Perspectives and learnings from running media hackathons, especially in emerging and frontier markets
[Editor’s note: Originally developed in the IT sector, hackathons are an increasingly popular way to drive innovation and entrepreneurship – also in media. This article summarizes the first media hackathon in Kyrgyzstan, one of Central Asia’s most turbulent markets, held in April-May 2021, for 10 teams (selected for participation out of 30 applicants). It aims to provide perspective and share learnings to help future hackathon organizers.]
Hackathons first gained popularity among IT professionals as a fun, problem-solving exercise. Diverse teams would compete against each other, trying to build creative solutions (i.e., based on hacks), all while facing time and resource constraints. This emphasis on innovation and competition has since been adapted to other sectors, including the media.
In a way, it is hard to imagine a sector that is better suited to hackathons than media. It is easy to launch a publication (you can do it almost for free), but successfully scaling it, and making it sustainable, is devilishly tricky. The sector is constantly changing under pressure from consumer preferences and technology – as are the business models.
This was the thinking that led the European Partnership for Democracy (EPD), an international non-profit consortium of 14 organizations (covering a range of topics including media), to try out the hackathon model in an especially tough media market – Kyrgyzstan.
EPD had launched the EU-supported “Media Dialogue” programme in Kyrgyzstan 3 years earlier, investing a lot of time, effort and resources into supporting independent media initiatives, enhancing local media professionals’ capabilities and media reforms.
Many exciting new players emerged thanks to this support. In other cases, valuable, established organizations survived thanks to it. Nonetheless, sustainability and building non-donor revenues remained a challenge.
The hackathon helped make meaningful progress. Despite challenging external conditions (more about this in the next section), the results were positive, with local media teams developing lots of innovative and promising solutions.
“I was surprised how it worked out”, says EPD programme officer and event co-organizer Vittoria Zanelatti. “With this activity we were able to identify the potential players we wouldn’t be able to engage otherwise and give them the skills that will later make them the agents of democracy”.
Background and market context
The Kyrgyz media sector is heavily dominated by the government , both in terms of ownership and funding. A relatively small and poor market (6.5 million people, a GDP per capita of just over $1,300) makes it difficult to survive on advertising revenue. The most common reason for private media outlets to stop functioning is lack of funding.
Political instability is quite high, both due to internal factors and the region’s broader geopolitics (China, Russia and the US all have interests in the region; the dissolution of the Soviet Union exposed tensions with neighbours). Kyrgyzstan experienced a revolution in 2010. A decade later protests led to the resignation of the president.
This directly impacted the organization of the hackathon. Right before the project kicked-off an armed conflict on Kyrgyz border with Tajikistan has erupted. While violent and intense, it ultimately proved to be short-lived, this episode highlighted the importance of flexibility and making changes quickly.
Despite the challenges listed above, Kyrgyzstan has strong democratic and civic movements. This is evident in the number and energy of independent media. With additional support from donors, the market has seen the emergence of many interesting projects.
The problem is that many of these projects struggle to grow and become sustainable. As a result, they cannot balance state and oligarch-owned media outlets.
Running a hackathon – preparation and results
One of the main ideas behind a hackathon is distilling a lot of ideas (including mediocre ones), down to a few that have real potential. This iterative process helps ensure that you end up with something really special.
Basically, that means you need to build and optimize an “idea selection funnel” – with lots of people and ideas at the beginning, and a small number of “winners” at the end. Here are the main things to keep in mind.
Start with as wide a funnel as possible
It’s simple mathematics, but the more ideas you have coming in, the more opportunities to find good ones to refine and then present. That means creating relatively broad entry criteria. What you don’t want is losing out on a winner because of a technical issue – you can always eliminate candidates who don’t fit the profile during the initial selection process.
Next, make sure that you advertise using a range of channels. For our hackathon, we used the organizers’ social media, social media of friendly institutions, newsletters, “influencers” (people from the sector with personal brand or authority), word of mouth, and several others.
Pick the right people and format
Now lots of great people have applied, you need to understand how many you can properly work with. This depends on your budget, but also on such things as size of the location, number of trainers, mentors etc. You need to provide the foundations for effective work.
Picking the right number of participants goes both for the number of teams over and the number of participants per team. Specifically, can people come alone, or in a group of 6 or 7?
