As a permanent new Member to the Advisory Board of the International Press Institute, I was recently interviewed on their website. Here is a copy of it, and a link.
Why should traditional media invest in innovation?
Let me start by stressing an old truth: good storytelling is the key to our success. Good storytellers are the protagonists in our own future success, the protagonists who unfortunately have too often been sidelined by the antagonists (‘bad guys’): bad journalists and unprepared bosses in the newsroom.
The newsroom needs to be reinvented: it needs to become dynamic, to become the platform where content merges from multiple sources, including external contributors, professional and amateurs. For this to work, contributors need to be compensated for their work in new ways because the some of the previous models are unsustainable. And our content platform absolutely needs to produce original content - paywalls are not possible without it.
We old dogs need to learn new tricks to engage audiences. For media companies to interact more closely with readers, they need to further explore the relationships between content and users; and between content and content, uncovering patterns which will allow us to automatically anticipate the intentions of users and create related services and functions.
In short, innovation is key to the future of the news – from the technology, content and business perspectives.
How can an innovative online media project become economically sustainable?
1. Leverage our key assets and branch out into adjacent businesses
News sites are heavily trafficked, but they are costly and unprofitable if we fully allocate real costs. While we need to grow and master that business, we also need to discover other activities we should explore for potential profitability. If we grab a newspaper printed 20 years ago, its index will show some of the businesses it aggregated: obituaries, cinema, economy, classifieds, professional ads...etc. Hard news was one part of the picture, albeit, the main one. In our digital papers, it should be the same; we should explore adjacent territories in order for us to become the local connector. Our advantages are our brand, our editorial and commercial teams. Thanks to them we can continue grabbing audiences and smartly creating new activities in the hope of creating new businesses.
2. Don’t be precious about our homepages - take our content to where the readers are
Too often our guests don’t go beyond the hall of our costly hotels – the homepage. Users peep at the breaking news and leave. Some players are exploring means to present the user with related content or tailor made proposals, but in fact more and more of our readers’ activity takes place outside our properties. Of course we have to follow them wherever they go, but we need to continue engaging users in our properties. We should think of ourselves as the owners of a network of FREE heavy trafficked highways who need to recoup our investment. Since drivers do not pay a toll, we have to be smart at populating our highways with billboards and road signs to direct vehicles to the new stores we need to create in the infinite land along our roads.
3. Be agile & flexible in embracing technology
Media companies need to avoid the “asphyxia by technology” syndrome. Too many companies fight daily with their existing vendors and platforms, which often walk at different speeds and with divergent goals. I use the “energy”¨comparison to describe the use of technology in the newsroom: you can depend on foreign oil and “export” lots of money, or you can increasingly rely on new sources of energy, invest in research, create jobs, manufacture locally...etc. An approach based on reducing costs, risks and rigidity while keeping inside a series of core competencies will facilitate our playing with content as if it were dough.
We need them to take strides in our understanding of the relationships of content with other content and with users, (semantic web), to second guess behaviors or to ascertain the desired content to be consumed at each precise moment, including categories of data or services the user is in need or in the mood to consume. Nowadays content is technology dependent and good journalism needs good platforms to thrive.
4. Understand that data is the new oil
If we could gather and harness data left voluntarily by the user on our sites (think gamification techniques) and if we could add to all of that some of the personal information available via other channels (e.g. Twitter or Facebook, including past “likes”, friends, groups), we could offer readers a much richer experience.
For example, we could surprise them with the best Groupon-type offers or services or a Daily Me for non- hard news. In a hypothetical ‘personal control board’ where the user could see its own ‘shadow’, any affinity proposal would be possible (better targeting of ads is just the obvious benefit coming to our minds). If media companies are able to achieve such goals, their role in the community would be assured.
5. Change the culture:
As is the case in industries in which innovation is key, media companies need to be better at understanding the rhythm of change in society and at using the latest technologies to keep pace with it. We tend to go slowly and timidly about it. Often, the best technical people do not want to work for us because we have not created the right environments for them to bloom. Often we force those tech people to adapt to our corporate culture and we show our surprise when they suffocate or lose their initial enthusiasm.
This all said, let’s not lose track of what is really important: our future requires original, real story telling. Without that, no competitive advantage will be left for us.
In your opinion, how do initiatives like the IPI News Innovation Contest promote the development of new media and strengthening of journalism?
IPI plays an important role in making innovation happen by funding a number of interesting projects. This year we were forced to choose among a vast array of proposals from many countries. In some cases, the projects were presented by people not coming from media and I’m sure they will shine new light onto our old problems. In the case of developing countries, IPI’s funding will undoubtedly help strengthening those new democracies. By putting money behind good intentions, IPI fosters innovation and good journalism.
You are free to use this article in your publication as long as you credit the author Fernando Samaniego