Talking innovation, blockers and culture change at WAN-IFRA summit

I was amazed and delighted when WAN-IFRA contacted me recently to invite me to speak at the upcoming 13th International Newsroom Summit during World Publishing Expo in October, in Amsterdam.

I said yes  – what an opportunity to hear industry leaders from around the world talk about things I passionately want to learn as much as I can about! – and then I entered into a state of terror at the idea of public speaking at such an event. This terror has not left me yet…

Other speakers include Steve Herrman,  Editor of BBC News Online, Lisa MacLeod, head of operations for, and John Crowley, digital editor for in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Anyway, ahead of the event WAN-IFRA’s Jessica Sparks asked me for my thoughts, as a regional journalist, on innovation, newsroom blockers and how the industry should continue to adapt and evolve.

Here’s a sample of her (very tough!) questions, and my response;  her article in full is here.

You’re speaking at the upcoming Newsroom Summit on strategies to prevent newsroom cultures blocking change. What’s the biggest barrier you have personally faced working in this space?

Inertia has been a terrible thing for the news industry – for decades nothing changed, and then everything changed, including the amount of revenue flowing into our businesses, and we just weren’t equipped to deal with it on an economic, cultural or and operational basis.

[Online] was regarded at best as a luxury, and at worst as helping hasten the demise of historic news brands. I think the biggest blocker was probably the ‘them and us’ mentality that existed between digital and print teams, because it fostered the idea that the newsroom Nerd Herd ‘did digital’ while everyone else did the heavy lifting. It wasn’t uncommon to find a journalist refusing to file breaking news stories for online because they felt it would damage the newspaper.

We’ve travelled a long way in a relatively short time, but we can never stop striving to do more – otherwise we will simply end up repeating the mistakes we made in the late 20th century all over again.

The theme of the conference centres on: “See how successful editors are syncing their newsrooms to the digital world. Over one and a half days, we will hear how people and processes are being managed to ensure growth in audience, engagement and loyalty”; my contribution will be on the important role of leadership within that changing world.




Innovations and ideas on the agenda for #fearlessDEN

Embed from Getty Images

Here’s an exciting thing: The next DEN (Digital Editors Network) meeting is being held at Trinity Mirror Towers, aka One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, aka IN MY ACTUAL HQ.

Having attended many DENs over the year (we even hosted one at the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo) it’s exciting to be inviting the network at Canary Wharf, and pretty timely too as this one is #fearlessDEN – all about being bold with ideas and taking innovative leaps of faith (probably backed by some market research).

DEN is always a great place to meet like-minded people, put names to faces in your social networks, and grow ideas. Obviously the theme of innovation is close to my heart and my job title, and I’m delighted we will get to hear the genesis and progress of some inspirational ideas.

There’s a lot more information on the event here (plus some quotes from me that Francois insisted on having – thanks, Francois!) and the Eventbrite tickets are here.

Hope to see you there!

The hook on which we are caught

These are some of my reflections on the Revival of Local Journalism conference, organised by the BBC and Society of Editors at MediaCity UK, and held on June 25. There are links to others’ posts and articles from the day throughout this piece. 

The Revival of Local Journalism conference (hashtag #localjournalism) on June 25 was a fascinating day, with stimulating conversation, proffered olive branches and some snappy presentations.

For me, it was thought-provoking and occasionally frustrating in terms of complacency and inertia . Perhaps if the day ended with some agreed outcomes and action points from others apart from James Harding (of which more here) it would have felt like a satisfying conclusion (maybe I’ve just sat in too many meetings?) because this needs to be a springboard and catalyst for wider discussion and momentum, not a cul de sac.

So, as to my reflections on the day’s theme and tone, here’s the thing: the media industry is either disrupted and the mainstream within it is either resisting or attempting to disrupt right back. The entrepreneurs and startups are more able to say “yep – so deal with it” and grasping what the next steps need to be more effectively.

Finding things out, writing them down and publishing them has fundamentally not changed; the hook on which too many of us are getting caught is platform.

So when the established regional media bends its thoughts to the revival of local journalism, there is a real danger that we end up talking in circles about our own platforms – whether that be print or broadcast or digital.

The revival of local journalism is a theme that spans staffing, tools, training, best practice, collaboration, competition and innovation – it isn’t whether newspapers are going to disappear at some point in the future, or whether Google is a publishing aid or a publisher in its own right.

