What’s the big idea?

A panel of speakers spanning the new media and technology worlds came together to share ideas about innovation in Australian journalism at last night’s talk at the State Library of NSW. Carmen Juarez, Walkley Foundation intern, reports on “Innovation in journalism: What’s the big idea?”.

As technology develops we’re discovering new tools and techniques to create and share journalism – but the traditional models that have funded journalism are struggling to keep up. What do we mean when we talk about innovation in journalism? Why does the media need to be more creative with its approach to new platforms and models? Panelists Johnny Luu, Google Australia; Mary Hamilton, The Guardian; Phil Sandberg, Content + Technology Magazine and Steph Harmon, Junkee joined panel moderator and MEAA federal secretary Chris Warren to look to the future and discuss all things innovation.

The discussion kicked-off with thoughts about data journalism. Audience development editor for Guardian Australia, Mary Hamilton, explained the importance of taking complex data and making it easily accessible and useful. She noted that journalists are able to take out the “interesting bits” from large reports, for example, and present them in a way that is informative yet attention-grabbing. Managing editor of Junkee, Steph Harmon, added that journalists play an important role in representing data, arguing that journalists are needed to translate that data into compelling stories.

Communications and public affairs manager for Google Australia and New Zealand, Johhny Luu, answered the question “why does Google care about journalism?” with the simple answer – people search for news! He went on to explain the relationship between the online behemoth and news websites, telling the audience that over a billion clicks per month go through Google’s search engine to news sites.

Harmon responded to questions about Junkee’s success by putting it partly down to the gap in the market for young people. She explained that there simply wasn’t another source for entertaining and engaging news and entertainment content for young Australians. Harmon said the majority of readers came to Junkee for political rather than entertainment pieces. She noted that social media is currently the number one driver of traffic to sites, as the panel discussed the new reality that people simply aren’t visiting a news websites’ homepages anymore – they are reading stories shared on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites instead.

As Luu had noted earlier, another way readers are reaching their news is through online searches. He explained that as a result, news websites are now optimising their headlines to match what people search – incorporating what readers are likely to use as search keywords to ensure an audience for their stories. Content + Technology Magazine’s Phil Sandberg highlighted the growing use of services and applications that allow audiences to curate their own content (such as Flipboard), cutting out homepages, social media and Google. He explained that Content + Technology reach their readership primarily through email and LinkedIn rather than through Facebook or Twitter, the latter of which he referred to as “quite ephemeral”. “Facebook is pretty useless to us, but LinkedIn is quite important,” he said.

Chris Warren, Johnny Luu, Mary Hamilton, Phil Sandberg and Steph Harmon at the “Innovation in journalism: What's the big idea?” Walkley Media Talk at the State Library of NSW

Chris Warren, Johnny Luu, Mary Hamilton, Phil Sandberg and Steph Harmon at the “Innovation in journalism: What’s the big idea?” Walkley Media Talk at the State Library of NSW

The discussion then turned to online identity. Luu spoke about the shift from online anonymity to “being yourself” online. Whereas people were once warned against using their true identities on the web, Luu believes that following Facebook’s success, people became increasingly comfortable with putting their names and pictures out there for the world to see – using their real names for Twitter handles, personal details for LinkedIn accounts and more.

Hamilton was asked whether The Guardian allowed anonymous comments on their site, to which she responded that The Guardian sees value in allowing people to comment on articles using names that aren’t their own. She argued that the use of pseudonyms allowed readers in countries with oppressive governments to become a part of the conversation and express their views without fear of persecution.

On the topic of journalists using social media, Sandberg believes that journalists “are there to serve the masthead”, adding that journalists’ personal Twitter accounts can detract from their organisation’s work. Hamilton disagreed, saying Twitter isn’t just about promoting a masthead. She said Twitter ought to be used to get stories, not just push them out.

Asked whether journalists today needed Twitter accounts to promote their work, Harmon responded that good journalists might not need that extra platform to promote themselves, as they could gain a following through other channels. This prompted Luu to share a story about a colleague who had created a community around their work through a LinkedIn group, where readers and leaders in a specific field could discuss particular topics and help to generate story ideas. Hamilton said that Facebook was an often overlooked yet very useful tool for community engagement and story ideas, especially for young journalists.

Conversation then turned toward the future – what sorts of innovation are needed in the industry looking forward? Harmon said organisational innovation was very important, including innovation in the way organisations deal with digital content. The panel discussed the challenges of shifting entrenched organisational culture.

Luu hailed computer science as the media language of the future, suggesting that in the near future journalists with computer science qualifications will be prevalent. He also said the internet has “democratised journalism”, giving an example of those wanting to release video content going straight to YouTube and garnering huge followings rather than pitching their content to a television news station.

The panel agreed with Hamilton’s view that journalism won’t look the way it does now in 10 years, and is likely to be completely different again in another 10. This led to thoughts on, as Hamilton described it, the “broccoli and chocolate” model – producing click-bait worthy stories to fund harder news pieces, such as sites like Gawker do. The panel agreed that frequent experimentation with different models in order to find what works best for audiences was key to staying relevant in the new media landscape.

The event was part of the Walkley Media Talks series.

Carmen Juarez is currently interning at the Walkley Foundation, after completing her Journalism (Honours) thesis at QUT. Twitter: @CarmenJuarez

Photographs by Carmen Juarez.