In our case we opted for groups of 2 to 4. Entrepreneurship is a team sport and requires different skillsets, so a single person would really struggle. You want to see teams that can divide responsibilities between e.g., overall strategy, commercial, technical/ product and content creation. In our view, more than 4 people would dilute responsibilities – also not a great option.
In terms of format, we opted for a combined online and offline format – due to a lot of COVID-related uncertainty. Typical IT hackathons last 2 or 3 days round the clock with a few pizza breaks. We knew we would have to go a bit easier while creating the right space (both offline and online), in which participants could work.
“The Hackathon format allowed me to fully immerse myself in the topic and try to work on all the aspects of the projects, including the long-term aspects,” said Kanat Nogoibaev, co-founder of the Debate Hub YouTube Channel and an active participant of the training and hackathon.
Provide support for participants
A lot of skills and knowledge go into a successful hackathon. The problem is that media mangers typically have a focused, even one-dimensional view of their role. That’s because in publishing people rarely shift between departments (e.g., sales managers become journalists, journalists become developers).
In order to broaden horizons, but also make sure everyone is comfortable with some of the business basics needed to make entrepreneurial ventures succeed, we decided to start with a 5 day-training program or bootcamp.
This program included lectures, workshops, and case studies in media entrepreneurship (incl. market analysis and market sizing), audience analysis and engagement across platforms, project management (incl. intro to finance and accounting), time and team management, media sustainability, business models in media and marketing strategy.
Once people were in the room, we decided to provide them with mentor/ trainer support. This meant regular meetings or check-ins with people to get a sense of progress made. Also, experts (present both in the room and remotely) on e.g., budgeting helped with designing more technical parts of the project.
Assessing the work of participants (setting up a jury)
To make the experience real and ensure healthy competitiveness we created a special hackathon jury board consisting partially of grant committee members as well as successful local entrepreneurs. All six jury members had no personal or professional relations to the participants and judged the final products by giving marks to each presenting team based on a few criteria.
It’s important to have a variety of voices on the jury to provide a more rounded assessment. Even though our focus was media, for example, we made sure to involve people from the local entrepreneurship scene who may have a better sense on e.g., the business viability of a project. People with market knowledge are also critical.
“There are projects [at the hackathon] that you can go and implement right now. It won’t be easy in this market, but they are truly interesting,” noted Dina Maslova, chief editor of the most successful independent media company in Kyrgyzstan and a hackathon jury member.
Pitching session and project results
Expect the projects to change significantly from the time of application to the moment they’re presented. In fact, if they don’t change, that’s a red flag. In our case, the winning projects weren’t what the majority was expecting – but all three winners really embraced the hackathon spirit, showing innovative ideas, solid business plans and high-quality pitches.
“It was such a relief for me,” says Cholpon Nogoibaeva, EPD Country director in Kyrgyzstan. She said that when she read the programme applications, she thought that everything was even worse than she expected. “All the projects were just what donors wanted to hear and none had a chance to survive. I knew we’d have to shift their mindsets and I knew this is the most difficult thing to do,” Nogoibaeva said.
However, the biggest achievement was actually getting 10 out of 10 developed projects at the end – no drop-offs or dead ends. Sure, some of the projects did turn out stronger than the others, but with some additional effort, all 10 could potentially sustain themselves or even make a profit in the future.
Infobox – Winning hackathon projects
Tentek – is an independent Kyrgyz animation studio. Their project aimed to create a series of animated videos about the struggles of Central Asian (and other developing countries) on their way to democracy. The project would monetized through Patreon and video distribution platforms, including YouTube, targeting a global audience.
TV Academy – is an independent local production company. Their project aimed to create a new service organizing mobile press-conferences and media events across the country for businesses, content creators, entrepreneurs and other market players offering a full cycle service including event moderation, catering and post production.
Temirov Live – is an independent investigative journalism agency founded by a renowned investigative reporter Bolot Temirov. The team aims to create an aggregated database of all the state open data in a user friendly format. The database will be monetized through subscription for businesses, media companies and individuals enabling a more effective due diligence, investigative reporting or security checks.
What we learned
No matter how much effort and thought you put in, no project is perfect. There are always ways to make it better. Here are a few of the learnings we picked up along the way.
