I’ve opened up a new category on the blog. It’s called Ideas for the future of news and here I’m collating good, tangible, positive, innovative ideas on how journalism can move forward.
Idea: The Berlin Project
By: Alex Wood, Sheena Rossiter, Marcus Gilroy-Ware, Dominique Van Heerden, Marco Woldt
The five people behind the Berlin Project are the perfect example of young journalists refusing to be battered by economic storms, or waiting for journalism to sort itself out. When many recent graduates would have been preparing themselves for another 3-week unpaid internship at some dodgy music mag, or scouring the papers for PR jobs, these guys decided to go do some journalism instead.
It takes a fair bit of chutzpah to fly yourself out to Germany to cover the Berlin Wall anniversary with no real audience and not much financial backing. But they did, and you can see the results on their website.
Under the banner “journalism like you never thought possible” they went into Berlin under the radar covering the unofficial story. The site is a real multimedia mash too with audio, video packages, mobile video and photographs rolled into one.
Something lots of the big boys talk about all the time, but rarely produce themselves.
This aside, I’ve labelled the Berlin Project as an example of event-based reporting, a different angle on journalism, and one perhaps with commercial possibilities?
The Berlin Project was about one event, and offering in-depth coverage of that time defined moment. It is nothing new of course, we’re all used to ‘special coverage’ of the Olympics, elections, and remembrance services in the mainstream media.
But until now, they’ve been an extension of larger broadcasters or papers.
I think the advantage of the Berlin Project is its size (small, nimble) and therefore flexibility. They were also able to work cheaply, getting footage on iPhones and editing it quickly with iMovie. All told, a valuable alternative to mainstream coverage.
And I wonder for a second whether there’s a business model here too? Imagine being commissioned to cover all sorts of awesome events, because its what you do really well. It’s not a traditional niche, but hey- a niche is a niche right?
The Berlin Project team were able to get backing from Reuters and do some business with smaller sites and Alex reckons they’ll break even, all told. Not bad for a pilot project. And there could be plans for more events coverage in 2010.
And even if you don’t like the idea, these guys have shown what’s possible when you just get off your ass and do something.
Idea: the Innocence Project
By: David Protess & Northwestern University
This idea for the future of news has been around for 10 years, but I had never heard of it.
But when I did, just last week, it blew my socks off with its simplicity, and lateral thinking.
Under the leadership of experienced investigative journalist David Protess, students at Northwestern University rake through criminal convictions in their region. They hone their investigation and data mining skills checking the facts.
“Our goal,” writes Protess, “is to expose and remedy wrongdoing by the criminal justice system.”
And to this day they’ve freed 11 men. Five of them have been saved from the chair.
Now that beats a 2:1 any day.
One of them was Anthony Porter, exonerated just 50 hours before being executed.
This isn’t so much an idea which has any business revenue potential obviously, although there’s a chance it could get a decent grant here and there. But what a way to get students engaged during their studies! And what a way to teach them the most difficult skill of all: investigation.
J-courses around the world: you don’t have to do cold convictions (in the UK for example, that would be – sadly – particularly hard); you could check council finances, plough through rejected asylum applications, fact-check all the decisions involving wind turbines approvals or rejections; the list is endless.
On top of its legal accomplishments, the Innocence Project has “sparked a debate” about capital punishment, and invoked the rath of lawyers.
Freeing Porter in 1999, the governor of Illinois George Ryan said “a system that depends on young journalism students is flawed”. But if, as some fear, a void will be left by the cutbacks at papers over the next 10 years, then this could be one way to fill some of the holes.
There’s lots and lots of talk about the future of journalism at the moment.
You can occasionally read something new in one of the papers, like this one.
You can even pay some money and go to conferences.
And while they are all fantastic hotbeds for debate, they’re not really regular enough to be good forums for that most crucial currency of all: new ideas.
It’s called the UK Future of News Group. If you are in the UK, or even better, in London then please think about joining and coming along to an informal meet up. It’s free, and you don’t even need to be a journalist- just interested about the future of journalism.
