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The secret to igniting digital innovation in the newsroom

The secret to igniting digital innovation in the newsroom

Shaheryar Popalzai | February 04, 2016

Back in September, I partnered with The Express Tribune, a leading English-language newspaper in Karachi, Pakistan, as part of my ICFJ Knight Fellowship to work on news innovation. The main focus was working with the Tribune Labs team and helping them build up their capacity in order to work on visual and interactive content on their own, without the need for a developer.

To start off, we brought a developer on board as an Innovation Fellow. Our first task was to help Labs with a system where they could develop interactive features on their own and in the shortest possible time. So we built a content management system (CMS) which enables the Labs team to work on multiple templates and also create their own for interactive content.

We published four interactive and data-driven stories under the partnership.

The first was a major story marking the anniversary of the Army Public School (APS) attack in Peshawar. This was an in-depth project that evolved into a minisite with subsections that included audio, video and interactive elements. The scope went beyond just looking back at the events that unfolded, we wanted to see how far the government had come in terms of the National Action Plan (NAP) that was implemented post-APS attack.

An agile team worked on this project and ensured that it was one where the editorial team would have complete control of their content.

The second project was the third part of the Lost Tales series that The Express Tribune publishes. Previously, they had focused more on text after interviewing the artists. This time around I got them to experiment with audio, taking a podcast-ish approach, something they hadn’t tried before. We got the actual artists, who had big hits in the 90s, to talk about their songs themselves. This helped create a more immersive experience for the readers/listeners, and made it more personal for them. The most important part of this project and ones to follow was the involvement of print desks directly. We worked closely with them for the content and to build a project that would supplement their work digitally.

The third and fourth projects were interactive experiences. The first one was a small news game that was built to let the readers experience the proposed Green Line bus in Karachi and the many obstacles its development faces. Titled 'Whose line is it anyway,' the news game was built to give the readers a visual experience and to maintain consistency with the way the story went to the print edition. The final project let readers experience the problems visitors to a jail in Karachi face and the bribes they have to pay.

News innovation doesn’t limit itself to working on interactive content. Organizations all over the world are now working on products for the newsroom – how to improve newsgathering, making it easier for reporters to search archives, collecting information, etc.

It isn’t an easy process, but definitely a risk worth taking. Here are some lessons I learned working on newsroom innovation:

Build a separate team

This should almost always be your number one priority. You don’t have to aim too high or look for a big team. Set some funds aside or look within your organization and start small – one project manager/editor and one developer.

Why do you need a separate team? Because all your other teams are busy with day-to-day affairs. The project manager figures out what needs to be done and who to work with, and coordinates the project, and the developer works on the product. A project manager with some journalism experience will do wonders.

A separate team also insures you continue to experiment and innovate, and that all the work you’ve done isn’t forgotten.

Avoid working in isolation

Focus on collaborating with all your desks. Understand what they need or what stories they’re working on and help them figure out how they can improve their work. This way, teams working on the daily news get to break away and experience other mediums of storytelling or you help them figure out issues they’re experiencing.

Working on original content isn’t a bad idea, but integrating a television or print news desk into the process is even better. It helps them understand how and why innovation is helpful for them.

Innovation editor or project manager?

The best is a product manager with experience in journalism or good news sense. It helps to have a person with the relevant knowledge in both disciplines to ensure they work on quality products.

An editor will work great but will most likely not have the technical knowledge to work with a developer. Someone with the right programming knowledge also knows the limitations of their team and how far to push them in terms of production.

Platform or news apps?

If your newsroom isn’t equipped or prepared to take on a full-time developer, build a platform to publish interactive content. Make sure you add all the components you need. Go all-out as much as you want, and you’ll end up reducing at least 70 percent dependency on a developer.

But if you can bring on a developer, don’t give it a second thought. Go for it! It’ll do you wonders. Not only will you be able to work on stories without any digital limitations, but you will also be able to create products that can help you improve your reporting or presentation.

Look within

Make sure you never replicate your resources. Always look within the newsroom and work on integration. If you can work with a design team in-house, it works great. Not only does the team work in partnership improving internal coordination, but they also work on new skills in some cases.

Learn new skills

One of the most important things you can do as a journalist is learn new skills. Journalism is evolving at a faster rate than most people imagined. Yes, digital is the future, but if you don’t have the right skills to work on digital projects you get left behind, as does the organization.

Work on video, audio, infographics, code or pick something you feel you can excel with. And work with an innovation or interactive team if your organization has one. Help the readers experience stories like they’ve never experienced before.

These are just some lessons I learned. Much like journalism itself, news innovation also continues to evolve as more and more organizations try to improve themselves.

Shaheryar Popalzai is a digital journalist based in Pakistan and a co-founder of Hacks/Hackers Pakistan. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here

Image CC-licensed by Flickr via BAKAEDAR. Secondary image is a screenshot of the Lost Tales project.

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