Media companies that leave newsrooms of the strategy and business decisions around innovation are making a huge mistake.
“We talk endlessly in this industry about innovation,” said Aron Pilhofer, professor of journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, said during the recent Newsroom Innovation Master Class.
“It’s all over the place … and we usually think about innovation in terms of things as technologies. I feel pretty strongly that we’re thinking about this kind of the wrong way. We are thinking about innovation as a thing and not a process. And to my mind, that is the starting point for a discussion about how we think about innovation and how newsrooms can participate.”
Pilhofer wants media companies to think about innovation as a change or improvement in a process or product. He sees innovation as something that is incremental, takes time, and helps move towards a goal but is not a goal itself.
“Innovation is often pretty boring in my experience. It can be an improvement in a process, something that maybe people don’t even necessarily see,” Pilhofer said. “Innovation is measurable and this is where as an industry, I think we absolutely fall down. If you can’t measure it, how do you know it’s innovative?”
During the master class, sponsored by FT Strategies, Pilhofer and other media leaders shared examples of innovations that are supporting their companies’ efforts to reach new audiences and better engage existing readers and subscribers.
Pamplonews distributes its newsletter via WhatApp
It’s tempting to associate the word “innovation” with cutting-edge technology, but sometimes the best innovations are far less glamorous—and much more useful. Juan Andrés Muñoz, founder of a fledgling news bulletin called Pamplonews, discussed the project’s origins and unexpectedly fast growth.
It was during a visit to his hometown of Pamplona that inspiration struck. Muñoz said he was “frustrated by the lack of a centralised product where I could find information about stuff I would like to do in the city.” In June of 2023, he and a co-founder launched the WhatsApp-based news bulletin Pamplonews to fill that gap in the market. It’s a daily bullet-style newsletter that currently goes out to subscribers Monday through Friday.
While using WhatsApp to distribute a newsletter is already an innovation, another thing that makes Pamplonews very different, he said, is a focus on what unites us, particularly in an environment of increasing polarisation around the world. This is part of the overall commitment to the community.
“Building community, for us, is key,” Muñoz said. “Pamplonews isn’t just a news endeavour, it’s also a community-building product. We’re not only trying to create good journalism, we’re also trying to develop the community.”
KStA “hires” an AI author
Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien (KStA) began its AI journey in 2017, although at the time it was primarily laying the foundation for an AI-equipped future. Robert Zilz, KStA’s head of data, said of all its experiments and advancements with AI, perhaps the most significant is its creation of a fully AI-generated author named Klara Indernach (KI).
Although Klara is not a real person, her high-performing articles generate about 7.2% of all article hits site-wide. One of the keys to introducing Klara to the public was to be transparent, Zilz said.
“There was instant reaction in the market from the competitive side when it comes to publishing, and there was very high criticism about making use of AI when it comes to an author,” he said.
On the other hand, the amount of disruption it caused gave KStA a tremendous amount of publicity and curiosity, Zilz said: “It really showed us that there is the need and the curiosity out there to learn more about using Artificial Intelligence in a very deep, impacting way in the editorial workflow.”
Newsday expands into TV
To meet audiences where they’re at, Newsday in Long Island, New York, knew it needed to present news on a platform that went beyond print and traditional digital. So created its own television station called Newsday TV and integrated that with its digital, social, and print offerings.
Don Hudson, editor and chief content officer, said the company had a vision of what it wanted to accomplish: “[We wanted to] build off all this exclusive content that we produce on a daily basis, and especially on weekends, the big hits.”
Adding a video component to digital stories could encourage people to go read the story, or it might only engage audiences who wanted a quick hit and weren’t interested in learning more. Either way, it offered a new way for Newsday to interact with users.
To create measurables that ensured it would reach its goal, Newsday developed a five-year financial plan. Then it began experimenting — a lot. That included breaking down newsroom walls and adding social media and metrics staff.
“They became mainstays in all of my staff meetings with my reporters and editors, where we could measure the metrics, we can make sure that we’re doing the proper things in terms of social media,” he explained.
Later, as the company created Newsday TV, it was able to make this integrated staff part of that experience. Ensuring the company shared its vision of what it wanted to accomplish was key to success, Hudson added: “Make sure that everyone’s on the same page. Everyone must be aligned.”
Sifted reaches an underserved market
Recognising a need to tell stories that cover a more niche, underserved market, John Thornhill founded Sifted, a media company that writes about startup tech companies in Europe. Thornhill saw that big media corporations like the Financial Times, where he works, focused mostly on Silicon Valley startups or China, but no one was talking about how in Europe, all of these cities were creating tech companies that were worth a billion dollars.
So, Thornhill pitched to FT the idea of creating something under the FT umbrella that serves this market. After attending an 11 week course at Stanford for entrepreneurs hoping to turn their business ideas into reality, he was ready to talk to The FT about it more seriously.
“We set up a separate company,” Thornhill said. “I teamed up with a friend of mine called Casper Woolley who had been a serial entrepreneur. We formed a company called Sifted. We then negotiated with the FT that we would have a licence agreement. We had the right to use the FT brand. And in return, we gave equity to the FT. We raised money externally to get us going.”
Sifted now has 15 journalists in London, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Warsaw.
“We are writing classic journalism,” Thornhill said. “We like to think that we have the same authority as the FT, but we are written in a more conversational style, which I think the younger generation is more familiar with. And we have three revenue streams in the classic media way. We have commercial, which is both sponsorship of newsletters and of the site itself, we have subscriptions and events as well.”