15 thoughts on innovation for smaller newsrooms

How do you innovate in smaller newsrooms, was one of the questions that was sought to be addressed at the WAN IFRA international newsroom summit I attended in Hamburg on October 5. My answer is an emphatic: “Better, and more ambitiously than anyone tends to give us credit for”.

The big guns, like the NYT and The Guardian, are rightly lauded for the innovative work they do; they also have the staff and resources to make sure those things are done excellently. When you work in a regional newsroom and have a burning idea that you just know will be amazing in terms of providing great coverage of a story, or driving audience engagement, or shaking up the way things are done in your workplace, necessity can be the mother of invention (and innovation).

I see first hand how hard the Trinity Mirror regional newsrooms make their innovation stretch, and the lengths they go to make ideas happen, so it was great to be asked to talk about the opportunities for innovation in smaller newsrooms by WAN IFRA. Innovative, experimental storytelling is not the preserve of large newsrooms.

So these are my points on the how and why of innovation in smaller newsrooms.

  1. Know your audience – who are you trying to reach, where are they at various points in the day, what devices are they using, what platforms are they moving towards? How does your idea fit into that, and support the over-arching goal of growth and engagement? Knowing the answers means you’ll make decisions that connect your content to the people you want to reach.
  2. Resources are finite. Be realistic – how likely is it that you are going to spend several months and several thousand pounds developing a ‘look how innovative we are’ game or piece of content. So where can you piggyback? What 3rd party tools exist to help you tell your stories in other ways? Is your idea the best way of reaching your desired audience anyway?
  3. Most questions that begin ‘how to I connect with X audience?’ end in an answer that contains, to a greater or lesser extent, ‘social media’. If you’re a regional newsroom you need to get your social, mobile, local approach right.
  4. Something cannot work on one mobile OS and ‘sort of’ work on another. Either it works on mobile, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, don’t do it; you’re just halving your potential audience reach.
  5. Run a trial, assess the value – share the knowledge. If it works, great – you’ve got a best practice model to refine across other newsrooms who know they are getting a tried and tested success. If it doesn’t, you know you’ve used the resources wisely and attempted something that you can still take learnings from.
  6. Publish where your audience is; make those pieces of content entry points for your other platforms too
  7. Use analytics to help inform all your decision-making.
  8. Newsrooms that harness that expertise can achieve faster culture shift
  9. Using 3rd party tools that work on your platforms is a practical solution for small newsrooms – just make sure a) they don’t break your platforms and b) they work on mobile
  10. Share that knowledge where possible – collaboration = creativity. Hack days, social media cafes, training days, help build relationships, community engagement and  spark ideas
  11. Free your content – don’t just work in a CMS silo. Not everything has to drag the audience back to your website. We need content packages that go out into the world with their boots on, editorially and commercially. The disaggregation of the homepage is happening; news providers have to have a sound plan for ‘discovered content’.
  12. Be an early bird: Beta testing is a great option for small, agile newsrooms. Startups knock on many, many doors with their idea; it’s good to give time and attention to them because you never know when it’s going to develop into a mutually beneficial relationship. Or, to put it another way, be nice, because you never know where someone – or some start-up – is going to wind up.
  13. What resources can you devote – staff, time and cash? What stops being done to make way for your project? Honestly, if your great idea is going to suck the air out of other projects, and test colleagues’ patience and work flows, you’ve got to know it’s worth it and be able to articulate the benefits.
  14. Just because others do it, it doesn’t mean it will be right for you. Sometimes the resources, the audience and the returns mean that a great idea in one newsroom is a lukewarm one in another. That’s ok if you’ve looked at it from every angle and can’t replicate the success, what can you take out of it? There probably are elements that will work.
  15. Where’s the money? What are the commercial opportunities of your idea and have you involved commercial colleagues at an early enough point that they can a) think how it might be of interest to their clients and b) where they can point out opportunities you’ve missed? Generally speaking, newsrooms don’t talk to Advertising enough, but we’re fast enough to employ the Patented Journalist Eyeroll when they fail to sell around planned content they found out about 3 days ago, but that we’ve been working on for the best part of a fortnight.
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Interesting reads (weekly)

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Interesting reads (weekly)

