ISOJ 2014 Highlights: Building an Experimental Culture for News

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to return to Austin for this year’s International Symposium of Online Journalism, always my favorite conference. My biggest takeaway was perhaps a selfish one, given that my research buddy Jonathan Groves of Drury University and I are working on a book bringing together about eight years of our research on newsrooms to help news organizations develop experimental, learning cultures. At ISOJ it came across clearly that from our most venerable legacy brands to new media upstarts, experimentation is a priority for today’s journalists.

For example, I was thrilled to hear Washington Post editor Marty Baron discuss his overall  optimism for the news business and his description of his efforts to foster an experimental culture by encouraging people to try new things and rewarding them for it.  Specifically, Baron noted that the Post has made an effort to expand its video content, and that they have learned that explainer video and video attached to news events works better for them than live video.  He  his encouraged by what they have found out so far, but noted that they remain in “the mode of experimentation” in which some things just won’t work, “and we aren’t embarrassed by it. I think of a scientist in a laboratory.” Exactly. This is what giants like Google and Amazon do – and is a big piece of their digital success. Caroline Little, president and CEO at Newspaper Association of America, also noted in her talk: “If people aren’t experimenting, we are never going to get there.”

Matt Waite FLYING A DRONE at ISOJ

Daniel Eilemberg, senior vice president, chief digital officer at Fusion, a new cable and digital content platform and joint venture between Disney and Univison, also talked about building a data-driven learning culture. He said: Our goal is to produce more content, test it….and then continue to invest in things that really resonate. Bring to the screen content that already has an audience from digital.

And even when new ventures do fail, or perhaps more accurately, are killed before they are given a chance to succeed: Jim Brady, one of my favorite journalists to hear from, and, sadly, soon-to-be-formerly of Digital First Media, noted that the demise of Thunderdome is NOT a bellweather that means we can’t do innovation in newsrooms. Much was learned, and the battle goes on.

Jim Bankoff , chairman and CEO at Vox Media, also verified the importance of culture, although he said it was one reason why he left legacy media to help start something new. In his view, you need the kind of experimental culture and financial commitment that many in traditional media may say they want, but when push comes to shove: Don’t. Other interesting highlights:

  • Bankoff of Vox also noted that that his company continues to hire passionate experts on a given topic and said that their revenues are growing at a rapid rate, roughly doubling year over year; they are operating at about even right now, and they expect to be profitable later this year. Huzzah!  
  • Loved hearing John Keefe, senior editor for Data News & Journalism Technology at WNYC talk about Arudinos and all of the creative projects he has led using these small, programmable computers. For example, many have probably heard about the cool cicada project they did in which 800 people made a simple device to measure soil temperature, predicting when cicadas would emerge. Keefe also was wearing a hoodie that pulsed with a heart monitor, and talked about a device he built for his wife – it was her idea, he swears! – to track her monthly cycle. Keefe learned how to do all of this cool stuff basically just by Googling it. Pushing the frontiers of journalism FTW!
  • Fun fact about Google Glass from Tim Pool, producer at Vice Media – while it’s good for taking and publishing quick photos during a breaking news situation, it overheats quickly when used for live broadcasting. Yikes. Pool also talked about Tagg.ly, launching soon: With one touch it will allow you to add location and your logo to your photos.
  • Matt Waite, professor of practice at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of Journalism Drone Lab, FLEW A DRONE for us. Need I say more? Drones clearly have many exciting possibilities for journalism, but Waite pointed out that the legal environment is currently very unsettled – “this is a $500 constitutional challenge in a box,” he said. Will be interesting to see how that plays out. Waite noted that drones DO pose safety issues – those blades are sharp – but not to aircraft, given how low drones fly.
  • Discussions of journalism ethics can get pedantic. Refreshing take from  John Cook, editor-in-chief at First Look Media’s digital magazine Intercept: While we are all as human beings bound by basic ethical precepts such as honesty,  the ethics as applied on a professional level to journalists have been used to keep people out of the priesthood. This was echoed by New York University professor Jay Rosen, who noted that people can use ethics to “escape their anxieties” about new things and City University London professor Jane Singer, who noted that when new technologies come along, journalists stretch to find a reason not to get out of their comfort zones. Great exemplary quote from a US magazine journalist she interviewed in her research: “Blogging is little more than hype dished out largely by the unemployable to the aimless.”
  • Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a new book coming out called “Saving Newspapers” that sounds good.  Her key takeaways when it comes to pursuing new revenue: Advertisers are confused and look to news companies for answers. Come up with a rate card that encourages advertisement across mediums. Have a compensation system that rewards people who prospect and a good digital sales training system.
  • Jay Rosen was big-time preaching to at least this crowd of one when he said: Journalism schools allowed the teaching of practice and the making of academic knowledge by PhDs to evolve away from one another. Bad decision. YES,  INDEED. Philosophically, I am also a pragmatist, which, as Rosen said, means we believe knowledge advances when we try to improve things.  I agree that we need to put everybody we can to work on the problems of practice, and that we shouldn’t just be training grounds for future journalists but also as an R&D wing for newsrooms.
  • If you aren’t aware of startups like Homicide Watch and Policy Mic – you should be. Their passionate founders will restore any lost hope you had for journalism. For example, Jake Horowitz, editor-in-chief and co-founder at PolicyMic, argued that contrary to popular belief, young people DO care about news. They just need sites like his that know how to make the news relevant, and that a news site is only as good as its distribution channels.
  • Also from Baron:  The Washington Post is hiring three dozen people this year alone. Doesn’t count people  in business and technology. WOW. Thank you, Bezos, sir.

 

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