Innovation in journalism must be driven by purpose: CJF panel

Struggling news industry must look beyond 'bright, shiny things' say digital veterans

Inga Thordar, left, the executive editor of CNN Digital International, speaks to TVO’s executive producer of digital, Kathy Vey, at a talk hosted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation.  Alyssa Albanese/Toronto Observer

Innovation in journalism must be more than just blindly chasing the next “bright, shiny thing.”

That advice came from Inga Thordar, the executive editor of CNN Digital International, and Aron Pilhofer, the James B. Steele chair in journalism innovation at Temple University. The two spoke Thursday at a Toronto talk hosted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation and moderated by TVO’s executive producer of digital, Kathy Vey.

Thordar and Pilhofer stressed the importance of innovating with purpose, rather than just for the sake of innovation.

“We think about innovation as bright, shiny things — as fancy AR, VR, machine learning AI — and that is all potentially innovative,” said Pilhofer. “But I think of it in a more boring way, that is, the process of innovation. What is our strategy? How are we going to take this organization and point it in the same direction editorially and commercially?”

He cited as examples The Guardian’s move in 2016 to focus on its membership model as the core of its strategy after heavy financial losses, and Quartz’s “well thought-through, well-articulated and well-understood strategy” of machine learning AI.

The Guardian recently reported that more than 1 million of its readers had given the U.K.-based newspaper financial support in some form over the past three years, including hundreds of thousands of individual one-off donations. 

Despite the Guardian’s success, much of the news business is struggling with increased competition and declining advertising revenue that has largely gone to digital companies like Facebook and Google. The CJF event took place a week after a wave of layoffs cost more than 1,000 jobs at digital media outlets BuzzFeed News, HuffPost and Yahoo, as well as the largest newspaper chain in the United States, Gannett.

Thordar said that while innovation was necessary for an industry in crisis, different organizations and even different departments within the same organization would require different changes.

“What is useful for the kind of journalism you do and the kind of journalism you want to do?” asked Thordar. “What kind of innovations are useful for that? Going into everything without thought is just throwing spaghetti at the wall … I want it to be much more intentional and much more purposeful.”

Their comments reflected findings in a recent report from the Journalism Innovation Project, a study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. It found that frantic, short-term newsroom experiments with new technologies had the risk of causing burnout and wasting resources without real results. The report recommended a more strategic, long-term approach to innovation.

You can watch a video of the CJF talk or listen to it as a podcast.

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Posted: Feb 2 2019 1:38 pm
Filed under: Business News