  • Just a brilliant read – highly recommended, and thought-provoking. FWIW, I could never do this – I like following people – but I started using lists far more aggressively several months ago, and it’s made an enormous difference to the content I see every day. Also my Tweetdeck columns are essential. “I decided to unfollow everyone. Yes, everyone. No exceptions. From one day to another. And instead of relying on a combination of Twitter Lists and my home timeline, which is what I have been doing for years already, I decided to be brave enough and see whether I could survive just with Twitter Lists and following zero people and witness, first hand, whether the conversations moved elsewhere. Or not. Eventually, I wanted to see how disruptive such bold move would be like on how we use Twitter today.”

    tags: twitter

  • How BuzzFeed, The Economist, The New York Times, Quartz, Vox, and Yahoo News slim down a day’s worth of news into manageable forms.

    tags: apps platforms distribution

  • Saw this, thought of Facebook’s Instant Articles.

    “Platforms can create revenue models where a CMS cannot…any such platform solves problems with the open, flat, flexible common standard by moving it into a richer, more powerful and sophisticated but also in some sense closed and proprietary place. “

    tags: platforms distribution audience

  • ICYMI, Trinity Mirror Regionals is about to introduce a new structure/culture for its newsrooms, including audience goals. This has generated a lot of heat from various people who have gone straight to Defcom One without understanding the details. This, by David Higgerson, endeavours to pierce the fog of suspicion and misinformation… “Journalism has changed. It can’t just be about shouting for attention. Readers expect to be listened to, and their views taken into account. The right use of audience data enables that to happen every day.”

    tags: audience Trinity Mirror Regionals data

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Dealing with witnesses: Why the Eyewitness Media Hub’s guidelines are so important for journalism


A while ago I was asked to join a group of journalists assembled with the aim of providing some input into Eyewitness Media Hub’s principles for journalists working with UGC* – user generated content (or ‘other people’s words and images’, as non-journalists might say).

It was a privilege to be involved in the discussions and workshop around such important issues, and as a mainstream journalist it’s really important to me that my world view of our working practices gets stretched and challenged regularly.

Anyway, EMH took on an enormous piece of work and, from a bazillion clauses, sub-clauses and “yes, but…” moments, has distilled the best practice down into 6 simple steps.

Go and look at them with full context on the EMH website, and do please read the version on Medium with lovely sharable graphics because they explain things beautifully, and succinctly.

However, as I’ve got your eyeballs for a moment, here’s a pared-down version, with my input in (these):

  1. Consider the physical and emotional welfare of the eyewitnesses you speak to during breaking news events (I have spoken to people who were so shaken by what they’d just been involved in, they didn’t even know I was media, despite me telling them. I imagine a stranger saying “hello, this is my name and title” is classed by the brain as extraneous information compared to the WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING information it’s trying to process. Try to publish footage already captured (Again, it’s often amazing how obliging your average member of the public can be. They will unthinkingly and unwittingly put themselves in, or back in, harm’s way just to be co-operative, helpful and show the story. Others do it because they want that brush with fame – both are equally damaging, potentially). Appreciate the eyewitness may be completely overwhelmed. (This is an opportunity to be a human being, and not take advantage of them. I think probably Vivien Ayling, who witnessed the Shoreham tragedy and then drove on, obviously in deep shock, to her workplace. I caught a radio interview with her a few days later, and a) she was getting a huge amount of social media abuse for driving on to work – instead of what? Staying and getting caught in the fire? Being in the way of the rescue services? – and b) reporters were allegedly waiting for her at home, have steamrollered her son to get into the house. She didn’t even think of asking them to leave, poor woman).
  2. When you’re asking people if you can use their content, do explain how it will be used, and where and what you’re planning to do with it. Also, tell them about syndication, including the who and where. (I’ve explained the syndication opportunity to Liverpool people who have, for example, given us videos, and the stipulation comes back that they’re fine for it be bought by other organisations but it cannot go to The Sun. Also, historically, people have had no idea what syndication of their content means: I think that will change, especially as more organisations like Storyful appear; but in the meantime, if they don’t ask, we should make sure they’re told).
  3. If you’re embedding content, without speaking to the creator, think about reasonable expectation of where it might appear. (But, tbh, get explicit permission every time, if you can. It just saves a heap of problems later and, frankly, if someone doesn’t want you to use their stuff, and finds out you have, you could find the ensuing Tweetstorm and drain on your time trying to right a wrong outweighs the click value. Also, TinEye and Google Reverse Image Search are commonly used nowadays; it can also cost you more financially, once you’ve annoyed someone through non-communication).
  4. When it comes to images, think about the impact of what you’re publishing might have on people pictured/broadcast, or their family. (Blur isn’t a cop-out; it’s a mature way of telling a story while acknowledging the impact of what you’re publishing can have. We can be so terrified of bottling it, or not using the same photo in the same way as another publication, sometimes. Competition is a good thing, and being bold and brave as journalists is generally the right way to go. All I’m saying is: It’s rare you can cause harm by shielding people)
  5. Ask how someone who has created the content you’re publishing wants to be credited. This may mean you need to explain the potential pros and cons (like, you’ll get a lot of social media kudos and follows – you’ll also get deluged by other media wanting to use it, and they will contact you directly instead of going through our syndication department (see #2). And, no, Photo: Twitter, or Video: YouTube is not a byline.  Sometimes people will choose pseudonyms, or request anonymity, often they won’t. What they do need is a choice.
  6. Treat people fairly; ask them if they would like recompense if their content is being used to make money for the publisher. And here we are at the delicate business of finance, at which point most newsrooms will twitch their skirts around their ankles and dither because UGC IS FREE, ISN’T IT? Not always, and not if you want a relationship with your audience, and a reputation for fair dealing. Often people don’t want money but it’s a conversation that should be had.

