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Nov. 28, 2018, 7:31 p.m.
Business Models

Journalism has a focus problem: How to combat Shiny Things Syndrome

“This is a permanent process of change, but I feel a great desire for resting.”

Journalism has become too obsessed with technology-led innovation and must refocus on strategic approaches to storytelling, audience engagement and business development, according to my new report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The report, “Time to step away from the ‘bright, shiny things’? Towards a sustainable model of journalism innovation in an era of perpetual change,” is the first research published from the Journalism Innovation Project, which I lead at the University of Oxford. (The Project is funded by the Facebook Journalism Project.)

According to this research, journalism has a focus problem. Unsurprising, you might say, given the convergent crises confronting the news business, including financial desperation that can drive defensive and reactive innovation. This problem was diagnosed as “Shiny Things Syndrome” by U.S. digital-born journalism veteran Kim Bui, who said it “takes away from storytelling, and we risk forgetting who we are. That’s the biggest challenge.”

Bui is one of 39 leading journalism innovators from 17 countries initially participating in this year-long project that seeks to put the “end users” — in this case, journalists and news organizations — at the center of the research process. Together, they represent 27 different news publishers — a mix of legacy and digital-born media. Others voices in the curated roundtable discussions analyzed for the project’s first report include editors and CEOs like Rappler’s Maria Ressa, NewsMavens’ Zuzanna Ziomecka, The Quint’s Ritu Kapur, and Kinzen’s Mark Little; managers from legacy media like The Washington Post’s Greg Barber, Reuters News’ Reg Chua, and The New York Times’ Francesca Donner; and industry leaders–turned–academics like Aron Pilhofer and Raju Narisetti.

Narisetti was perplexed about the failure of journalism to innovate sustainably and strategically and he gave voice to simmering frustration that cut across the discussion groups: “We have such a unique industry and we are so used to change every day, and yet we still cannot seem to innovate our way out of anything.”

Examples of the manifestation of “Shiny Things Syndrome” cited by the participants included fixation with artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), automated reporting (AR), and over-reliance on social platforms for distribution (leading to panic about algorithm tweaks). The cure suggested in the report involves a conscious shift by news publishers from being technology-driven in their innovation efforts, to proactively audience-focused, business-aware and technology-empowered.

The report’s key findings

— There is a clear desire to pull back from the high-speed pursuit of “bright, shiny things” (i.e., the proliferation of new tools and technologies) and to refocus on foundational concepts of journalism innovation, “end user”/audience needs, and core elements of practice, especially within legacy news media contexts.

I just want to make sure that in all of the talking about platforms and change and the thousand things that we need to do, that we don’t lose sight of the journalism at the core of it. — Joanne Lipman, author and former USA Today editor-in-chief

— There is an identified need to develop research-informed, longer-term strategies designed to foster sustainable innovation.

I think when you’re in a newsroom mindset you’re basically working on the 24-hour cycle. You get the story done, deadline rolls around, you either did it or you didn’t do it, tomorrow’s a new day, we start again. But in product or strategy you can (and should!) slow down, do focus groups, assess and analyze. It was totally beyond the scope of how I worked before. — Francesca Donner, director of The New York Times’ Gender Initiative

— There is concern that efforts in the field of digital journalism innovation have been too focused on distribution challenges at the expense of content and business development.

“The reason the oxygen has been sucked out of our businesses is because it’s all gone to distribution without any going to content. How do we redefine it so the platforms don’t eat us alive?” — Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor,

— There is evidence of significant change fatigue and burnout that risks impacting on journalism innovation efforts, in part caused by relentless pursuit of “bright, shiny things.”

We have been in this process of transition and change for more than ten years. We’re changing our own structure and workflows every few months. And my staff say to me “When will we be ready?” And I say to them “As long as we are in this profession we will never be ready.” This is a permanent process of change, but I feel a great desire for resting. They want to see the end of this process. — Wolfgang Krach, editor-in-chief, Suddeutsche Zeitung

These impacts are not uniform: smaller, digital-born news publishers indicated that they do not have time to “slow down,” or contain experimentation, because their survival depends upon it.

Yeah, chill and listen, and read, and think. I can agree with all of that. But we are three years old. Had we not organically innovated we wouldn’t be here. I have also seen how doing less can just slow you down and it can also be a justification for a lot of other things. We would be dead if we only looked at what legacy organizations were doing. — Ritu Kapur, CEO and cofounder, The Quint

— There is an evolving new set of innovation markers: The need to consider unintended consequences of technological innovation (such as gendered online harassment and viral disinformation); the role of diversity in audience development and divergent global contexts; growing media freedom threats and limitations.

