Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Future newsrooms, and lessons from Poland

Now I’m in North Wales, it’s no longer such a stretch to get to events in Liverpool like Social Media Cafe (find out more on SMC here - and if you can go to one, do. It’s brilliant)
So off I went to Thursday’s open mic SMC to find out more about the mechanics of how it operated (can you work out why, Reader?*) and sang for my supper by giving a 10 minute talk on journalism futures and digital newsrooms.

It wasn’t a formal presentation; I just jotted some notes down about what I want to achieve at the Daily Post, talked around that, and then fielded some smart questions from the audience.
The following day, I watched a
fascinating video presentation on the future of media (of which more later), and after musing some more, I figured I may as well blog my thoughts out a bit.  
The prompt notes I used for SMC are in italics,
subsequent musings aren’t.

1. Academic Robert Picard says the “fundamental problem for media firms” is that of selling 19th and 20th century products in the 21st century, without altering the value of the offering, or relationships with customers.
His  point being, you can’t
have a seismic shift in the market - the sort of disruption that not only creates entire new platforms and turns production, consumption, and distribution on its head - then still expect the inherent value to remain unchanged. Or, indeed, for the customer/consumer base to remain unchanged.
Getting past the legacy issue, given the inherent costs and the structural, operational and cultural drivers, is not easy. But JRC is attempting it with their latest move; I will be interested to see how that develops.

2. The term Legacy, when applied to the Olympics, should be a good thing. When applied to Journalism, less so.
The legacy not only of infrastructure but of culture and practise is one of the biggest obstacles there is.
I hesitate to use the phrase digital evangelist but if you’re one of the people trying to work in new ways in a newsroom, I suspect at some point you or a like-minded colleague has uttered the phrsae: ‘But journalists are supposed to like Change; that’s why we went into this job. If we didn’t we’d work in a bank.”
I’ve said it myself... and I was wrong. Journalists are people, and people like Variety. That’s a very different thing to Change. Variety is interesting; Change is generally unsettling, at best.


3. Convergence is not about multimedia, it’s about users.
Specifically, users and customers. The collective formerly known as Them and Us.
This theme had previously been touched on at SMC by Laura Yates and Edwin Pink, who - while talking about the achievements and work of Liverpool’s tenantspin, in engaging older people digitally - observed “It’s never about the tech, it’s about the people.”
Convergence is a lightbulb phrase: Use it with someone who knows what it means, and it illuminates the conversation; use it with someone who doesn’t, and everything goes dark.
I think about convergence more as a service shift to meet audience needs, instead of deadlines.

So, for example, a converged newsroom would promote: Collaboration, transparency, accountability, reciprocity, partnerships; it would do this by making engagement and audience management integral, online and in real life (irl being *social media cafes or surgeries, for example); and asking, explaining, sharing, would be an editorial ethos.
My expected outcomes would be: Newsroom sees better engagement, culture change, openness, wider network; Audience has more trust, engagement, involvement, better value
 

I thought some more about this while watching the interesting video mentioned earlier. Editor Grzegorz Piechota, speaking at the 2012 Future Forum (it’s 50 minutes long, and worth the investment of time, I promise) said this about the changing internal structures of the Press: “Editors were responsible for the audience development and we [his newspaper company] simply believe that in the digital world cooperation between the editorial and the marketing side of the newspaper is becoming even more crucial than it was in print.”
Media, converge thyself.


4. We’re competing against Apathy
I don’t routinely worry about BB
C getting a story up online before me - although it might irritate me - or buying a story from an agency I don't have the budget for, or hyperlocal sites establishing local news hubs. That’s not because I am indifferent hyperlocals or the BBC/ITV et al or dismiss what they do, it’s because competition are a reality; I've dealt with it all my working life in one form or another, and there is no monopoly on information.
But I do worry about apathy - about waning attention spans, disappearing audience who aren’t migrating elsewhere, they’re just... gone, and incorrect facts and opinion (Misinfopinion?) that has a half-life of seemingly forever. Just ask Morgan Freeman.
It doesn’t have to be incorrect, either. Media companies Facebook apps have resulted in all kinds of linkbaity non-stories from way back when appearing in my timeline as friends read and share them, apparently failing to spot the ‘2008’ dateline on them).

Kevin Anderson has also blogged about the ‘battle for attention’ here and sums up what bothers me far more purposefully. His considered post, which examines the clamour for audience attention and the bombardment of information we’re exposed to now, is recommended reading.

Finally, while considering how a digital newsroom could and should operate, I found inspiration once more in Grzegorz’s brilliant reality.
In his speech, he explained how his newspaper sent 21 reporters to 21 schools to get the inside view on digital natives and education in Poland. 
His newspaper galvanised Poland’s education system by making people a part of it. More than 20,000 teachers became involved in Gazeta Wyborcaz’s education campaign,  more 7,000 schools participated and changed how they worked, and the government ripped up its policies and started again.
That’s what I call a result.
 

 
Now, aside from the rock of bureaucracy most regional editors trying to launch a similar idea would founder against, I can’t imagine having 21 reporters, let alone losing all of them for one week to do research.
Such a project is beyond most the resources of most press (regional, at least) but I can see a way of crowd sourcing investigations.
It would involve a lot of planning, a lot of goodwill, and a lot of mutual trust (these three things are not exactly what the media is known for) but it is not only do-able, it’s desirable. It is, quite possibly, essential for the survival of MSM.

Being able to say “we know how this should be done, and why this should be done - we even have an idea what is going to be found out as a result of doing it - but we can’t do it on our own”  is a digital future that
has to become a reality.
Finding the people who want to be involved, and asking them to do so, isn’t hard (although rejection
is, obviously, but we're big enough to take it).
Wanting to know, and then wanting to understand, are common traits
in us all; journalists in MSM have the advantage in that we’re trained and supported, and have an established platform to parade our work on, as opposed to having to create and build that platform.
But collaborative partnerships do give us opportunities to work across larger-scale stories that might seem out of reach, with mainstream media bringing the benefits of platform, audience, legal protection and guidance.

Audience...Content...Platform
; that’s my Trinity, always in that order. One informs the other, informs the other. And that would be my future newsroom.

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