“Innovate while cutting jobs is a real challenge for newspapers” Eric Newton, Innovation Chief at Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism
ournalists can look at the future with optimism, even with enthusiasm. Eric Newton, journalist and professor from the United States, believes that there are reasons to face digital transformation of media with a good amount of excitement. Despite the liturgical culture which defends traditional writing, Newton considers that journalists are creative and will be able to adapt themselves, they will develop new skills, include the community in the process of creating news and they will manage in a continuous flow of information in which they will not be protagonists anymore.
“This is the best time in the history of news to be a journalism student. You can help reinvent journalism. If you are comfortable with uncertainty, if you are an explorer, if you are brave, this is your time”, he says in an interview via e-mail.
As the Adviser to the President of Knight Foundation, he has supervised the payment of $300 million for journalism activities for media innovation. Last month, he accepted an offer from Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism to become its Innovation Chief.
– What has the digital age changed about journalism?
The digital age has changed nearly everything about journalism: who can be a journalist; what makes a story; when and where people get news, and how — which is to say, interactively, in engaged communities, rather than consuming news as passive audiences.
Even though the “who, what, when, where and how” of journalism has changed, one thing has stayed the same, the “why” of journalism. Society needs people who will act independently to verify and clarify current data, events, issues and ideas. We need good journalism, which I would define as the fair, accurate, contextual pursuit of truth. We need a free flow of factual news and information because that’s what helps us effectively run our governments and our lives.
– It seems like journalism needs to change much faster than the traditional companies and journalists can manage.
Everyone and everything is being remade by the digital age. Never before have billions of people had the ability to communicate to a colleague or a continent. Never before have we been able to hold a printing press or a television studio in the palms of our hands. We are just at the beginning of this new age. Much more will change. The “information economy” is not a buzz word. It is real. The new world is driven by technology that follows Moore’s Law, doubling in power every 18 months. A year and a half is a digital lifetime. A person born today may live to see 50 generations of digital technology in a single human lifetime. The speed of this transformation stuns many people and companies.
That said, traditional news companies are harder hit than most. They had invested vast fortunes in the old industrial-age assembly-line system of mass media. Many of the companies still rely on legacy advertising. But advertising and marketing runs into cyberspace. Daily newspapers in the United States have lost half their advertising revenue in the past decade. They are in a difficult position. They need to innovate while their revenue stream is drying up. To changing while cutting jobs … that is a real challenge. Yet the rest of the world will not wait.
“Culture is a Baleen whale living off zooplankton – a big thing that grows even larger by constantly eating tiny, fast moving ideas. That’s why disruptive innovation often happens at the margins.”
– What is the role of journalism psychology in this process? You say in your book: “It is fine for news to change every second. It is not fine to change the way we do the news. News changes fast; not so, culture”.
Journalism is a deadline-driven profession. At times it can be like being in a hospital emergency room or a military combat unit. Minutes or even seconds can be crucial to success. These types of workplaces develop strong cultures, strong bonds between people. People trust each other. They follow predictable, controllable rules. They share the same basic values. In many ways this helps them all stay sane.
There is a saying in business that Culture eats Strategy for breakfast. That is wrong. Culture eats nothing but Strategy and it devours it insatiably all day and all night. Culture is a Baleen whale living off zooplankton – a big thing that grows even larger by constantly eating tiny, fast moving ideas. That’s why disruptive innovation often happens at the margins. A leader takes a small group of people far away from the beast and starts something completely new.
Can traditional media change? Yes. Defensive workplaces can change. Look at the military’s use of sophisticated technology. Look at the use of tech in medicine. These endeavors are even more deadline-driven than journalism, even more a matter or life or death – and yet they have revolutionized the way they achieve their goals, be they taking lives or saving lives. If those cultures can change, so can journalism.
– Who is going to lead this cultural change?
People who love to solve difficult problems. Some of them will be transformational leaders who create excitement about a reinvented organization and what it can do. Others will be adaptive leaders that work inside the system and quietly introduce hundreds of small innovations. In either case, the rules of the workplaces will change. Those who can’t adapt will leave.
