Innovation: Ten (small) things you can do right now to reinvent your newsroom

Sometimes when I talk to folks about our project, they get a little intimidated. In developing a newsroom plan for The Chronicle, the Duke University student newspaper, we’ve had the good fortune to be able to think broadly because the new newsroom will potentially go in a new building. So we’re talking about creating something from the ground up and has allowed us to think ambitiously.

But what if you can’t build a new building? The reality for most journalists is they’re working at capacity. And their companies don’t have the will or the means to be investing in new tools or people. Sounds grim, right?

The good news is that there’s still plenty of things you can do right now. And hopefully many of these are things that can slide into your normal routine without creating an ongoing, burdensome obligation.

This is innovation with a small “i.” But by starting with small changes that turn into small successes, you can build a track record, gain some credibility, and who knows, maybe start something that will grow into something much bigger.

So here are 10 things you could do right now:

1. Start a wiki: This is a great way to start experimenting with changing your relationship with your community. At Duke last year, a junior (not associated with the paper) started DukeWiki.com which is focused on creating wiki entries for just about every aspect of life at Duke. Along with news, information is an important service a newspaper provides to its community. So not only is this a great public serve, but it gives you a change to start soliciting content generated outside the newsroom.

2. Aggregate: During a presentation to our board earlier this year, I mentioned a site called DukeBasketballReport.com. This was started a few years ago by some Duke alums who are big basketball fans. Most board members had never heard of it, and one person in the room explained it as “just a bunch of links to stories.” But I noted that its traffic far outstrips that of The Chronicle online. And as a fan myself, it’s an invaluable resource for keeping track of all this stuff. Shouldn’t the student newspaper being doing this for me? No doubt the sports reporters are reading all of these same stories. It wouldn’t take much for them to book mark them on a place where I could easily find them on the student newspaper Web site. Even if you don’t want to build a whole site, you can create a Publish2 account or Delicious feed.

3. TwitterCamp: Hopefully, you’re already on board with using Twitter in the newsroom. If not, you should be. It’s great for creating feeds for folks to follow your stories. And it’s great for building community. And you can embed Twitter feeds on the front page of your site for big, breaking news events.

But another interesting use TwitterCamp, a desktop application that creates larger visual displays of tweets. I’ve visited a number of college newsrooms that have big TV screens with CNN playing all day. This might provide some sense of energy and visual stimulation, but obviously the content is not going to be connecting you to your community. Instead, take one of those big screens, connect it to a computer, and install TwitterCamp. And then create a Twitter feed and publicize it to your community. The screen will display tweets of anyone you’re following, letting folks in the newsroom observe the conversations happening on your campus. Here’s what it looks like:

and:

4. Create a community hub: This is a kind of Part 2 to the aggregation suggestion. Recognize that folks all over campus are creating content online through blogs, flickr, youtube, etc. So create a community hub to pull all of that together in one place in a way that’s easy for anyone to find: YourNewspaperMediaHub.com. One of the simplest tools for doing this is creating a Ning.com site, which is the platform this site is built on. It’s easy to embed videos, photos, and create RSS feeds that will automate a big chunk of this for you. And because it has a bunch of social tools, it again lets you experiment with having a different relationship with your community without having to blow up your main site. The best part: It’s free.

This could take five minutes to set up. And once you have it going, create a unique tag for your newspaper and promote to your community. If people use the tag, their content will get pulled into the hub. No muss, no fuss.

If you want to take it step further, your community can also use the site to create their own profiles, have group blogs, and start forum discussions. A lot of newspapers are still wary of open the gates to their main site to the masses. This gives you a way to dip your toe in the waters of user participation and increase your comfort level.

5. Hold a CopyCamp: We can obsess all day about all the great digital tools we can use to connect and inform our community. But at the end of the day, nothing beats sitting in the room with someone and having a conversation. This past summer at my paper, the San Jose Mercury News, we held our first Copy Camp. Here’s how it works:

We invited about 30 folks from the community to spend a half day at the Merc to have a conversation about how we cover race and demographics. The CopyCamp is structured as an un-conference or a . People who attend suggest topics they want to discuss. We then broke into small groups for discussions. This is not the community just talking at the newsroom. Everyone is expected to participate. After each group reported back, we had a second round of discussions to create a list of next steps.

You can read about the day here. It was a great way to rethink how we interact with the community and get them engaged in what we do.

6. Use Talkshoe to create podcasts: If you can make a phone call, you can make a podcast. Many newsrooms I visit insist they don’t have the time, the resources, or the training to do podcasts. That’s probably because they imagine podcasts being produced in some elaborate studio. But if you’re interviewing someone interesting by phone, just set up the call via Talkshoe. When you hang up, it generates an MP3 file of the call.

If you want to get more ambitious, you can publicize the time of the interview and invite other folks to listen or call in. This would work great for, say, a weekly call-in show where the editor of your paper takes questions from the community.

7. Collaborate: Find one group on campus that you’ve never worked with and figure out a project to work on together. The most likely candidate is someone in the computer science department. But there are probably plenty of other candidates. The main thing is to get out of the newsroom and engage with someone who likely had an entirely different perspective on how news and information is gathered and distributed.

8. Use Cover It Live for online chats: A lot of folks have discovered this and have been using it for live blogging. But it can also be used for simple, online chats. Just promote the heck out of the time, embed it on your site, and have someone be prepared to take questions from the audience.

