Traditionally, journalists have lived for the scoop: get the story first, and let your competitors read about it on tomorrow’s front page.
But to be successful at media innovation, journalists and media companies need to focus less on competition and more on collaboration, says media strategist Justin Arenstein.
Arenstein has been sharing this and other advice with entrants in the first-ever African News Innovation Challenge since it launched in May. The contest aims to spur ideas for using tech to improve the way news is collected and disseminated in Africa. More than 500 projects competed in the first round of the contest. Now, 40 finalists are vying for prizes of $12,000 to $100,000 to develop, test and scale their new digital news venture or product.
The African Media Initiative (AMI) is running the contest with backing from Omidyar Network, Google, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and others. (Arenstein works with AMI as part of his Knight International Journalism Fellowship.) The winners will be announced later this month.
After reading the entries and working with finalists to help them refine their ideas, Arenstein shared this advice for aspiring news innovators:
Don't be afraid to experiment
"You'd be amazed at how risk-averse most media companies are," he says. "They are terrified, in the current economic climate, to take any risks. Our advice is that rapid iteration, lean startup experimentation designed to produce minimum viable prototypes is crucial if newsrooms want to stay ahead of their competitors, who are increasingly non-media companies such as mobile operators, and digital companies."
Don’t try to do it all yourself
"Find partners, build synergies, share the burden. Journalists and the media they work for are very competitive. They have a 'scoop' culture that hates sharing," Arenstein says. "But, when it comes to innovation, you will be more successful if you share ideas and build off the shoulders (and platforms and technologies) of others. Be realistic: no newsroom or media organization is going to throw away all their legacy systems, or re-engineer their workflow systems, just to accommodate your project. Try making your project compatible with other important newsroom tools like DocumentCloud, FrontlineSMS, mySociety, or scores of others."
Stay small and agile
"A vibrant innovation community is starting to take root in Africa. You don't have to hire or contract massive teams of developers, who then lock you into particular approaches or solutions," he says. "You can instead tap into things like Hacks/Hackers to find fellow travelers who will allow you to share ideas and collaborate for as long as it makes sense, before parting ways."
Keep an open mind
"Be aware that there is lots of hype out there but nevertheless stay open to new ideas. The media, from our business models to the ways we interact with audiences, is changing so quickly that we need to be flexible, agile, and open to experimentation," Arenstein says. "Journalism isn't under threat--it’s just the way that we do it that is evolving."
_Photo: Journalists working at TechCamp in Zanzibar in October. By Flickr user mihi_tr, courtesy of AMIC._
Jennifer Dorroh contributed to this story.