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“Shiny Things”: Is over-innovation hurting journalism?

A recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford has raised concern that journalism has become too preoccupied with technology-led innovation. And that this relentless focus on innovation is at the expense of content and business development.

The study titled, “Time to step away from the ‘bright, shiny things’? Towards a sustainable model of journalism innovation in an era of perpetual change” by Julia Posetti, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, is based on a year-long project involving roundtable discussions with 39 journalism innovators from 17 countries. The group represents 27 news publishers, a mix of legacy and digital-born media.

“We risk forgetting who we are”

The participants in the study agree about the need for innovation in the news industry. But they fear that the relentless pursuit of technology-driven innovation could be almost as dangerous as stagnation.

Kim Bui, a US digital-born journalism veteran calls this preoccupation, “Shiny Things Syndrome”. She says, “it takes away from storytelling, and we risk forgetting who we are.”

Examples of the “Shiny Things Syndrome” cited by the participants include fixation with artificial intelligence (AI), automated reporting (AR), virtual reality (VR), and over-reliance on social platforms for distribution.

The last one is also an area of special concern as much innovation has been too focused on tackling the distribution challenge. It makes publishers dependent on platforms as evident in the upheaval created during algorithm tweaks.

I just want to make sure that in all of the talking about platforms and change and the thousand things that we need to do, that we don’t lose sight of the journalism at the core of it.

Joanne Lipman, Former USA Today Editor-in-Chief

“Huge chunks of the world don’t have any credible news”

The study goes on to say that in the absence of purposeful strategy and reflective practice, ad-hoc, frantic, and often short-term experimentation is unlikely to lead to sustainable innovation or real progress.

Rather it would distract news organizations from core journalistic functions, lead to burnout and fatigue, and cause stagnation or innovation paralysis.

In some cases, we’re all fighting for the same audience and yet there are huge chunks of the world that don’t have any credible news. We need to be working on that as much as thinking about how to make the Times or the Post or the Guardian better.

Reg Chua, Chief Operating Officer, Reuters News, UK

“Let’s pool our ideas”

The study suggests news publishers make a conscious shift from being technology-driven in their innovation efforts, to becoming proactively audience-focused, business-aware and technology-empowered.

The participants agree that journalism innovation can happen in many different ways at the same time, combining new forms of storytelling, business models, and distribution strategies.

They place a strong emphasis on collective action, openness, and cross-boundary knowledge sharing. According to Francesca Donner, Director, Gender Initiative, The New York Times, “There is so much to learn because we’re all experiencing the same stuff. So, let’s pool our ideas and see what we can come up with.”

Not a call to stop innovating

The report’s author, Julie Posetti, emphasizes that her findings do not amount to a call to stop innovating. She acknowledges that “random acts of innovation, organic experimentation” and the willingness to embrace new technology are valuable characteristics of an innovation culture.

Nevertheless, there is also an increasingly urgent requirement for clear, longer-term strategies within news organizations that cultivate sustainable innovation frameworks focused on the needs of their “end users”.

Click here to download the full report: Time to step away from the ‘bright, shiny things’? Towards a sustainable model of journalism innovation in an era of perpetual change

Download WNIP’s new Media Moments 2018 report, which dives deeper into this year’s developments in publishing, and looks at what opportunities 2019 could usher in. The report is free and can be downloaded here.