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June 21, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

What happens when a big news company makes a small bet on “slow innovation”?

How do you keep a focus on issues that may be “No. 6 on the list”? How do you make sustained progress on the things that may not impact the bottom line this quarter, but are important for the medium term?

In May 2015, the two of us were brought together to consider how to help what eventually became Univision’s Fusion Media Group focus on “slow innovation” questions, beyond the remit of the daily production teams already in place. This work led to what became known as the company’s Center for Innovation and Engagement.

FMG’s primary strategy had been constructed around innovation projects either large (building a media portfolio reflecting changing U.S. demographics, for instance) or fast (creating internal tools for better disseminating content performance data or delving into new daily journalism forms via Snapchat and Facebook livestreaming). We left the work of quick-turnaround prototypes or major-budget big bets to other groups already at work on such things.

Instead, we looked to address four key questions that we considered the realm of slow innovation:

  • How do you keep a focus on issues that may be “No. 6 on the list”?
  • How do you make sustained progress on the things that may not impact the bottom line this quarter, but are important for the medium term?
  • How do you continuously look critically at your current dominant business models, and explore alternative logics — while the machine is still running 24/7?
  • How do you foster a spirit of innovation and experimentation across the company, rather than quarantining it only in your group?

And, in almost all our work, we aimed to pair internal teams with external partners from nonprofits, startups, academic institutions, foundations, and other companies, playing the role of matchmaker, catalyst, and facilitator in the middle.

Twenty months later, at the end of 2016, the continued ramifications of a large-scale Univision layoff brought an end to our team. With it, we can only conjecture at what the ongoing ramifications might have been for the areas we were exploring, as we had envisioned much of our work as the pilot phases of multi-year initiatives.

But we hope it might be valuable to share publicly what we did, in case it might provide some insights or some inspiration for others (whether that’s for what is worth doing, or what’s not worth doing).

Beyond our guiding questions listed above, here are some of the specific questions we tackled over the 20 months we ran this initiative:

How does it change our strategies — and the ways in which we measure success — if we focus on serving engaged, dedicated audiences, rather than overall numbers?

Our work included partnering with MIT’s Center for Civic Media to challenge notions of what media organizations should measure and with University of Southern California’s Civic Paths team to explore our content from the perspective of those who already care deeply about our editorial priorities, rather than those we have to entice to click. We also brought together research and insights professionals from throughout Univision/Fusion Media Group’s growing portfolio of brands for our first research summit to establish better working relationships and information sharing.

What we learned: Provoking challenging discussions about new ways to think about audience development and audience measurement are more vital than ever inside newsrooms. Partnering with outside projects can be a helpful way to do that, as these external groups have no vested involvement in the company’s current practices. However, the constant rhythm of each month’s immediate goals make it challenging to put a sustained focus on long-term change to measurement goals and for teams to collaborate internally, unless it becomes a sustained company priority.

What new workflows should be established for managing relationships with those dedicated audiences?

We helped develop a strategy for outreach and community building around Fusion’s documentary Prison Kids, a project that won the company a Shorty Social Good Award. We explored new approaches for reaching and engaging those audiences with initiatives like Fusion’s Calling All Who Demand Answers brand campaign and the #FExtinction campaign surrounding the release of our TV documentary Shark Land. Such experiments led to establishing a new community liaison team to manage communication and relationships with those passionate about the issues our newsrooms were covering.

What we learned: Every news organization should be investing significantly in teams like the community liaison function we piloted. For a portfolio company of newsrooms, it’s essential to find ways to think about relationship building with outside audiences across teams. Forging trusted relationships with outside groups who are dedicated to issues you cover takes dedicated labor, particularly for groups that have dealt with newsrooms only being in touch when they’re working on a story or promoting a story, and rarely in between.

What new co-production approaches can we develop?

We partnered our investigative team with mobile app developer Hitcents to create an intertwined documentary and game about gerrymandering called Rigged — and they took home a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in the process. We helped manage a partnership with the Muhammad Ali Center that led to a digital series and TV special about Ali’s legacy and a TV special of the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards. We helped establish a relationship for Fusion to become simultaneous media partner, alongside PBS, for the Peabody Awards. And we partnered other FMG brands with, in one case, a respected authority in their field to produce a series pilot to be collectively sold to a third-party distributor and, in another, with an independent archival project looking at the continued impact of a key historical event — a process significantly different than Univision’s traditional approach. (Both projects are still in development.)

What we learned: The process of arranging collaboration, obtaining approvals, crafting legal deals, and managing workflows bring a whole host of unexpected questions when you’re finding new ways to work with outside partners on productions. Allow yourself a long lead time to build partnerships, and be sure to capture all the lessons learned along the way.

What are the benefits of partnerships with universities, nonprofits, startups, and smaller organizations?

