Notes from designing a journalism accelerator

How do you decide what to fund?

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
“No one who knows journalism would claim that they know what journalism will look like in 10 years’ time” — Accelerator interviewee

Engagement has always been at the heart of the journalism Lucia Adams is passionate about. That’s why I asked her to help me to design our Engaged Journalism Accelerator.

It has been almost a decade since a small group of journalists was invited to work on re-inventing The Times for the digital future. At that time, newspaper advertising had started to show signs of a wobble from which it would not recover. Their launch of the ‘paywall’ (as it came to be known) looked a bold move. But it is only with hindsight that we can appreciate the scale and extent of disruption Lucia and her team were heading towards.

The Times’s voyage into membership meant that they started to think about engagement not as ‘fluffy’ and ‘nice-to-have’. They saw the trust it built as core to the existence of their operation. That meant undertaking a whole range of activities to change the organisation at every level. They continuously developed the paywall, collaborated with colleagues, and changed the way we worked. I experienced something similar while Chief of Product at Storyful. Different business, same obsession with optimizing for trust.

Lucia and I both knew that, to be successful, the Engaged Journalism Accelerator would have to invest the right amount, at the right time, in the right organisations.

Rather than keeping these decisions locked away, as is the case with many funding programmes, we’ve decided to share them.

Engagement is sustainability

“Engaged journalism is journalism designed to develop a stronger relationship between an individual reporter and individual audience members. That’s good for your bottom line.” — Accelerator interviewee

We define engaged journalism as journalism that puts community engagement (geographical or topical) at the centre of its ownership, reporting, distribution, impact and revenue. In other words, newsrooms that view journalism as a conversation.

Lucia interviewed 35 pioneers from 13 countries to learn about their challenges. (You can learn more about what they told us in a previous post, and read anonymous quotes from them throughout this post).

The link between revenue and community engagement was clear. News organisations that placed community engagement at the heart of their strategy were making significant progress.

However, these examples were isolated and early in their evolution. Lucia turned to Everett Rogers, a renowned change theorist, to provide a theoretical framework for our support of sustainable engaged journalism.

Getting ahead of the curve

“The majority of European newsrooms are not engaged; they’re so behind.” — Accelerator interviewee

For any change practitioner Rogers’ adoption curve is one of the ‘go to’ tools. It provides a means to take a step back, plot one’s current position, and determine which actions would be best suited to progression.

Rogers helps us make sense of a complex set of signals by identifying stages in the diffusion of new ideas.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations

If we map our understanding of engaged journalism in Europe onto that graph, it looks something like this…

  1. Early innovators — a small but influential group with a high appetite for change and tolerance of risk. The innovators will be out of the starting gate before the race has even begun. Organisations like De Correspondent and El Diario who have proven loyalty and relatively developed revenue models could be considered to be in this bracket. Some of them are already moving into new markets.
  2. Early adopters. This group has learned from the innovators. They are more judicious in their adoption decisions and play the role of opinion leader in the social ecosystem. A new wave of newsrooms like this are emerging in almost every country in Europe (e.g. Bureau Local, Inside Story, Tvoe Mista). They have proven loyalty and engagement, but only early indicators regarding sustainability. They, on the whole, have very limited options for support from donors and funds.
  3. The early majority. This is the next wave of engaged journalism start-ups, co-operatives and experimental outfits. They have the ability to propel an innovation further towards critical mass. These organisations either don’t exist yet, or are still grappling with their loyalty indicators. Some forward-thinking “legacy” newsrooms are part of this cohort.
  4. Late majority and laggards. They are usually skeptical about an innovation, and have below average social influence. The laggards follow (if they’re still around, that is). Legacy newsrooms attempting to revamp their engagement strategy fall into the first camp. Newsrooms and media organisations resistant to change are in the second.

The Engaged Journalism Accelerator will focus primarily on directly supporting the second cohort — early adopters.

But how are we going to ensure secondary benefits spread to the whole ecosystem?

Reaching critical mass

“Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” — Everett Rogers.

You can introduce an idea to people, but driving adoption requires a lot of effort. This must be carefully coordinated across a range of activities. In retrospect, this is what Lucia had done in implementing The Times paywall.

Firstly, adopters will assess the desirability of any innovation across a range of measures. For example: how risky is it? Is it an improvement to the status quo? How easy is it to adopt? How fuzzy is the proposition? In order to progress through the adoption curve, each adopter group must be satisfied with the innovation’s viability.Therefore, any change initiative must consider the adopters themselves.

A focus on the early adopters, as opposed to the laggards determines the types of interventions that are needed.

Driving adoption

Rogers says communication is essential to disseminating the innovation and experiments. This must be seen in the context of the wider social system. This incorporates a holistic view of social influences within and outside the organisation.

Driving adoption requires different things at different points on the curve. In some cases it will be putting the innovation in the hands of a number of opinion leaders. At The Times they did this by giving iPads to influential Editors. In other cases it will involve backing a range of experiments and ensuring that the lessons are widely shared.

With that in mind, here’s how we expect the Accelerator to directly impact each cohort:

  1. Early innovators. Direct intervention is a distraction for them. If willing, they can provide invaluable case-studies and mentorship. They’ll benefit, more generally, from the competition and a thriving journalism ecosystem.
  2. Early adopters. Here we expect an outsized impact from our intervention. These will be the target of direct funding, coaching and support from the Accelerator
  3. Early majority. We can help to drive this next wave of innovators through direct engagement with the lessons learned by early adopters. We’ll reach them through community platforms, events, coaching and playbooks.
  4. Late majority and laggards. Traditional or commercial newsrooms attempting to revamp their engagement strategy will also benefit. They receive inspiration and guidance from all events and resources produced.

Looking for outsized effect

“People who work on wicked problems look for leverage points, spots in the system where a relatively low-cost intervention could have an outsized effect.” — Heather Chaplin, (The Crisis in Journalism Is a Wicked Problem)

The early adopters we’ve identified are demonstrating what revenue and audience loyalty look like when newsrooms design their work around collaborating with the public. We believe our interventions here will have an outsized effect. That’s not to say the others are not deserving of support. Rather, they either have access to support, or our particular expertise and ideas won’t help them with their current challenges as much.

There is incredible diversity in new, emerging business models and journalistic practices across Europe. In membership, cooperatives, merchandising and partnerships, experimentation is rife. Successes and failures are being clocked up along the way.

We’re mindful that there’s no single dominant or successful model for engagement or revenue. A range of models are developing. We have seen a number of early adopters emerge and establish themselves, but they are still low in number.

Our goal with the Engaged Journalism Accelerator is to support the emergence of early adopter newsrooms that see journalism as a conversation. Through that we believe we will accelerate their progress, and encourage the early majority, late majority, and laggards to listen, learn and accelerate their own evolution.


Further reading

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