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Newsroom labs and journalist inventors

February 21, 2017

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Sometimes journalists have to plunge into the lab and experiment. ("Still life" image by
Sometimes journalists have to plunge into the lab and experiment. ("Still life" image by "domeckopol" via pixabay CCO Public Domain)

Journalists and editors have been asking themselves the same questions for years now. How can we tell stories that attract a wider audience? How do we generate more clicks to attract more eyeballs? How do we create more content with fewer resources? And how do we make money while we’re at it?

The current innovation landscape

A growing number of conferences and workshops—not to mention bottles of wine shared with colleagues—swirl around key words like “innovation” and “solution.” An example is Thread, an annual gathering of journalists and academics at Yale that serves as a giant brainstorming session on “Storytelling in Modern Media.”

The marriage of journalism and innovation is happening at journalism schools too. Seed grants from the Future of Information Alliance launch numerous ventures at Philip Merrill. (This year the students were tasked with engaging in projects “that research and devise innovative solutions for real-world issues using cutting-edge tools.”) ASU’s Cronkite School sponsors Innovation Day. The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism has an Entrepreneurial Journalism program.

Newsroom as research lab is becoming the reality. And the search for innovation and digital tools to tell stories better is an opportunity for journalists who have a passion to invent.

Real estate reporter becomes product developer

At a session during early January’s Reynolds Week, Catherine Reagor, senior real estate reporter at The Arizona Republic, shared how she created Street Scout, a search tool for home prices in the Phoenix area. Reagor transformed herself from reporter into entrepreneur, working with a team to create a business plan, logos and marketing, and pounding the pavement to talk with advertisers. She maintains that journalists have an edge when it comes to innovation.

“As journalists covering important beats for consumers, we understand a lot about what data, information and products people need to have better lives. I think we have an edge on marketers with innovation because we are looking at issues critically as well as searching for solutions to help people. Sometimes we really need to trust our guts about what viewers and readers want and just go for it,” she said.

“We know the people we cover. It’s our role as journalists to help them. We constantly work to understand their problems, passions and pursuits. By creating a tool, a new way for our readers/viewers to make their lives better with more accurate information or a better way to get that information, we can survive and thrive as journalists and news organizations.”

What would you invent?

I’ve been enticed by the innovation bug too. I’m working with Rob Wells, a former classmate at the Merrill School, and another colleague to put the finishing touches on BizWiz, a mobile app that crunches big data such as SEC filings and offers the essentials to local and regional business journalists. The tool could be useful to public relations professionals and small businesses as well, who want to see what the competition is up to.

As a local journalist with  a passion for covering the economy and business, I know I can dream up at least another half-dozen tools that not only make my life easier, but help me tell better stories. As budget season rolls around again, I thought it would be great to have a tool that automatically retrieves essential information from the Everest of documents. What would we want if we could just wave our magic wand?

Moving beyond columns and inches

Innovation is a slant of sunlight in semi-dark times when college kids in communication programs keep asking me if journalism is dying or if there is a future in this.

It depends on whether journalists think beyond print and the traditional ways of telling stories—word length, inches, columns.

The research lab-newsroom-classroom model isn’t a bad thing. And it’s happening anyway:  Northwestern’s Medill school of journalism houses the Knight Lab, where tools are being invented and used by journalists around the world—300,000 at last count. I clicked through some of the inventions, impressed with how easy they are to use and how helpful they are in my day-to-day work. There’s TimelineJS, which allows users to create interactive timelines, and StoryMapJS, where you can easily make infographics that can work as stand-alones or accompany an article.

At the Cronkite school, students in the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab collaborate with computer engineering, design and business students to create cutting-edge media products, including mobile apps, news games and interactive websites. The Futures Lab at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Missouri focuses on innovation too.

And even more good news for those not faint-hearted. There is funding to encourage journalists to invent, innovate and strike out on their own to become entrepreneurs. Knight, the Online News Association and Nieman are just a few. Available funding sends a strong message to the industry—especially newspaper publishers—that we need to innovate not just to survive but to thrive.

Reporter’s Takeaway

• Think outside of the box. How can you tell stories outside of traditional print, and what tools do you need? The Arizona Republic’s Reagor said that journalists are in a great place for creating new products, since they know and understand what readers want.

• Embrace change. Don’t just dream of tools on your wish-list, but think about how you can create them.

• Collaborate. Make friends with folks in academia and technology and see if there are projects to collaborate on.


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