9. Start a Beat Blog: Conceived by Jay Rosen, the Beat Blogging experiment is a group of reporters who are turning their sources into a social network. The goal is to see if reporters can leverage the power of networks to improve the speed and depth of their reporting. Reporters are trying everything from setting up a group WordPress blogs, Ning sites, and good old fashioned e-mail groups. All free tools. The main investment here is time recruiting sources to join, and then encouraging and managing conversations. We have a reporter at the Mercury News. Matt Nauman, who is involved with the official project through his Green Tech Beat blog.

10. Embrace social media: You’re probably on Facebook. But everyone in the newsroom should be, too. And reporters should be required to promote their stories after they appear online. Each reporter should be building their own network of followers, and figuring out where their friends are getting their news. They should be getting their stories on to Digg, Facebook, Twitter, and any place else their friends and their community is getting their news.

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7 Responses

  1. What a great list!If all newspapers tried even HALF of what you’re suggesting, they’d see an increase in their reach, their relevance, and, if done smartly, their revenue.Let me suggest one essential enhancement of idea #4 (“Create a Community Hub”). You are absolutely right about people throughout your “market” (the campus) creating great content across a wide variety of topics.But don’t create what would be, in essence, a blogger “ghetto.” That’s what some newspapers are doing to be able to say they have bloggers on their websites. But how many times have you ever gone to an amorphous collection page that has no focus, no organization?Put the best (and only the best) “local” bloggers on the category pages of your website AND your newspaper that correspond with their subject. Expand the breadth of content you offer. Expand the reach. Expand the readership. Bloggers will tell their fans, their friends. They’ll become a powerful, viral marketing campaign for you.If you’re interested, I go into length about the power of incorporating bloggers in newspaper websites and newspapers on my blog: johnwilpers.wordpress.com.Thanks for listening! Good luck!JohnJohn WilpersJohn Wilpers Media Consulting

  2. News is information, and belongs in that wiki.See Matt Thompson on this topic, and my blog posts on this topic.

  3. These are great ideas. Some of them, however, will only work if the community itself is tech-savvy. Sure, media outlets can push these tools and help boost the tech literacy of the area, but if your main audience is, say, seniors, how will you convince them they need to sign up for Twitter?Having said that, there’s still some great ideas for producing content and pushing the way forward. I’d love to see more.

  4. Hey Chris! NIce suggestions. About twitter there is another tool called http://www.twitter100.com It lets you see 100 twitts from 100 followers in the same window. I have used Coveritlive (for covering a blogger conference in Chile) and it worked very well. Also a couple of hours ago a friend of mine created a social network for journalist migrating to the digital world (in spanish), if ou want to check it out.Besides all you suggest, things I have talked with other latinoamerican journalist, my main concern right now are two key things for any innovation at our newsrooms: corporative/editorial culture and workflow design.-Corporate/editorial culture because I have witnessed and suffered the task of trying to make changes in a newsroom and no matter the size and amount of money the newsorganization has, it all comes down to understanding todays needs and to be willing to embrace innovation. In Chile, from the biggest newsorganizations to the smallest, you see big flops, money thrown to the garbage and misfunctioning projects because of that.-Workflow design: Since all you mention needs discipline and to have everyone on the same page, I think designing your newsroom workflow and establishing who does what and when it gets done (and where is stored under which name and tags) are essentials that need to be discussed in a greater way. I have seen what Juan Antonio Giner´s consultant company and a couple of more are saying about this but it would be great to hear more ideas about it.Take care!

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone!I agree with Suzanne’s point: Certainly I wouldn’t expect every in a community to be on Twitter, or Facebook, any such thing. You have to figure out different ways to reaching out to different segments of the community. But I don’t think the fact that Twitter might not provide a scientific sampling of community conversations makes it less valuable. Given so many newsrooms have TVs turned to things like CNN, substituting a Twitter feed is still going to make the visual element more relevant to what is happening on a local level.On the age issue, I will say that I manage an e-mail group for long-time print readers to discuss Merc topics. That may sound like a contradiction. But in fact, it’s clear that the folks in that group mainly interact with the Mercury News in print. However, e-mail is fairly widely adopted across all age group. And so these folks care clearly comfortable reading the print version, and then dashing off an e-mail about it. In fact, the tend to be quite long e-mails. It’s a reminder that in many ways, e-mail remains the most social of applications.Chris

  6. Miguel: Regarding culture, we’ve seen the same thing up here. Embracing innovation is key.As for workflow, I think that’s the single biggest question I get: How? How do we organize the newsroom to actually do all this stuff? That’s going to be a big focus as I talk to folks over the next few months who are reinventing their newsrooms. I want to know how they’re putting all the pieces together to make new things happen.As for me, like the folks at INNOVATION, I favor the superdesk approach. Having a single central starting point where decisions are made is a great way to make sure someone is thinking about the storytelling across all platforms. Easier said than done.

  7. Great post Chris.I’m actually proposing using some of these tools, particularly the Wikis to help keep traditional newsrooms up to date on the latest tools and how to use them.Wikis for me seem like the ideal platform to host the manuals of style of the future. How should we publish our materials, etc.The advantage of the Wiki is that they are low tech themselves and work great for document repositories and living documents. They can also be used in the process of creating and defining a new information service.Wikis are a great place to keep those messages and ideas that we need to reiterate time and time again during the process of transforming a traditional newsroom into the newsroom of the future.

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