What drives newsroom innovation—and what hinders it

At the Global Editors Network’s Editors Lab, a worldwide series of hackathons for digital news innovation, participants surprised themselves beyond their expectations, and wondered what could be if they were to push innovation forward within their own newsrooms after the hackathon.

Over two days, teams of three from newsrooms around the world built working prototypes to tell better stories on elections, on public health, on disasters, gender and, even found new ways to leverage Facebook comments for incisive reporting.

This got them thinking: if this is what they can achieve in two dedicated days, what could they accomplish for their newsrooms given more time, more resources and a larger support team?

From top left clockwise: Bengaluru Editors Lab in April, Mic Editors Lab in New York, Business Next Editors Lab in Taipei and Tokyo Editors Lab

“The hackathon is a really interesting way to step out of the comfort zone, to really take the time to brainstorm and hash out fresh ideas,” says Scott Burkhard, UX designer at National Geographic in Washington DC. “It really helps to know that you have ideas that can turn into full-fledged prototypes. We need to create a conducive environment for them to emerge all of the time.”

One of the biggest hurdles, teams agree universally, is quite simply, a lack of time. Running on the daily hamster-wheel that is the news cycle, it’s difficult for individuals to take time out of regular coverage to think about creative ways to tell the story. This requires time, effort and collaboration between various departments, all of which is more often than not, not feasible at the same time. It involves going beyond the work that’s expected of you too.

While some editors ask employees to work on innovation projects on their own time, others are more supportive. “Our editors are encouraging, and have asked us to set aside time and resources towards implementing our Editors Lab prototype — a simulation tool that trains young journalists to report in crisis situations,” says Candice Montenegro, journalist at the Philippines’ D5 Studio. “We have been working on it, but it’s very hard to juggle it with daily coverage. I try to make it a priority on some days, go out and get interviews taken with experts, but this is difficult to plan for because you don’t know what the news is going to look like that day.”

Initiate by ABC News created during the Walkley Editors Lab in Sydney

Team ABC News’s prototype, a secure platform for whistleblowers to connect with journalists, was almost ready to publish after the two-day hackathon in Sydney, but the team would like more time to work on the user experience. “It’s functional, but we haven’t had the time to fine-tune it,” says Ben Spraggon, a designer at the Australian media house.

To counter this problem, some newsrooms have adopted news cycle-agnostic models, or developed departments that can be so. For instance, BBC’s Visual Journalism unit goes beyond graphics, maps and charts to tell data-led stories, creating distinctive, multi-media experiences for the user.

“This is possible because the visual journalism department is not restricted to news that happens on a particular day,” says Nassos Stylianou, journalist on the team. “We have the ability to take the time and be creative. For instance, we did an interactive story on the gender gap in various countries, that didn’t just say your country was number 4 or number 100 on the list. It told you which countries have improved the most recently, which ones haven’t, the only countries where more women are in work than men, how long it will take to fix this gap, and so on.”

How equal are you? by BBC News

Starting up

Increasingly, media start-ups are moving away from the breaking news cycle in a bid to innovate. Factor Daily, a year-old Indian digital publication focuses entirely on the intersection of technology and culture, for instance. WTDNews, also from India, targets disengaged millennials with explainers of big news stories, told through animation, infographics, pop-culture references and memes, and via social media platforms.

“In India, there’s a turn taking place, where media houses can move from addressing the public at large to more niche groups,” says Natasha Kewalramani, editor at WTDNews. “Because of the nature of our work, we aren’t tied to breaking news. We always take the time to zoom out, look at the big picture and change our course accordingly.”

“The struggle to tell good stories while also staying on top of the buzz is a challenge, no doubt, especially for a small newsroom like ours,” says Shrabonti Bagchi, journalist at Factor Daily. “But we follow a less-is-more policy. We have no intention of getting on the clickbait bandwagon, and believe that quality stories will differentiate us and bring the numbers too. We want to do a few things, but do them really well.”