I suspect that the best people to lead objective discussions on the revival of local journalism are not those enmeshed in the industry as realities intrude, defences laid, and the trouser of reinvention get snagged on the barbed wire fence of practicality.

We also have to set aside nostalgia – as flagged by Clay Shirky here.So, for a moment, I’m going to think about platforms, deal with it and then dismiss it for the rest of this post.

I was asked at RoLJ  if newspapers were going to disappear, and I replied along the lines of “if you had a better delivery method for news, why wouldn’t you use it?”

Me and my mouth. That prompted the more direct question “Do you think newspapers will die?”. To which I answered “yes”, and then there was an audible intake of breath from the room.

It was a fairly bald statement in a room full of press people (and my boss) but, yes, I think newspapers will cease to be required.  Which is a far different thing to journalism being required, although platform obsession seems to blur that distinction.

I plucked a number out of the air, and said within 30 years, Jasper Westaway , of, said it would be more like 15, and followed it up with a lot more unpalatable truths about where things were headed.


I can’t say what platform we will be publishing on in five years time because predicting the technological, creative and cultural shifts likely to happen over that period of time is like, well, asking to be reminded of your naivety in five years time…

I’ve posted a lot over the years about the need for aggregation and curation. I am starting to wonder about what doing the opposite of these things could offer.

Is there an opportunity in dis-aggregation? The death of the homepage idea is well discussed, as is the  ‘each piece of content should be a destination’ viewpoint. So what if a mainstream legacy brand decided to make and distribute its content designed to travel purely through social platforms? And made it was self-sufficient, with its own life support system – commercial, editorial and marketing all bound up in one – networked to sister content through links?

Would that start to get us off the hook?

Anyway, enough platform.

I wish we could have talked more about the social media contribution. Jo Geary gave a storming presentation about Twitter which included a fairly damning slide about a US newsman scooping the UK media on the Glasgow helicopter crash, courtesy of an established and intelligent Twitter search.

And she also spoke nostalgically about the past – but it was just that. Platform does not define her type of journalism.

Understanding that isn’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it’s appreciating the baby is a teenager now, and is therefore an entirely different animal altogether.

Peter Barron, head of communications for Europe, Middle East and Africa, spoke of collaboration and the free tools to help understand audiences and connect with them.

In fact, considering the theme was revival, an oft-raised point was not knowing the tools to use.

This is a Google search of the phrase ‘best online tools for journalists’ – there are plenty of people out there writing about the free things you can use, and sharing their knowledge of how-to and why-to in great detail.

None of the apps or tools mentioned is particularly complicated, most are free and someone  (hint – the boss) in any media business should be taking responsibility for ensuring at least one member of the team is trained up to be expert in this stuff, so they can, in turn, make sure everyone else in the newsroom is getting clued up on it too. That’s as true for a local weekly paper as it is for Sky. Ensuring the skills are there may require hard decisions and maybe someone does need to be taken off the rota for a few days at a time to go on courses or conferences, and the company has to stump up for this. The outcomes will pay for themselves 20 times over in a few months, as you start bringing in better stories and connecting with your audience.

* Final points:

The folly of Giving It All Away For Free Online point was made. Paul Bradshaw took the parable offered up, turned it into a fairytale guaranteed to give some industry types nightmares, and posted it here. Recommended reading.

Staffing was also raised – David Higgerson’s excellent summation and reflection post on the conference and this particular issue is worth a read.

In the last panel session of the day, I was asked to respond to a question about why students didn’t want to work in newsrooms because they were sweatshops. However, that became a bit sidetracked by the whole ‘what tools to use’ debate.

I am in contact with journalism students from various J-schools via social media and email all the time – some of them I consider friends I’ve yet to meet in real life – and they don’t ask me about potential sweatshop conditions ahead of them. But perhaps that’s out of politeness.

So it’s a hard one for me to answer, too, as I don’t know enough about the situations in all newsrooms.  Perhaps it’s one for the industry press to pick up and examine in greater detail?



Innovation and the perils of “yes, but…”

There’s an interesting post on the WAN-IFRA blog now, which details are the key attributes of an effective editor, leading at a time of industry disruption.

It’s a subject close to my heart as it was the topic of my MA, and I agree with a lot of the points made by David Boardman, Dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University, Philadelphia.

Among the points he lists (and if you want all of ’em, this link takes you to WAN-IFRA’s post) that resonate with me is ‘Practice innovation as a means, not an end’; I completely agree with that, especially if it means the end of the dreaded “yes, but…”.