*I think Other People’s Content is probably the honest way of putting things, because it doesn’t set the Wo/Man In The Street on a different footing to a freelance photographer. If you want what they’ve made, you need to treat them both well and fairly, whether payment is requested or expected or not. Because, well, ethics. And not being a dick.

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Interesting reads (weekly)

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“That time Bohemian Rhapsody crashed the comments on Facebook…”

This story, about Alan Barnes deciding to make a new life away from the city, was posted on the Newcastle Chronicle’s Facebook page an hour ago:

Newcastle Chronicle2


“I have had a calling from God to go to the Shetland Islands.”

Posted by Newcastle Chronicle on Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The first reader comment was this…

Newcastle Chronicle1

…and here is a typical selection of the ’40 replies’  alluded to below that comment…

Newcastle Chronicle

Yup, the lyrics of Bohemien Rhapsody were posted, line by line, by different commenters.  Never let it be said Facebook comments on news sites are all either “slow news day” moans about lazy journalism, or sinks of hatred and bile.

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#formatDEN: Audiences, realities and goats in hats


Goat. In. A. Hat.

Recurring themes in journalism conferences I’ve been following (and sometimes attended) this year are:

  • Try innovating, not imitating (aka don’t be Buzzfeed-lite)
  • Everyone is a reporter, so be a curator and editor
  • Don’t be scared of failing
  • Get developers coding in the newsroom

At FormatDEN this week, these were raised but so were some others…

This was a takeaway from Trushar Barot, Mobile Editor (editorial/product/partnerships) with the BBC. I really enjoy listening to Trushar, he’s incredibly smart, very business-minded and asks tough questions (I sat on an innovation judging panel with him once and he cut straight to the woolly bits of the business case)
His talk on messenger apps and BBC approaches was excellent and I especially liked his thoughts around the real practicalities of using WhatsApp for UGC sourcing.

His view on culture change is to find people who are passionate and excited by change, and put them in charge of digital projects, rather than having the digital experts leading on them.
His view was that showing someone a shiny that would make their job easier, wider adoption of would follow.
But he is also an exponent of treating people as adults, telling them realities and drawing their attention to what is happening in the wider world – to the successes of other competitors, to the successes of their counterparts with said competitor, and by pointing out how skills are changing, and to be relevant and required in a business, individuals have to change too. “And that works as well,” he finished.

Trushar shared a Google Doc of relevant BBC links too. They’re here.

Two other takeaways from this talk, for me:
Working on messaging apps is a way of grasping what content could work on these platforms. It also is an indicator how we engage an audience in what will be, I think, the next disruptive stage in the news industry. We’re going to have to shift from ‘open social’ distribution method to a ‘one-to-many’ distribution approach. We will be less visible, but perhaps the content will have greater value, and impact.
The other thought I had: Is it a good investment of time to work lots on apps if people are – within a few years – going to have moved beyond them and into opt-in receivers rather than seekers of information? The answer is yes, I guess; what else are we going to do?