La Stampa pitching at the Editors Lab Final in Vienna during the GEN Summit

For Outriders in Poland, a non-traditional model works: it’s a location-independent newsroom, with reporters in various parts of Poland and the world. This helps them bring fresh, on-the-ground coverage — they put together a four-continent study on air pollution in 24 hours, for example, including social media events and interactives. However, the core team tries to get in the same room a couple of times a year, which they find essential to discuss strategy and make large decisions.

It isn’t always good news for start-ups, though. In countries like India and South Korea, where legacy media has dominated the space for generations, running a new firm comes with its challenges.

“As the co-founders have no newsroom experience, credibility is the biggest issue we face,” says Kewalramani of WTDNews. “However, we have been lucky to find a niche audience, and a gap in the market. Although the work the WTD newsroom does is unique, there is a constant fear that legacy media (with bigger teams and deeper pockets) will imitate us, negating our ideas and efforts entirely. But unlike legacy media, we have the luxury to be innovative, take risks and constantly adapt to what works and what doesn’t.”

Attracting talent is often difficult too. “Many aspire for spots in legacy media, spending a lot of effort and time to prepare for and take a local examination, which qualifies you as a journalist. This is your ticket to an established media house in Korea,” says Rayoon Hyung, journalist for South Korea’s Deepr. “You don’t need to follow the same path for a media start-up, but in this country of traditions, the notion that traditional media is more esteemed still exists.”

Factor Daily’s Bagchi agrees, saying that to find the right balance between edgy, smart folks and those who understand the value of good journalism, hard work and solid reportage is especially hard for a start-up. “This combination is difficult to find,” she says.

It’s also prevalent that newsrooms with long histories are reluctant to change processes and embrace digital innovation, Hyung adds.

Portuguese newspaper Expresso, for instance, has a vertical structure, and sections are clearly defined, versus new-age media houses where positions are more fluid. “Innovation is happening in the newsroom, but in the editorial context,” says Ines Bravo, UX designer at Expresso. “Innovation is a hot topic in Portugal, so no one is against it, but no one really wants to invest in it.”

The team from the Philippines pitching their prototype ‘YBother?’ at the Editors Lab Final

Tech tonic

As a newsroom covering technology, the Factor Daily team makes it a point to innovate with it. In addition to using Facebook Live to broadcast stories, and largely successful podcasts, they use Shorthand.com, a tool for multi-media storytelling. WTDNews tells stories through Snapchat, Instagram and short videos. Spanish newsroom El Confidencial is playing with immersive storytelling, using data visualisations to give context to stories, and with 360-videos and audio experiments.

“A lot of trends and innovations come from the US, because news organisations there have more resources and their teams are trained to take on different profiles,” says Adrian Blanco, data journalist at El Confidencial. “Our newsroom is constantly trying to innovate, but it’s often difficult because we’re pressed for resources.”

At Australia’s ABC News, roles are more fluid — journalists are often also coders and also designers. “Not having traditionally separate roles is a definite advantage,” says Simon Elvery, on ABC’s interactive digital storytelling unit. “This allows us to develop different storytelling platforms, even circumvent the CMS when necessary.”

In many traditional media houses, journalists and tech teams don’t have the chance to interact much. At Italy’s La Stampa, for instance, the teams are seated on different floors, with little collaboration. “It would be wonderful to spend more time with the developers,” says Nicolas Lozito, information designer at La Stampa.

An obstacle in most newsrooms continues to be the absence of tech literacy. “Not too many understand the difference between broadcast video and videos for web, for example,” says ABC’s Spraggon.

Monetising online content is another struggle. “How do you produce great web content, pay writers, producers, editors, all based on page views?” asks National Geographic’s Burkhard. “It’s sometimes difficult to be path-breaking when you don’t have a clear revenue stream for digital content.”

The good news is that as the digital media space expands, teams agree, these problems will find ways to iron themselves out, because newsrooms will be left no choice but to innovate. The reader only wins from here on.