It’s perfect for bloggers, J-students, young journalists, J-entrepreneurs, hyper-locallers, lecturers not to mention seasoned old hacks. You could be working online, in print, on radio or with a camera.
(hopefully avoiding any early Christmas parties)
What it isn’t, is an arena to repeatedly lament the death of print, or the end of quality journalism, or to go around saying “paywalls must be the answer, journalists have got to eat!”
What it is, is a place where people can think positively, about tangible new ideas to determine the future of journalism. I hope someone will pitch a few ideas which we can all thrash out and stew over.
And maybe one of them will come up with the next big thing.
But most of all, I want it to be a forum where we can all have a say on the future of our craft, without having to pay hundreds in conference fees.
If the future of journalism is indeed entrepreneurial, we have to start thinking with a business hat on.
It’s a big change in mentality for some journalists. I’ve been to several events and meetings recently where hacks have insisted people will have to pay for news “because journalists have to eat”.
This is upside-down thinking. People don’t buy iPhones because Steve Jobs needs to eat. They buy them because they are an innovative product which satisfies a demand people are willing to pay for.
And so it must be if journalists are to be entrepreneurs. I’ve put together a list of criteria a new business idea might need to satisfy to see it become successful. I don’t think a successful business will need to satisfy all of them, or maybe even 50%. But ignoring these questions means another financial failure…
News start-up checklist
Is it a new idea?
Does it have a defined target audience?
Does it provide niche (i.e. hyperlocal) content?
Does it satisfy a desire that is not being fulfilled by someone else?
Or does it do something better (faster, cheaper, more effectively) than someone else?
Does it actually have income potential, or will it rely on funding?
Does it use the power of crowd-sourcing/community?
Would it be fulfilling for journalists to work for?
Does it publish/exist on more than one platform?
If it has content, is it sharable?
Does it require a lot of money to run?
Does it have boot-strapping potential?
Does it scale?
Does it fulfill a public service?
Is it a legally sound idea? What about copyright?
Would it appeal to venture capitalists, angel investors?
And…does it have a cool name?
That’s what I’ve come up with so far. I think if you answer these questions at the early stages, you’ll have a greater chance of your start up succeeding. What it says is a sustainable business – journalism or otherwise – begins with a solid well-defined customer base.
You need to know who these customers are, and be really clear about why you are providing something they can’t get elsewhere. Innocent Smoothies was begun by three British students in 1999 who realised there was a demand for healthy fruit smoothies, which wasn’t being satisfied by anyone else. It now has a revenue of £128m.
US start-up “incubator” Y-Combinator is looking for new media business ideas which embrace this form of thinking:
What would a content site look like if you started from how to make money—as print media once did—instead of taking a particular form of journalism as a given and treating how to make money from it as an afterthought?
Add more to the list in the comments below if you have any. And while you’re here, read the comments of one reader on an earlier blog entry. Some interesting criticism of the notion journalism is entrepreneurial at all…
Wanna big life? A big successful career? Wanna create something that makes a difference in the world? Maybe reinvent news?
The answer, we’re all told, is to think big.
“Your vision of who or where you want to be is your greatest asset” wrote Paul Arden, himself a successful advertising guru. For proof, look no further than two sheets of paper published by the Guardian newspaper today.
Named “the scribbled note that changed TV“, it is the result of a meeting between three people in 2001: TV executive Alan Boyd, and two music producers, Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller. Over an hour they discussed an idea for a new TV show, initially called Your Idol.
It’s a fascinating document for those of us who’ve followed Your Idol, into what became Pop Idol, American Idol, and now X-Factor. But it’s more interesting because it teaches us something about the power of thinking big.
Look at some of their notes:
“Gone With The Wind…never before have 50,000 people been auditioned”
“Arena, big space…multi camera”
“Nation’s No. 1 show”
These guys could have just pitched another reality show to be made in the style of Come Dine With Me or Celebrity Masterchef; and it would have had all the cultural resonance of those forgettable formats.
But they had an ambitious dream to create a product so big, it rivaled Gone With The Wind.
Their success shows the power of having an almost overwhelming dream to change the world. I once sat in on a talk with Alan Boyd in 2006 at City University: he claimed American Idol had introduced the concept of text messaging to the entire US, who until then just phoned each other.