Most projects involving innovation will need a system of checks and balances, and the voice of a critical friend is often the one you least want to hear but most need to. However, to achieve innovation often means suggesting something you can’t quite articulate – it’s more of an idea-in-progress. Of course, every  now and then ideas spring, Pegasus-like, fully-fledged from someone’s brow but more frequently they venture forth tentatively and are encouraged to grow by the wider collective. In the face of a “yes, but…’ they can flicker and die before they have the chance to fully develop.

Journalists are trained to be questioning skeptics, who often want to analyse things and see the stages along a route. Furthermore, not everyone involved in the gestation of a project will feel able to support a burgeoning idea, sometimes simply because of the stark reality of just getting it out of the starting blocks is so tough. Or perhaps the existing CMS won’t support it. Or maybe it’s summer, and too many people are on holiday. Or… or… or…

And so it goes, as Father Kurt tells us.  

Innovation tends to happen when you can see your end point; the game is getting there.I was taking to Dave Brown of Apposing the other day- a true innovator and entrepreneur, if ever there was one – and he explained his approach was to imagine the desired outcome, and then plot the way towards that. And if something didn’t work, you take a detour around it. Ultimately, the way might not be direct but there is a way, if the idea is worth doing. I like that.

So, because the editors/innovation/disruption discussions looked so good, I grabbed the #editors14 hashtags stream from the World Editors Forum and dropped it into a Tweetdeck column to read at leisure.

I’m not sure what ‘editor’ constitutes for some of the speakers – I wonder if the US speakers are referring to managers with a different responsibility to UK editors, for example – but the message is still pretty clear:

  • Know what you should have knowledge of to fulfil your role
  • Accept what you don’t know and employ smart people who do
  • Be the strongest advocate for digital in your newsroom

Ideas thrive in newsroom cultures that don’t have a lot of truck with “yes but…” and when it comes to changing newsroom cultures, I would suggest an editor needs to be a lot more visible and accessible than ever, so the tentative, half-formed ideas have an advocate higher up the food chain.

If, as a parent, you’re not supposed to have a favourite child, when you edit a title I guess you shouldn’t have a favourite platform. However, if you want to make something succeed you have – in my opinion, at least – to advocate for that thing as hard as you can, doubly so if you’re doing it in the face of doubt or uncertainty.

So when I was an editor, my websites were always my favourite children, not because I didn’t believe in print but because that advocacy was important.

To try and make sure their teams believe, I’d argue editors need to believe twice as hard as anyone else in the newsroom, because the “yes but… [the paper has to come out on time]” and “yes, but…[there aren’t enough staff to do X] are compelling arguments.  They’re just the wrong ones to be having at this late stage in the game.

Talking about Innovation and Digital Skills in Journalism at the Society of Editors regional conference

I was asked to speak at the Society of Editors regional conference 2014 a while ago, and so on Monday I found myself talking to a room of people about coding, social media, and data journalism, among other things. 
It was a little distracting when the Duke of York loomed in the doorway towards the end of my talk – he was speaking about journalism and apprenticeships – but on the whole I got through without being boo-ed or having pastries thrown at me. 

There were enough discussion points from the day to make several blog posts (particularly around this panel discussion), and I intend to come back to those when I have more time, but in the meantime I thought I’d pop the draft of what I talked about (sans slides, which were purely illustrative) on the blog. 
Titled Innovation and Digital Skills in Journalism, the talk was an expanded version of what I covered in my 5 minute slot at News:Rewired last February. So if this is TL:DR you should have a look at this instead. 

Innovation and Digital Skills in Journalism 
When I was 18, the editor of the Tenby Observer suffered an unaccountable rush of blood to the head, and agreed I could to spend a year in his newsroom, working as a junior reporter.
He even paid me £30 a week and in return I supplied him with a headaches, calamities, the occasional story and, often, a weekly ‘correction’ roundup, amending whatever I’d written the previous week.
To celebrate my admission into the world of journalism, a friend presented me with a copy of the 1949 classic Journalism For Women, which imparts the following advice to an editor: “Maids respect a mistress who can do any of the tasks she expects of them”.
I’m going to use the term ‘journalist’ but most of what I say applies to everyone in a newsroom, including editors.
So, as I’ve been asked to talk about the emerging skills and opportunities in newsrooms, I think we should move forward with that phrase ringing in our ears.

