The word “innovation” is often mentioned as a key ingredient in the recipe for survival in journalism. But do newsrooms really have the stomach for innovation?
In my experience, innovation happens two ways: behind management’s back or right in front, with their full, unwavering support.
The Chronicle was one of the first newspapers to podcast. That was accomplished because my colleague Benny Evangelista and I taught ourselves how to do it and began creating audio content without anyone at the company really knowing (we posted the podcasts on an external site).
When we finally got around to telling the big boss at that time — Phil Bronstein — to his credit he fully embraced our effort and cleared a path for us. With his support, our endeavor flourished and many in the newsroom felt encouraged to join in.
But a year or so later, with a different editor (who is no longer there), our efforts to innovate weren’t as easy. It was the year of a record number of homicides in Oakland, and a few of us decided to launch an ambitious multimedia package: audio, slideshows, video, a Flash interactive (most of which was considered innovative back then). I recall visiting the staff in the Oakland bureau, brainstorming with them, and heading back to the office excited and inspired by their willingness and enthusiasm to try something entirely new.
That fond memory is quickly followed by a morale-crushing one, in which I was later told that we couldn’t pull off this multimedia package because of the lack of resources.
In the end, we did it anyway (you can read more about that here). And it won several awards. But more importantly, it told a tragic story in a way that connected with many readers (based on the e-mail feedback).
The effort to innovate, amid shrinking budgets and staffs, can seem like an insurmountable challenge. Innovation takes time. Resources. Commitment. And the payback isn’t immediate, if there’s any return on investment at all. Oh, and there’s plenty of failure. Believe it. More than I care to admit.
But that’s the nature of innovation, and if the industry truly wants to take advantage of technology (and not be victimized by it), it has to find the time.
In that spirit, I spent about half of my class last night on a team exercise: come up with innovative ways to use Google’s Street View. Although this feature of Google Maps has been around for awhile, I still don’t see many news sites taking advantage of it. So I asked my students to develop their own journalistic uses of it. Each team of 4 was given an hour to research it, brainstorm and produce a Google Docs Presentation that they would narrate (live) in front of the class.
What they came up with was impressive. Their ideas included:
- Using Street View to scope out photo assignments
- For editors to check locations and descriptions of certain areas
- For comparison, be it before and after pictures or to compare the living conditions of one neighborhood with another
- To use as an interactive info graphic, by embedding markers on Street View with pop-up info
- To showcase crime areas (such as this popular robbery location and this homicide hot spot)
You can view one of the presentations they created below (I’ll try to add more when I have time):
Related to what was mentioned about the kidnapping case, check out this Mashable video of Street View that purportedly shows a van from the Antioch home of the kidnapper following the Google vehicle that’s taking photos of that neighborhood.
Separately, for my students …
Homework is due at midnight on Wednesday, Sept. 9 (put another way, it’s due by end of day Sept. 8). Please do the following:
1. Read these links:
2. Comment on this blog post your ideas/reaction to readings (re: Bauer’s blog — tell me why you think it’s so popular, and garners so many comments).
3. E-mail me your pitch on what beat(s) you want to cover for the SFSU site. Describe how it will be distinctive from what other news sources do and include at least 3 specific ideas related to that topic. Include in the e-mail a sample blog post (make it good — pretend you’re applying for a job). If you’d rather put the sample post on an actual blog, that’s fine. Just include the link in the e-mail.
And remember, I’m almost always available for questions.