Juan Senor, a journalism consultant, visiting Oxford Fellow and academic, said page views weren’t the metric to trust (side point: Our metrics-that-matter at Trinity Mirror shifted to dwell time. pages per user and completion rates a while ago) but also had a suck-the-air-out-of-the-room moment when he said social metrics didn’t count either.
“Good journalism will always be shareable” he said, saying there was a need to move from the “anarchy of the mob and the idiocy of the mob”.
“If what we are selling is good journalism we need to think about what we do when we dumb down the content. We should look at the Huffington Post (he was alluding to the fact that the HuffPo has had some bad press recently) and unless Mashable and Buzzfeed look to that example they will go the same way.
“The money is coming in but the metrics they want are time spent, and video completion – not Likes, and RTs. Advertising departments want people to spend quality time with their client’s messages – not shares and page views”.

I should say that a lot of DEN is Chatham House rules, but given that Juan was probably the presenter who had the most soundbites tweeted while I was there, and is a consultant whose views are widely aired, I don’t think he will mind me quoting him directly.


Blathnaid Healy, the UK Editor of Mashable, said the company was obsessed with audiences and used its early adopter chops to try new platforms, because that’s what the audience expected, and where it would follow (or lead, I suppose. So the more early Mashable is, the more audience comes with them).
Something I really liked about her talk – and there were many highlights – was the phrase ‘Millennials and Those Who Think Like Them’ – I get a bit tired of hearing about Millennials doing this, that and the other. I know people who patently aren’t millennials by their birth certificates, but who romp across the digital media landscape like toddlers, grasping bits of it and cooing with delight.
They live and breathe media in its current form, and there are plenty of them.
My other takeaways from Blathnaid were that explainer video can be nearly five minutes long, and users will stick with it, if it’s good it and informs them of things in entertaining ways.
She also got me thinking about longform formats and how we can experiment by using people’s own stories in their own words. And she had the quote of the day:

“Journalism can be shareable as much as a goat in a hat can be shareable”.

Words to live by.
Unfortunately I had to leave DEN before the end, but it’s worth looking back over the hashtag for comments and links. One of the other big impacts on me was Ed Miller’s immersive news documentary on Hong Kong unrest (shot on Go-Pros, highlighted in his talk on VR for journalism) because it’s an area we’ve done some work in and the results – i.e. the audience engagement – are really telling.

People love interactive multimedia, especially photos they can explore, and we need to make it more of a part of our portfolio, rather than a special event.

So, thanks to the Wall Street Journal, John Crowley, Francois Nel and Nick Turner for a great event.

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Interesting reads (weekly)

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The end of ‘behind closed doors’ journalism

There are times in a journalist’s career when you are going to have to approach someone who is not having the finest moment of their life, and ask them to help you.

It might be calling on a grieving family, or approaching witnesses to an accident, or asking someone who has just emerged the loser in a tussle with Justice to talk about How They Feel.

The outcomes are sometimes unedifying, occasionally unpleasant but – more often than the non-journalist might credit – can also be mutually successful and beneficial. These interactions were also largely unwitnessed, except by those participating.
They happened behind closed doors, or, more accurately, on doorsteps – whether you got inside said door or not hinged, no pun intended, on how you conducted yourself, and represented your intentions.

I called it the Black Edged Voice and it would be employed for death knocks (low, respectful tone, apologetic demeanour for intruding, much stressing of the fact that I would leave  if the door-answerer wished, and would not return) and I was more often than not invited in.

I would interview the person or family; I would do my utmost to do justice to their dear one with a tribute. My goal was to give them a cutting that they would come to regard as a mini-memorial. Every newsroom had reporters who were ‘good on the knock’ – I suspect it comes down to empathy… and luck.

Things started to change in… I’m going to go out on a limb and say 2008, because that was when the first pebbles of social media sliding down a slope became a rumbling avalanche. In 2009 this happened, which gave me a personal insight into how my old-school ‘contacts’  had become my (much-wider) network and a plane crashed in the Hudson and (most) mainstream media suddenly got what was going on.