In some cases, we’re all fighting for the same audience and yet there are huge chunks of the world that don’t have any credible news. We need to be working on that as much as thinking about how to make the Times or the Post or the Guardian better. — Reg Chua, chief operating officer, Reuters News, UK

— There is a need for innovation-oriented journalism research that:

  • Provides clear, foundational definitions of “innovation” in reference to journalism;
  • Develops a model framework (featuring core metrics or indicators) to support journalism innovation in a range of environments, and to enable impact assessment;
  • Produces transferable knowledge derived from in-depth study of identified innovative journalism practices through collaborative discovery processes.

I would just love it if this project would not fall into the trap of talking about the bright and shiny stuff, and instead talk about the foundational things. How do we define innovation? What does it mean? What are the frameworks for innovation that we can apply? And who is doing this well? — Aron Pilhofer, James B. Steele Chair in Journalism Innovation at Temple University

How do you slow down and plan?

The only constant in contemporary journalism is change, and innovation is essential to the survival of the news industry. But, as the report demonstrates, leading practitioners fear that relentless pursuit of technology-driven innovation can be almost as dangerous as stagnation. In the absence of purposeful strategy and reflective practice, ad-hoc, frantic, and often short-term experimentation is unlikely to lead to sustainable innovation or real progress.

While “random acts of innovation,” organic experimentation, and willingness to embrace new technology remain valuable features of an innovation culture, there is evidence of an increasingly urgent requirement for the cultivation of sustainable innovation frameworks and clear, longer-term strategies within news organizations. Such a pivot could also address the growing problem of burnout associated with “innovation fatigue.” To be effective, such strategies need to be focused on engaging audiences — the “end users” — and they would benefit from research-informed innovation indicators.

The Journalism Innovation Wheel

We’ve visualized the foundational work the Journalism Innovation Project is doing to develop adaptable new frameworks to support sustainable innovation in the Journalism Innovation Wheel. (It’s consciously the only remotely “shiny” feature of the report!). It illustrates the point that journalism innovation can happen among many different dimensions, often at the same time, combining, for example, new forms of storytelling with new business models, or new distribution strategies with new forms of audience engagement. In other words, while broad innovation is important, news organizations also need to identify specific objectives and dimensions along which they want to progress.

My head hurts. Can I get off now?

To be clear, my report does not amount to a call to stop innovating, nor justification for doing 
so, but it is a plea to avoid unsustainable approaches to innovation that fail to take account of potentially negative impacts — approaches that risk wasting time, effort, and money, without real returns.

The collaborative dissection of innovation strategies between experienced journalism innovators at the base of this research underscores the value of cross-cultural, cross-organizational, facilitated conversations as spaces for developing broad strategic approaches to innovation. Such approaches, involving time out from the daily production grind, allow for shared experiences, the cross-pollination of ideas, and the seeds of potential future cross-industry collaborations. So, while this research is not an excuse to stop, it is a call for more reflective practice, critical thinking, and collaborative problem solving.

There was also a strong emphasis among participants on collective action, openness, and cross-boundary knowledge sharing. “There is so much to learn, and everyone is nodding, nodding, because we’re all experiencing the same stuff. So, let’s pool our ideas and see what we can come up with,” The New York Times’ Francesca Donner said. For Durga Raghunath of the Indian Express Group, such approaches could beneficially be drawn from the ground floor of organizations: “Based on insight which is deeper, maybe bottom up from all our organizations.”

What’s next for the Journalism Innovation Project?

What could research-informed frameworks and indicators for sustainable journalism innovation look like? The need for enduring Journalism Innovation Project outputs was underscored by Raju Narisetti. “At a very high level, what can we extract from model [news organization] DNA? Thinking about it in that framework is more interesting to me than ‘Here’s how we go about doing XYZ,’” he said.

Maria Ressa suggested the project to begin with a reset: “If we have to create a new information ecosystem today, with distribution and content separated, what would that look like? What can we do that would be helpful, and how can we collectively use our clout to punch for that?” Greg Barber, The Washington Post’s director of newsroom product, wanted the Project to take it one step further, asking: “How do we become incubators for innovation?”

Responses to these prods are likely to involve research that collaboratively builds a model framework for sustainable journalism innovation based on extracting “good practice” indicators from exemplary news publishers that place an emphasis on strategic design. They will include illustrative deep-dive case studies. But most importantly, this research will be participatory: with journalists and news publishers — our end users — placed at the center of the project in the interests of supporting journalism’s endurance.

Julie Posetti is a senior research fellow and lead of the Journalism Innovation Project at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Newsroom photo copyright Tim Anger, used with permission.

POSTED     Nov. 28, 2018, 7:31 p.m.
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