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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Publish where your audience is; make those pieces of content entry points for your other platforms too
- Use analytics to help inform all your decision-making.
- Newsrooms that harness that expertise can achieve faster culture shift
- 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
- Share that knowledge where possible – collaboration = creativity. Hack days, social media cafes, training days, help build relationships, community engagement and spark ideas
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.