal focused on wildfires. Times of India won the Delhi Editors Lab with an air quality reporting prototype and Stuttgarter Zeitung implemented a sensor journalism project born from an Editors Lab prototype.

Our first Editors Lab in South Korea challenged newsrooms to build election coverage prototypes and more than half of them were rapidly implemented when the presidential election there was unexpectedly moved up. The winning project is even being launched as a startup. Finally, with large-scale international stories dominating headlines for weeks and months in 2017, we challenged our finalists to ‘keep it simple’ when reporting complex news. BBC won with their in-article contextualisation tool Appy Helper, which they’re planning to implement soon. Season Six of Editors Lab is underway and 2018 holds the promise of more collaborative, sustainable innovation.

Startups for News

Creating successful interactive content takes time and talent — it might be inefficient to produce in large newsrooms and too big a task for smaller newsrooms. Without the help of developers, non-coding journalists sometimes struggle to produce anything except for maybe a simple chart.

Duncan Clark and Robin Houston, winners of last year’s Startups for News competition, are looking to change that. They are creating Flourish, a platform that aims to make it easier for journalists to produce and publish high quality interactive visuals and stories based on a number of different templates.

Last month, we also talked with London-based news agency Urbs Media — runner-up of the last Startups for News competition — which is using automation to strengthen local newsrooms. CEO Alan Renwick described what the startup does best:

‘What we try to do — this is part of what we think will be the human magic of working with automation — is to find a way to develop different angles for stories. The differences in the stories will not only be the numerical differences, which give you different data points, but the angle and approach to the story those data points lead you to.’

Apply today to Startups for News


Data Journalism Awards

2017 has been a great year for data journalism and for the Data Journalism Awards. We’ve hit a record number of 573 submissions last year, the biggest in the history of the awards, with submissions coming from 51 countries on all continents. They showed the ongoing efforts of news organisations worldwide to do data-driven investigations and to dedicate more time to working with and visualising data. Winners of the 2017 Data Journalism Awards included The Rhymes Behind Hamilton, by The Wall Street Journal (United States), Unfounded by The Globe and Mail (Canada), and also projects from smaller organisations like Rutas Del Conflicto (Colombia) and KRIK (Serbia). As the competition grows, so does its dedicated Slack team, which now gathers 400 data journalists from all over the world.

Submit your work to the Data Journalism Awards 2018


We have concluded 2017 very eager to see what will happen in 2018. From the launch of the data journalism Den, to the immersive storytelling accelerator Lookout360°, we believe 2018 will be a fantastic year, not to mention the upcoming GEN Summit in Lisbon. But we will leave our CEO Bertrand Pecquerie talk about it:

Happy new year!

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