When you have goals and a positive outlook, you have something to aim for. Having goals which get your heart racing is key to building momentum – because then you can’t imagine not achieving it…and you’ll do whatever it takes to get there. Cowell & Fuller had not met Boyd before this session, but somehow they got themselves in front of him.
So, as much as I’m loathed to hand something to him, take a leaf out of Simon Cowell’s book. Think big.
With the future of news & journalism still uncertain, this attitude is so vital in making sure we create an exciting future for it. I like to think someone reading this blog might have just the idea which will blaze the trail for the next 50-100 years: if that’s you, don’t settle for second best. Aim high!
I wrote last week about the growing gap between the US and Europe in the quantity and originality of multimedia journalism.
But as well as lacking style, originality, interactivity, some UK papers still have a worrying lack of quality.
I’ve put together some general examples so show what I mean. A couple of disclaimers though:
- they’ve been collected from two local papers owned by one group, but the same issues seem to exist in other groups in other parts of the country.
- these are local/regional papers and it must be noted they have smaller budgets and prefer to give their print journalists a camera, rather than bringing in multimedia expertise
- the following is not a criticism of the journalism, the quality of which is exceptional; rather the way it is presented
5 reasons why UK papers still don’t get multimedia
01. poor pictures
Newspapers have a big advantage with pictures: they have professional photographers to take them. So why are the photographs on this website compressed so much? And why can’t we click on them to get a really big high quality version? (the answer I suspect lies in the fear of copyright)
02. weird web domains
My website is not called http://www.amalemultimediajournalistbasedinlondon.co.uk. Let’s call a spade a spade and maybe more people will be able to find the website. It’s a strange choice too, because the “This is…” brand, although used on all the local websites owned by this group, does not relate to the print version’s brand at all.
03. bizarre breaking news
This example shows three “breaking news” updates, on the same page, on the same story. As well as filling up the page with repetitive stories, it also diminishes the value of using “breaking news”. The solution: just update the single page – that way your readers can find all they need on a story in one click. (Again I suspect it’s designed to get more clicks rather than benefit the reader).
And I don’t need to explain why this “breaking news” is anything but.
04. uncontrolled comments
This particular newspaper seems to have no problem with allowing comments on every story, including some legally contentious ones. I have read the likes of ‘the scumbag should rot in hell’ on coverage of murder trials, where the verdict is yet to be reached, as well as the quite frankly tasteless and upsetting comments allowed on the above example.
Notice too, how small and out-of-the-way the photograph is. It tells the story more than the words, and should be full size and central.
05. virtually invisible video
This newspaper group takes its online video seriously and was one of the first in the UK to get its hacks trained. I have seen their small lightweight cameras appear at many crime scenes and press conferences. And while it is rarely cinematographic, it does deserve to be more prominent than the banner adverts which surround it. Shouldn’t it be in the central column?
It may seem otherwise, but I am really not trying to single out one paper or one group. These papers as you can see on some of the mastheads, actually won multimedia awards two years in a row! But we have to start recognising poor use of multimedia, discussing it, and improving it. The longer it remains amateurish, the fewer eyeballs it gets and ultimately advertisers/subscribers cash.
And as much as it may pain the wallets upstairs, these five examples will only get better with more cash, more investment and some multimedia trained journalists.
The walls of the debate are shifting. People don’t want to be reminded how bad the newspaper/journalism sector is right now; they don’t want to read more introductions to articles reeling off the various nails in the coffin.
In the last couple of months we’ve started to see more articles looking forward. And that’s a positive thing.
Six articles, each with six tips for the journalist of the future. They’re going to be focused on the down to earth practical stuff, and cover six broad areas the next generation freelance journalist will need to be familiar with:
- Business skills
- Making things happen
Some of them are new skills, which are just emerging; others are some of the oldest. And that last one isn’t a journalism skill, but I think it’s vital for freelancers if they’re not to end up sitting at home staring at their computer screen.
It starts on Monday with Branding – and as always, it’s never a complete list so feel free to add your advice in the comments!