Make sure participants have enough runway
We made a conscious decision to limit the hackathon working time to just about 36 hours. Thanks to the prior “bootcamp”, participants were already warmed up and had semi-developed concepts.
But the intense working process during which participants find, test and reject ideas is critical to building an effective funnel. Adding more runway gives more opportunities to test and learn. Hence, if possible I would have allowed 72 hours of continuous work (with breaks to sleep and eat, that is).
This is not easy when dealing with busy senior media managers. You have to eliminate personal and professional distractions. But every additional hour pays off.
Get people out of their native environment
Speaking of distractions – running a hackathon close to the office keeps people both geographically, but especially mentally, at work. Conversely, the right space helps people engage, improves group dynamics and effective collaboration.
This is about more than just location. Yes, you have to ensure enough space and comfort for productive work, places for quick naps (if you are doing an overnighter), good coffee on site… But even more than that – take the group out of their native environment.
Kyrgyzstan’s media community is centered on the capital Bishkek. An optimal solution would thus be to take people outside the city. This might seem like a small thing, but it is not. Spending a few intense days far from home brings people closer together. It builds team spirit and creates a foundation for future professional collaborations.
In our case, only one team travelled from another part of the country. But they also got the most out of everything on the agenda – iterating their project over a dozen times, finding future partners in the group and getting additional support from trainers.
Find ways to celebrate and incentivize competition
Competition is part of the hackathon DNA. People compete to get in, to get on-stage to present their ideas, and to make sure potential investors pick their solution. There are often prizes to further fuel the competitive juices.
But the media sector doesn’t have the same investor ecosystem as IT (especially in places like Kyrgyzstan). There are few sponsors or donors who can play a similar role to IT investors.
Even if they have the money, many international institutions have administrative restrictions. They provide funds based on detailed applications – innovative ideas alone are not enough. This means they can’t write a check at the pitching session or even provide an award.
That means you need to get creative and find other ways to motivate people. through , while a quick win after a few sleepless days of non-stop work is another huge motivator for the hackathoners.
But a longer investment process doesn’t have to mean no investment at all. With enough time allocated to finding a right solution to the problem we could find a way to work around donor restrictions.
Secure jury commitments (and time!)
Even though media lack money, the real scarce asset is actually time. Just try to book a coffee meeting with an average media manager, editor or a journalist anywhere in the world – a relaxed lunch with an investment banker might turn out to be easier.
Time as our main constraint when planning the work of the hackathon jury. Many potential jury members – even those who showed a lot of interest –ended up turning down invitations just because devoting 2 hours to a single thing was too much.
In a desperate attempt to cut 10 minutes here and there we opted for a quasi-automatic grading system. Jury members would allocate marks to presenters on the go – which we compiled into a final ranking just 15minutes after the end of the pitching session.
While this solved the problem of getting people a quick response on how they did, it would be better to spend more time on discussions, in-depth feedback to a group or individual participants. Looking forward, it might even make sense to remove the busiest people but give more opportunity for in-depth discussions between jury and participants.
Insights and projections
So, why go through all the trouble of adopting a solution from outside the industry and implementing it in a difficult market? Could not the same be achieved by holding a bunch of training sessions with renowned experts?
It is the integrity of the effort that matters. It is increasingly obvious the old methods are just not delivering the needed results. For decades now media developers from all over the world have been training journalists and editors to work by standards and use new storytelling techniques – only see them come back to their newsrooms and fall back into their routines.
Hackathons can be a way to move faster while still building on natural, internal entrepreneurial spirits. Provide people with needed instruments and knowledge, make they are properly used and applied to real life projects.
The process also helps ensure the quality of an investment into a media – you no longer have to depend on paperwork to assess the viability of a project. The process of the hackathon itself helps make projects stronger simply through having time and space to work on their development (and not just fill in a last-minute the grant application).
We’ll still have to see where the hackathon projects go, but even if we are at 40 to 50% successfully implemented initiatives we’d still recommend the format as a go-to instrument for a successful market entry, exit or mid-term reality check.
EPD top-managers Vittoria Zanellati and Cholpon Nogoibaeva as well as the project’s local expert and co-organizer of the event Ulugbek Akishev contributed to the story with their ideas and insights.
This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.