But some news organizations won’t change. Perhaps the owners won’t allow it because they want to milk their cash-cow business to death. Perhaps the journalists or other workers will refuse in the memory of a past that never was. No matter what the reason, those businesses eventually will fail. Ads will diminish. Staff will be cut. Audience will shrink. Digital competition will increase. After a few decades, or maybe just a few years, the outlets will be much smaller. Many will close. Assets will be sold. Out of the death of traditional media, some entrepreneurs may find a way to start again. Or the competitors will already have taken over by the much (but not all) of legacy media dies out.
– Are the newsrooms the best places to boost innovation?
If the owners, leaders and workers really want it, innovation can happen anywhere, and of course that includes newsrooms. The Washington Post has been moving rapidly since it was purchased in 2013 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The Washington Post draws some 50 million visitors a month to its website and apps. Nearly half come to the news from a mobile device. Its traffic has been growing, depending upon the year, at a rate of from 50 percent to 100 percent.
Four years ago, the Washington Post had four technologists. Today it has 47 and next year they all will be embedded in the newsroom. Computer programmers are the pressmen of the 21st Century. When a traditional newspaper has more people writing code than they have operating the presses, there’s hope.
The way Washington Post editor Martin Baron sees it, moving into the digital age is just like any other type of move. He says we should answer three questions: “What do we discard? What will we have to acquire and learn? What do we keep?” Baron says newsrooms must lose their idea that the collapse of the business model is someone else’s problem; they must acquire comfort with change and an entrepreneurial spirit; and they must keep their commitment to on-the-scene, eyewitness reporting, to original work that brings insights. That sounds right to me.
Another example is Guardian US, which is launching a lab with a $2.6 million Knight Foundation grant and experimenting with news on mobile devices. BuzzFeed is starting a lab in its San Francisco newsroom. Arizona State has a lab where students develop news applications. NPR has a lab where it is trying to reinvent radio news. Incubators and accelerators are popping up in individual newsrooms.
– You say that media innovation means taking risks and learning fast from our mistakes. But media are not used to it. Is it a cultural challenge?
Already, many journalists are creative. The best are resourceful and enterprising when they are reporting stories. They take risks when seeking news. We need to apply that same spirit to the task of telling the news. Let me give you an example: When a reporter gets a tip, he or she checks it out. The tip might be false. So the reporter does not do the story. We do not see that process as failure. It’s a success. “Good for you,” we say, “you kept a false story out of the news.” A story tip is an experiment. It’s something that might or might not work out. Why can’t we have the same attitude about experiments in new ways of collecting and telling the news? Every news outlet could have a “lab zone” within its news sites, where it engages with its community on news experiments. We can warn people that in the lab, some things may not work right. The cultural challenge is to look at the lab in the same way that we look at a story tip that does not pan out. It isn’t a place where we fail. When an idea doesn’t work out, if we find out fast, that’s a success, since we have moved on. Like a bad story tip, it was a necessary step on the way to good journalism.
“Phones will get smarter and smarter. They could turn into our own personal journalists.”
– How much does digital change our role as journalists?
News is more interactive. Everyone with a smart phone is a potential competitor, or a potential colleague. We are talking about billions of people. We need to reinvent our relationship with the communities we hope to serve. We need to come to grips with aggregation and curation in this new world.
News is more personal. The great Walter Cronkite once said news is the cat that gets stuck up in the tree. The other cats, he said, are not news. I don’t think Walter ever saw what happened on YouTube. Millions of people like to watch cats doing all sorts of things. Maybe they own cats. Maybe they like to laugh. Different types of cats are now news – the cats in trouble and cute cats – and digital media helps us deliver the right cats to the right people.
News is more mobile. We always liked carrying newspapers around. Now in our pocket we can carry every form of media. And the phone can know where we are. It can sense our surrounding environment, tell us if it is about to rain, tell us if a car accident is blocking our way, tell us news we want to know not because of who we are but because of where we are. Phones will get smarter and smarter. They could turn into our own personal journalists.