Skill #1: Creative Journalism
Companies must invest time and money in training journalists for their digital roles, but I’d expect journalists to want to explore and master things themselves too.
There are few social storytelling tools out there that can’t be learned within a few minutes – from Awesome Screenshot to Zee maps – they aren’t complicated, and they make digital storytelling, sharing information and collaboration much easier and more effective.
In March, Trinity Mirror Regionals ran a two-day play and learn event for journalists at UCLan where a group of reporters, photographers, senior newsrooms executives, specialist reporters and newsdesk types got together to try new things.
Among the innovations that emerged were timelines, gifs, video soundbites for Explainer Journalism, interactive maps and, through the collaborative efforts of a deputy news editor and a mobile journalist from different titles, the Moyes Random Excuse Generator.

They used a site called Codepen and a spreadsheet to create a native design app for the MEN that summed up the spectacular popularity fail of the Man Utd manager.
Fun; shareable; drove traffic to other parts of the site including the home page.

Skill #2: Social Journalism  
Journalists should not only use social media but but absolutely familiar and comfortable with the nuances and tones of different sites and tools.
What works on Facebook doesn’t mean engagement on Twitter. When and why Instagram instead of Flickr? Live tweet, or live stream? It’s an essential skill for a reporter to have, and for their managers to understand too.
Shareable content is the holy grail; if you don’t know your audience – what tone to strike with them, and where, when or how they use social media so you can share your own and your title’s content with them well – you are missing an essential skill of modern journalism.
I’d expect any journalist applying for a newsroom job these days should have active Twitter and LinkedIn profiles listed on their CVs, plus links to their multimedia work and, preferably, their updated and engaging blog. These are the social journalism skills they need to do the job effectively and are as important as a decent cuttings portfolio – and for some roles, of considerably more interest.
We need bright, engaging, questioning communicators in our newsrooms, who can create networks of geographic and niche communities; it’s no longer enough to competently turn a ring-in from the newsdesk into a splash.  

Skill #3 Networked Journalism
This doesn’t mean you have a phone on you – it means your smartphone is an extension of your writing hand.
It needs to be packed with apps – such as Audioboo, Vine, Dropbox, Maps, Twitter, Snapseed – and your go-to tool for covering a story, whether it’s the scene of an accident, or a council press bench.
Journalists now can capture news more effectively on a phone that we ever could with a notebook and some overwrought adjectives; phones let us create multimedia, edit it and share it without going near a desk – we can crowdsource, create, package and market our work, and do it in real time, allowing more transparency and accessibility to what we do than ever.
At a time when regional journalists are still suffering a backlash as a result of some murky national practises, mobile and social journalism can help us a chance to re-establish an eroded trust, through open reporting, accessibility and transparency of information and purpose.
A mobile journalist is not someone with a mass of kit, it’s someone who sees a story and transmits it, in real time, via whatever device and medium best suits the purpose.
This is one of the most dramatic innovations in our trade of recent years, and the most exciting – the ability to self-publish reports, whether 140 characters or a live streamed video, means removing a filter and a time-lag between newsroom and audience.
Skill #4 Data journalism
I guess the old idea of ‘we’re journalists – we don’t do Maths’ was kicked into the long grass some time ago, and in Trinity Mirror the Data Unit, where journalists and coders work together to interrogate raw data and produce information, content packages and interactives of relevance and importance to all titles, is an absolute gift.
Certainly, when I was a daily title editor they kept my newsdesk supplied with a constant source of potential splashes and the daily Data Bulletin was a welcome email.
But data journalism isn’t the preserve of the expert – taking raw information, interrogating it and creating compelling, valuable content is now a pretty basic requirement. Using free tools like Datawrapr and Tableau lets us not only present a story in an interactive way but get to the heart of what the story really is.
Making data shareable adds another layer of engagement and an opportunity for further stories and content. Remember when the MPs expenses logs were made available? What newsroom didn’t gleefully fall on them?

Data journalism is more than spreadsheets though; today’s journalistic toolbox needs to contain basic coding skills too.

Coding isn’t a dark art and html isn’t someone else’s job – if you make a Twitter widget or to show conversation around an article, for example, or an embeddable map to show the location of a story, being able to hack the rudimentary backend code by adapting it for your site and purpose is important – and empowering.  Expecting someone else to sort out your multimedia or html equivalent of the newsdesk rewriting your intro – ie. not something any journalist wants to happen.