In addition to the partnerships mentioned elsewhere, we discovered pathways to telling meaningful data journalism stories without significant internal budgets by utilizing research coming from projects like the University of Chicago Black Youth Project’s GenForward initiative, the Internet Archive’s Political TV Ad Archive, MIT Laboratory for Social Machines’ Electome project, and the Witness Media Lab. We co-organized, sponsored, and/or livestreamed events like MIT’s Virtually There, Beyond Comments, and Beating the CMS Blues; USC/UCLA’s Transforming Hollywood: Diversifying Entertainment; and New Museum/Kill Screen’s Versions. And, around our Rise Up As One concert on the U.S./Mexico border, we collaborated with the USC Civic Paths team and their partners at Communications Department of Iberoamericana University México-Tijuana to develop a museum installation around the concert about the border wall entitled “Postcards from/at Donde Rebotan Los Sueños.”

What we learned: A great deal of knowledge is being developed within academic and non-profit projects. Such groups can invest in initiatives hard for for-profit newsrooms to undertake, and they work on longer lead times than newsrooms can often commit to. But such projects also often struggle most with how to get visibility for the work they’ve done. These relationships can be win-win in every sense, but they require a dedicated function to identify potential partnerships and project manage the relationship throughout the development, or else opportunities will likely fade away amidst the pressures of more immediate deadlines.

How do we think about classroom uses of our material as a site for building our brands and expanding a story’s shelf-life?

We partnered with the National Writing Project on initiatives and with our partners at USC to consider what educators might need in order to use our content in their curriculum.

What we learned: Classrooms provide a great opportunity for ongoing resonance for stories that newsrooms have often invested great resources in. But working with educator communities in a meaningful, sustained way requires significant, dedicated resources and partners. One of the biggest pain points for instructors is how to even be able to locate stories from news organizations that are likely to remain relevant enough to include on a syllabus, when they are often buried within archives primarily filled with stories that have shorter spans of relevance, however — a question that might have benefits for other audiences as well.

In what small, sustainable ways can we bring more young voices onto our channels?

Our Center facilitated a “teaching hospital”-style weeklong partnership between an editorial team and a journalism class; proposed models for partnering with college newspapers; supported new approaches to storytelling for an FMG foundation-supported fellowship program; and helped manage a 14-stop college campus tour for Fusion that drove social media content creation from young voices around the question of what the phrase “As American As…” means in 2016.

What we learned: When we were successful, it was through working with an invested partner team inside our company and having a clear work process and division of labor. Teams have to either plan a discrete, temporary opportunity for working with youth voices, or else confirm dedicated commitment and a clear process for more ambitious endeavors.

How can we learn from new approaches to telling nonfiction stories?

Beyond the gerrymandering mobile game, we explored using porn star Lisa Ann and professional wrestler Hillbilly Jim as expert talking heads to explain the Panama Papers. We experimented with startup platforms like Deepstream to drive particularly engaged audiences deeper into our content. We partnered with the MIT Open Documentary Lab to help our teams consider new approaches to nonfiction storytelling. (We also helped bring Latin American artists Residente and Lila Downs together with U.S. music legend T Bone Burnett to perform a version of “Latinoamérica” to close Univision’s Rise Up As One border concert and found some interesting, but more traditional, stories to tell along the way.)

What we learned: These experiences worked when we had true commitment and interest from a team in the newsroom to experiment and when we were able to help with development and process management of the idea, as needed. And these experiments can only become of massive use to the organization inasmuch as there are avenues and opportunities to share experiments, and what was learned, with other teams across the organization.

Did addressing most of these “slow innovation” questions provide significant, immediate monetary value for Univision/FMG? No. (Our group would have stood a greater chance to weather a corporate downsizing if we had, we suppose.) However, our Center focused on issues that, we’d wager, were of significant importance to the long-term health of the newsrooms we worked with, and without requiring massive corporate investment.

This type of work also provided other benefits to Univision and its brands. Because they didn’t involve expensive proprietary products, they could often be discussed openly and publicly in a way that brought us into conversation with voices outside our walls who were important to us. They brought new cultural intelligence into the company. Through working with a range of provocative thinkers outside our newsrooms, they kept us confronted with questions that challenged the status quo. And, by involving departments around the portfolio as collaborators in the process, they helped foster a culture of experimentation and long-term thinking necessary for slow innovation.

We can’t speak to what long-term effects our work will have the various teams we worked with — in shaping their ongoing work at Univision/FMG, or wherever they end up next.

But, knowing that newsroom investment in groups like ours is likely to remain particularly volatile, especially prone to end up on the chopping block when significant budget cuts are necessitated, we believe it’s of vital importance to make sure that news organizations find some sustainable way to focus on these slow innovation questions. And we recommend companies make sure they don’t quarantine questions of innovation to a particular group who, if they get cut, take the institutional memory of that work with them.

Sam Ford was a vice president at Fusion and head of Fusion Media Group’s Center for Innovation and Engagement. He consults with journalism, media, civic engagement, and marketing leaders on their approaches to storytelling, engagement, audience participation, and understanding culture.

Federico Rodríguez Tarditi served as project manager for the Center for Innovation and Engagement. He is an innovation consultant currently working with Parley for the Oceans, where he focuses on partnerships aimed at new approaches to preservation of the oceans.

Photo by Florian Christoph used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 21, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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