Now, when a news break happens, you can bank on Twitter being at the heart of it in some way, and often that’s because it’s where the witnesses are. If I’m passing a huge traffic snarl-up on the M6 my instinct is to photograph or video it and post it on Twitter with a hashtag (from the passenger seat, officer, of course) – my natural instinct is to share. And it’s a common mindset; whether you’re wondering what the noises overhead are, or seeing the Clutha tragedy unfold sharing the experience on networks is now a common thing.

But as a witness, or someone who acknowledges a connection to someone caught up in a newsworthy event, when you share that on Twitter you invite reaction, and a side effect of that is that the massed ranks of media are likely going to be in your @ mentions within minutes, asking for a) your content or b) an interview or c) probably both. For a journalist, it means these interactions are happening in the world; they aren’t behind closed doors or in a one-to-one exchange on a doorstep – you’re asking your questions on Twitter and onlookers may well view them as intrusive.

It’s not necessarily pretty but that’s beside the point – asking the questions, respectfully, within the Editors’ Code of Conduct, and knowing that varieties of “NO” may be the comeback are part of the job. There are two problems: Dozens of other media may well be @-ing the same “can we [use your photo, speak to you, ask you to put us i touch with X]?”; others witnessing the Twitter scrum get outraged (sometimes with good reason) and start throwing abuse back. This will usually include references to vultures, lazy journalism, disgrace etc etc.

This week’s Smiler crash saw a spate of no-closed-doors journalism approaches. Mercifully no one died, although the terrible injuries (I would imagine mental as well as physical) suffered by those caught up in it meant it was an incredibly sensitive story to stage a “can we have…” media grabfest on Twitter. This is pretty typical of what went on:

and this

Followed by

There are scores of these exchanges – I imagine her mentions column was in meltdown. She obviously was sanguine about the journalists who approached her (although if you read the full exchanges, it shifts from journalists asking for interviews to some fairly nasty tweets from non-media, taking her to task for the original tweet). But there are also variations on a theme of this

And it wasn’t unique – other people tweeting photos were getting similar requests, and similar views were being expressed

Is it fair? No. Do they have a point? Yes. Am I contradicting myself? Sorry but I don’t care. Publicly requesting content like this is a legitimate part of the journalist’s job, while taking photos without asking is obviously not; and yes, it can look shoddy to the wider world. That’s ok – most of us don’t come into this job to win an award for our high-minded purpose and nobility, we come into it to tell stories and let people know things they otherwise wouldn’t.

If someone wants to tell a journalist their story because said hack asked the right questions, politely, mindfully and within the Code of Conduct, that’s a valid exchange. When it fails is when the question is posed in a crass way, or we barge into exchanges between friends, because we had a Tweetdeck search running.

The above tweeter posted her content and opinion to broadcast it – she was happy for journalists to amplify the message. But an enormous amount of Twitter users don’t understand the network, or think that when they @ a friend, it’s not public. Leaping into what they think is a private exchange is a bit like opening the front door and walking in the room to ask if you can interview the grieving family, without knocking.

Just observe for a few moments and follow the conversation – you’ll soon work out whether it’s something you can step into (or another journalist will jump first, and you can take a cue from the reaction). Being first isn’t a great thing when all you’ve achieved is a mentions column of abuse, and retweets with added angry comments. It damages you, the brand you work for, and the wider journalism community.

When you’re using Twitter to find witnesses, treat it like a door knock. Sometimes, in real life, the journalism pack gets there first and you can ask them what reception they’ve got so far. On Twitter, a couple of minutes of observing conversations, or watching others rush in to the breach, can be very valuable. Knock at the metaphorical door if you think it’s appropriate, and be prepared to have it shut in your face – or to have someone else tell you to clear out.

But if you aren’t respectful, or you don’t conduct yourself in a way that reflects well on you and the title you represent (quick sense check: How would you react if you were the person you’re about to approach?) you can expect to get flung off the metaphorical doorstep and land in a heap.

Update: Here’s a link to Robin Hamman’s post on the VirginiaTech shooting – it’s not a new phenomenon.

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Interesting reads (weekly)

  • “During this year’s general and local elections a collection of my Birmingham City University students used WhatsApp to publish regular updates throughout the two days of voting. Frankly… they nailed it. In the process they learned a lot, so I thought I’d share some of the things that came up throughout the process – as well as the experiences of the person responsible for the Mirror‘s political WhatsApp account in the week leading up to the election.

    tags: whatsapp

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