Skill #5 Measurable journalism

Know what works. Analytics have completely changed what we know; tools such as Chartbeat and Omniture tell us what our audience is reading, sharing, responding to – and sites such as Hitwise show us where they really are going to find their news.
Twitter analytics, Facebook Insights, the plethora of Twitter tools, retweets and favourites, indicate our social reach and engagement.
Analytics used to be the preserve of the marketing department – the digital journalist skillset should combine knowledge and application of analytics to get their stories in front of as many eyeballs as possible.
Digital audience footprints are easy to follow and they let us build up a detailed picture of our audience, from when they are online, and with what device, to what they share or what they save to read when they have more time.
Knowing what your audience wants doesn’t mean we become Upworthy, or the preserve of listicles – it means we reach more people and make ourselves more relevant to their lives.
It means we make better products – what we create in digital can inform our print content and make it richer in tone, voice and authenticity.
It also means we make money; as more people come to our site, stay on it and share our content we understand more about them and our commercial colleagues can target them more effectively.
Liverpool Echo editor Ali Machray says his audience is now as large as it was during the glory print days of 1985. I think that’s something to be very proud of.

Innovation and creativity thrive in a digital newsroom where the priorities are audience, then content  and, finally, platform, not vice versa.
The new digital innovation team being built by Trinity Mirror is about using the skills and the mindset I’ve mentioned here, bringing a passion for journalism together with the expertise and interests of our audience and communities.
When I was a reporter I would file my copy and wait to see it in print. Sometimes I’d wait days, if it was a holdable splash.
Now reporters own a story; words, video, audio – whatever elements make it sing – publish it, market it and assess how it performed. You get instant feedback (not always a pleasant experience) from your readers and you see a story change and gain new legs as more diverse voices are added to the discussion.
It’s making us more relevant. While audience attention span may seem to be dwindling and the value of social sharing is questioned every time Facebook tweaks its algorithm, we know – thanks to some research on the subject – that the links that are most likely to be saved, shared and distributed, are actual news.
Not lolcats, not lists, but facts. This is the best time to be a journalist.
Thanks for your time.

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My ‘interesting reads’ roundup (weekly)

  • Weirdly, I was talking to someone about scale, innovation and why markets need start ups and big companies,  and then read this piece on Medium on the same theme… ” in the gilded age of Instagram and Summly acqui-hires we have simultaneously demonized big companies and glamorized start-ups to the point where the innovation challenges and opportunities in both environments are wildly mis-represented. Start-ups are indeed the lifeblood of our innovation economy but we also need some of our best and brightest to take on the leadership challenge of innovation within larger companies”
  • Yes, yes, yes. When will employers, training schools and the NCTJ recognise that fact? Answers on a postcard please… “Candidates should describe their success conceptualizing and building news apps, data visualizations, and interactive graphics. If you are a visual storyteller, someone who sees the narrative in numbers, and thinks in code, this is your opportunity to make a mark. Expect your journalism skills to be as important as your programming skills.  This editorial position will ask you to tell stories differently and inspire others to do the same. The work will require advanced experience with HTML5, CSS, JavaScript (jQuery); an understanding of responsive design and proficiency with interaction design and user interfaces; familiarity with mining and manipulating data and Web scraping. Light Ruby or Python helpful. Basic requirements: College degree Minimum of 2 years programming experience Advanced command of HTML5, CSS, JavaScript (including jQuery) Light Ruby or Python for data mining, Web scraping Comfort with data analysis Understanding of responsive design Familiarity with Final Cut Pro and Adobe InDesign”
Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Industry disruption and journalism – an enthusiast’s perspective

Brian Storm, founder of Mediastorm, says to photographers: “Don’t just take someone’s picture – give them a voice…”
But this EJC video interview, hosted on Vimeo in HD, has a message that has relevance far beyond photographers – I think it’s essential viewing for anyone working in a newsroom right now. 
He says: “The tools are so great and the distribution is there for everybody… that’s been disruptive… but it has also created enormous opportunities”.

Opportunities don’t come along that often – I worked as a journalist for around 12 years before email came along, and then the internet – the pace of acceleration since then has been astonishing and exhilerating. 
Mediastorm is amazing; I remember watching a package they created (for the Washington Post, I think?) a few years ago, on US soldiers and their families before and after a tour of duty in Iraq – it was haunting and disturbing and compelling. It was also a piece of digital storytelling that didn’t require any text beyond context-setting captions.
For me the best thing about Storm’s video interview is his enthusiasm – the fact that he loves the innovation sparked by disruption shines through. 
It’s five minutes of inspiration I’d recommend watching

Brian Storm – ‘Discusses Storytelling and Journalism’ from European Journalism Centre on Vimeo.

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