Making room for innovation: CJF J-Talk on disruption in journalism

When it comes to innovation, what’s next for news organizations in terms of content, strategy and advertising? As Eric Mark Do reports, Michael De Monte (ScribbleLive), Zach Seward (Quartz) and David Skok (Nieman Fellow, GlobalNews.ca) delve into this during a panel discussion with moderator Marissa Nelson (CBC).   Panellists at the recent CJF J-Talk on media…

When it comes to innovation, what’s next for news organizations in terms of content, strategy and advertising? As Eric Mark Do reports, Michael De Monte (ScribbleLive), Zach Seward (Quartz) and David Skok (Nieman Fellow, GlobalNews.ca) delve into this during a panel discussion with moderator Marissa Nelson (CBC).


Panellists at the recent CJF J-Talk on media innovation. From left to right: David Skok, Zach Seward, Michael De Monte, Marissa Nelson (Photo: Belinda Alzner)


Even as journalism changes, there are some things that will stand the test of time.

ScribbleLive CEO Michael De Monte was describing the ever-present importance of good storytelling regardless of the medium as he lamented the fact so many people still make a distinction between “traditional” and “digital” journalism when Marissa Nelson, CBC acting director of digital news, cut him off.

“Okay, but if you were talking to a 25-year-old fantastic storyteller who is working at a newspaper … what would you say to them about changing the culture?” she asked.

“Quit your job. Honestly,” De Monte immediately responded. “They’re not going to move fast enough for you.” These 25-year-olds who have “innovation on the brain,” as De Monte puts it, should “take that passion that you have and apply it someplace where it will work.”

It’s a drastic suggestion, and only one of many brought up at The Canadian Journalism Foundation J-Talk on media innovation held last Thursday in Toronto. Nelson moderated a group of panellists that included De Monte, Global News director of digital David Skok and Quartz senior editor Zach Seward

Disruptive innovation

Skok, along with Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen, published a report last fall for the Nieman Foundation looking into the effects of disruptive innovation in the journalism industry. “Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation provides a framework to understand how businesses grow, become successful, and falter as nimble start-ups muscle in on their customers.”

In the journalism industry, smartphones are “at present the most innovative thing that we've seen change the way we do things,” said Skok. Events of the 2009 Hudson plane crash were first broadcast by citizens through Twitter and that was the “encapsulating moment that showed that this was a different time in that the audience had as much input into what news gathering we did as traditional journalists.”

De Monte acknowledged this as well, as part of his musings on why we should not be making distinctions between traditional and digital journalism. “We're all carrying around devices in our hands that you can basically get information from anywhere around the world instantly,” he said.

For Seward, the ease of publishing on the web is a disruptive innovation. You no longer need to turn on the printing press, you just need to click a button to get something published and that fundamentally changes who the competition is, he said. “And I think we're about to see a whole flood of newer, better tools that even further reduces the friction between having a thought and publishing that on the web.”

In terms of organizations, the rise of news aggregators such as BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post and their ability to attract audiences away from established news outlets may be able to be explained by this disruptive innovation theory. Skok and Christensen’s research found that “the mechanism that causes successful companies to fail is not that they're actually bad at anything, but rather that somebody comes in at the bottom of the market and moves up,” Skok said on Thursday. (For more about Skok and Christensen’s research, check out this interview associate editor Belinda Alzner did with Skok in the fall.)  

Freedom to innovate

For companies that want to create innovation, Skok bluntly said “you simply cannot fundamentally change an organization internally within its existing culture.”

He defined the culture of a news organization as its resources, processes and priorities (driven by profit margins). So the way to address that is to keep the innovation separate from the culture, like what The New York Times did with its data interactive group. “They stuck a whole bunch of developers and they stuck a whole bunch of journalists together and they said, 'Okay go play. And you guys are not beholden to the margins and the priorities that we're setting for the rest of the business. Go play in the space and innovate.'”

Other ways to keep the innovation separate is to acquire an existing organization, or to create a spin-off organization the way Atlantic Media did with Quartz.

It took five or six months from the concept stage of a “global business news website,” to the launch of Quartz. “There's no question that it's easier to (innovate) when you're starting with a blank slate,” said Seward. “I think the opportunity for innovation was greatest at that moment (in the concept stage).”

De Monte had been the director of digital operations at CTV before co-founding ScribbleLive and said he would not have been able to build what he wanted to within the framework of a newsroom. Even if it were possible, he said there was no way he'd be able to maintain it and continue to innovate. “That's the main reason I left the newsroom.”


Skok didn’t count these newsrooms out though, instead saying that they still provide the best platform to create quality journalism in a disruptive way by virtue of the resources at their disposal.

Advertorials (Sponsored Content) as innovation

As journalism moves onto platforms that were not in existence a mere decade ago, what about innovation in advertising?

Sponsored content has been around for a while, “but pulling it off online is a little different,” said Seward.

The Atlantic came under scrutiny in January for publishing sponsored content commissioned by the Church of Scientology. Comments on the piece were moderated and were initially mostly positive — indicating that even the comments were sponsored. In response to public outcry, the news organization withdrew the ad and revised its advertising guidelines to ensure, among other things, that sponsored content is clearly identified as such.

But Skok defended the Atlantic advertorial, and called the criticism unwarranted. He compared advertorials on news sites to to SuperBowl ads: “The commercials are part of the experience of watching the game.” Skok added that half of the content in fashion magazines is ads, and people purposely buy the magazine for those ads. “You want that sweet spot of being able to get it as close to being enjoyable, readable content like the magazine is.”

Big brands know all about seamlessly integrating their products into content. De Monte pointed to the Red Bull Stratos jump as a great example of content marketing. “Can you imagine if Red Bull simply did a press release of a guy jumping out from space?” he asked.

That story got picked up by every major news organization around the world “because they're innovating on what people actually want to read about and what people are interested in. So they take a fantastic idea like that and they push it through the system as content marketing and everybody swallows it up.”

Funding innovation

Ultimately, though, who pays for innovation? Wilf Dinnick, who noted his startup OpenFile is "on pause," asked the panel where the resources for innovation will come from.

Last year, the federal government announced that it would commit $400 million for venture capital startups, and Skok wondered if journalists would get into that fund. He said Canada needs an incubator like betaworks, which is “a company that builds companies.” Companies that have come out of betaworks include Chartbeat, news.me, Digg and bitly. 

“Where is our betaworks? Where is the journalism academic community and the private sector community of journalists all teaming together to try and make that happen? I think we need it.”

Final advice for newsrooms

Skok: “Create separate structures around interdisciplinary teams that can then be empowered to experiment.”

Seward: “Intermingling, which was kind of by necessity, has really, really helped enormously.”

De Monte: “You need to adopt that innovative, real-time start-up kind of flavour within the organization and that, I hope, would allow you to experiment.”