“We can’t keep producing news only in a closed assembly line.”
– Do we have to be closer to the people? How to recover the space we occupied?
We should find ways to interact with our communities at the beginning of a story when we are deciding to do it, in the middle as we are doing it, then as we are telling it and even as they are acting upon it. We can’t keep producing news only in a closed assembly line. We shouldn’t use social media only to tell people what we did when we did it.
I don’t think legacy media ever will recover its position as mass media monopolies. We need to expand our thinking and become part of the larger space. We must produce stories that are exclusively ours, but also help our communities find or create other stories in ways that extend our value. We are not just storytellers, we can be educators, guides and curators.
– Is open journalism an option or a need?
More than 20 years ago, I wrote a book for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education called The Open Newspaper. I was trying to describe what we did at the Oakland Tribune when I was the managing editor there. Our owners, Bob and Nancy Maynard, thought newspapers should engage with their communities. We had community advisory groups, events where people met the editors, news meetings that members of the public could visit, all sorts of surveys and polls and so on. Both in the newspaper and in public we tried to explain our decisions, why we did what we did. I suppose today they might call parts of what we did public journalism and other parts open journalism. We just thought it was good journalism, to help a community understand itself. Unfortunately, Bob got cancer and had to sell the newspaper before the World Wide Web began. That was tragic, because he would have led the way in doing things openly in the digital age.
When I was the managing editor of the Newseum, we sometimes had “front page” meetings in the broadcast studio. About 70 members of the public, visitors to the Newseum, would be handed Associated Press news summaries from that day. I would help them create a front page together. We could do it in about an hour. We would discuss journalism ethics, media law, whatever lessons were in the news that day. The visitors learned that there is no such thing as “the media.” We learned that you don’t have to be a journalist to make good news decisions.
“Young people do not want to make an appointment to consume content. They want it when they want and how they want it.”
– “If we do not engage the new generations, we will lose them,” you said. “And we will lose our future.” Is this one of the main challenges we face?
Yes. You can be Blockbuster or you can be Netflix. Blockbuster collapsed because you had to drive there during certain times to borrow video tapes and DVDs. Netflix thrived because it streamed movies digitally any time day or night. Young people do not want to make an appointment to consume content. They want it when they want and how they want it. Most of them will not read a newspaper every day at 6 a.m. or watch a television broadcast every day at 6 p.m. That is not how their lives are organized. They set up social networks and the news finds them. If legacy news organizations stay the same, they will find news somewhere else.
– Many of the journalists who lose their jobs decide to go back to the business as entrepreneurs, in digital media. Do traditional media have the potential to drive the transformation inside their own newsrooms but do not know how to do it?
Each place is so different that isn’t hard to make general statements. Some of the journalism diaspora will not succeed as entrepreneurs because they think the story is all that matters; it isn’t, since it must be delivered, paid for and used. Most of the budgets of traditional news organizations are not spent in the newsroom. Some of the traditional media organizations won’t change because their owners are not willing to reinvest in the company no matter what the journalists do. But some journalists will succeed as entrepreneurs and some news organizations will transform. The ratio I can’t tell you.
“Find a leader with vision within the newsroom and support that person, or try to lead projects yourself, or get out of there.”
– What would you say to a 40-year-old journalist who is sitting at a traditional newsroom, watching how his company struggles with the digital transformation?
Find a leader with vision within the newsroom and support that person, or try to lead projects yourself, or get out of there.
– What is the role of the Universities and their journalism schools?
A great journalism school can be a news provider and a news lab as well as an educational institution. That’s why I decided to join Arizona State University. The journalism school runs Cronkite News, the second-largest news operation in the state of Arizona. My new job is to be the Innovation Chief for Cronkite News, to help them try new things. I’m excited about what Arizona State can do, not just to improve journalism education through experiential learning, but to test new tools and technologies in a live news environment. At Arizona State, the university president is a strong supporter of the program. The journalism school there has become in the past decade one of the best journalism schools in the country.
– How do you educate and train journalists for the future is there in no a certain and clear future?
