Media companies were never really innovative. They used to be quick to take advantage of technological developments in their content-distribution channels to enhance their content offering, like when printing presses allowed to reproduce pictures, and later, color. But these where not developed by the media companies. They could have sparked this innovation, their needs may have pushed for these developments to happen, but they were not theirs.

They didn’t innovate much in content production or presentation as well. Newspaper sections have remained virtually untouched for years, the same classification and categorization of information today as the newspapers that served society 100 years ago. When internet emerged in the 90′s, they used the same information architecture in the new channel. Ultimately, newsrooms are meant to produce, following a set of rules and processes, not to do research and development, and those kind of departments are rare in most but the biggest media companies.

With revenue streams getting thinner and management struggling to maintain media companies profitable (or reduce losses), even cutting newsroom resources, R&D is not a priority, if it ever was. Some of the most disruptive innovations in advertising, information architecture and content in the last years have not come from media companies:

  • Think of how Craigslist established a new standard for online classifieds, historically a business dominated by newspapers, and one of their main revenue streams.
  • How Google first, and Groupon later developed ways to put in touch local businesses with consumers online. Both of which are natural newspaper customers, although in different ends of the product chain.
  • How newspapers didn’t get the need for CRM and analytics and a better understanding and insight on their audiences until it was too late, and social networks appeared to provide advertisers with a profiled audience to develop targetted advertising programs.
  • How newspapers not only skipped the chance to bypass intermediaries, like distribution chains, when trying to sell digital subscriptions to consumers, but jumped in the wagon when Apple demanded a 30% cut of their subscription revenue to iPad apps.
  • And how that demonstrates that newspaper and media companies seem fixated on the idea of “channel” instead of focusing on creating platform-agnostic content.

Innovation happens in the fringes

But not everything is that bad. We have had our share of innovation in media in the last 10 years. It just hasn’t come from media companies, but from the fringes of the media ecosystem, or even outside of it.

  • Storify, a tool to organize and create a narrative around curated content from social networks, is co-founded by a journalist.
  • Google Living Stories was developed by Google in partnership with the New York Times and The Washington Post. It’s a way to organize news content around an ongoing issue in a way that makes it easy to understand the timeline of events, as well as the access to all the related content.
  • One of the first mashups, ChicagoCrime.org, which had a clear impact in the current interest and attention on data visualization, including its adoption in newspapers and media, was created single-handedly by one journalist, Adrian Holovaty. His later company, Everyblock, which geolocates content from several sources in several of the major US cities, was acquired by MSNBC.

Collaboration and partnerships

If we can learn something from these stories, is that for media companies innovation can, and will happen thanks to collaboration and partnership. In this process, institutions like the Knight Foundation have been critical, as it has provided funding to projects that otherwise may have not received it, and pushed an spirit of sharing and collaboration, demanding, for example, that software developed using its grant is released under the GPL license, and all the other material under Creative Commons licenses. A perfect example would be one of their funded projects, DocumentCloud, also a partnership between ProPublica and the New York Times, is an open source tool to share, analyze and annotate source documents, and is currently used by more than 200 newsrooms in the US.

Hacks / Hackers, an informal and loose network of meetups of journalists and programmers, which recently has seen the birth of a new chapter in Madrid,  is another example of collaboration, very focused on software development for newsrooms. One of the most interesting projects lately is PDFSpy, which allows to monitor changes to a large set of hosted PDF files, like the ones released by Spanish congressmen and senators. That way, a journalist would receive an alert if something is added, or removed from any of the 614 pdf documents.

In Spain we have meetups (Café y Periodismo, the upcoming Hacks / Hackers), research groups (1001 medios) and hybrids of both (BCNMediaLab, which I co-founded). These are outlets for journalists to meet, debate and share ideas and projects, but I feel we’re going to need to take these initiatives (or new ones) a step further in order to generate the collaboration and contribute to the innovation our industry needs.

This post was first published in catalan in the blog of the ESCACC Foundation (Espai Català de Cultura i Comunicació).

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