This might sound obvious, but if there’s no clear future, teach students that there is no clear future. Teach creativity, adaptability, flexibility. Teach different forms, entrepreneurial journalism, social journalism, open journalism. Teach how to acquire knowledge rapidly using new tools. Teach innovation, how to work in open, collaborative groups, how to engage a community and not merely inform it. Teach students how to quickly adapt new technologies to journalism. There’s really plenty to teach. The harder question is what you no longer need to teach. That requires a new relationship between teachers and students. A teacher might say, there’s too much to teach, so I’ll need to show you what is important and how to learn some of this on your own. And you’ll need to show me new things I don’t know.
– What would be your message for a journalism student?
This is the best time in the history of news to be a journalism student. You can help reinvent journalism. If you are comfortable with uncertainty, if you are an explorer, if you are brave, this is your time.
– What is the idea of the Teaching Hospital Model?
Medical students learn how to be doctors by working with real patients in “teaching hospitals.” Law students learn how to be lawyers by doing legal work in law clinics. Music students play music; art students do art; agricultural students grow crops. There is a long tradition of helping students rapidly learn complex subjects in immersive environments. The “teaching hospital” model of journalism is part of that genre. Journalism students learn to be journalists by doing journalism.
The “teaching hospital” in journalism is a model of learning-by-doing that includes college students, professors and professionals working together under one ‘digital roof’ for the benefit of a community. Student journalists provide news and engage the community in innovative ways. Top professionals support and guide them. As in an actual teaching hospital, some work is standard and other work is experimental. Good scholars and researchers help design and study the experiments.
If it’s old school, it’s not a teaching hospital. If it doesn’t include research, it’s not a teaching hospital. If it doesn’t engage the community, it’s not a teaching hospital. If professors and professionals don’t set aside their long-standing arguments and work together, it’s not a teaching hospital.
Teaching hospitals help invent and test new things. To emphasize this, a group of funders in the United States created a contest with the Online News Association to support what we called “live news experiments.”
– What is your goal as Innovation Chief for the Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism? What is the school´s approach?
In the beginning, I’ll learn how the school and university generate and incorporate new ideas. Then I’ll help provide a changing stream of ideas, projects and proposals and we’ll see what happens, make adjustments, and keep going. My goal is to support the Cronkite School, which wants to create the first fully developed “teaching hospital” for journalism education. Cronkite News already is an important news provider in a major market, but more than that, it wants to test a host of new journalism techniques and technologies. Although the “teaching hospital” model is spreading, journalism schools really don’t put the pieces of the hospital together under one “digital roof.” They too often create labs that aren’t connected to the reporting clinics where most of their students learn. Some universities are starting to incorporate new forms of reporting, storytelling, product design, revenue models and community engagement into their immersive learning experiences. But no school has made change truly routine. No school has combined connections to the entire university, constant innovation, open collaborative approaches and real community engagement. ASU could be the first. The university has the right combination of dynamic people — President Michael Crow and Dean Chris Callahan, great professors and professionals, a fantastic group of students, millennials who are consuming news differently from their elders. ASU has what this is going to take.
– What is your opinion about the entrepreneurial model?
My oldest son, William, went to college to major in art and minor in business. We called him an “artrepreneur.” He did more than attend class. He got involved in design projects, started a DJ business, joined a tech startup, graduated, taught himself to code, won a hackathon, moved to San Francisco, got the proceeds from the first startup and joined a second startup. He could have been a graphic artist and gotten a job at a traditional firm. But he decided to learn to code and triple his starting salary. He decided to be entrepreneurial. What do I think of the model? I love it! But it’s a personal decision. It isn’t for everyone.
– Is this a time for hybrid profiles? “If you don´t like the jobs out there, create one”, you said.
I’ve had four careers mixed into one: journalism, museums, philanthropy and education. The best jobs cross boundaries. They give you a chance to stretch. They challenge you. If you can’t understand a job title, that’s a hint that the person may be doing something really interesting. In a world that’s constantly changing, having a flexible job is a great thing, maybe the best thing.