News innovation isn't just about writing code, it is about how we use that code to tell stories

 by Martin Belam, 31 March 2011

Nick Petrie on the Wannabe Hacks blog recently asked why news organisations were only getting to grips with the concept of online community now in 2011. In the course of his post, he said:

“What I wonder is - why didn't a newspaper invent Facebook or Twitter?”

He’s not the first to wonder that.

A bit of research quick lazyweb analysis shows that out there on the web you can find newspapers being accused of failing to invent all manner of digital services, including Google, Facebook, Quora, Craigslist and The Huffington Post.

Personally, I’m unconvinced that this isn’t akin to asking why the Great Western Railway didn’t invent the automobile.

That seems obvious. The railway had a successful business to keep running. Of course the car was a medium-term threat to the business model of rail transport, but a rail company wasn’t geared up to build roads or mass manufacture personal transport.

You could equally point out that newspapers didn’t invent the telephone, or photography, or colour printing, yet they have become vital parts of newspaper operations. And also, incidentally, all ways that people have used to communicate directly, allowing them to circumvent the distribution networks of the traditional press.

It also seems obvious why newspapers didn’t invent photography. Very few of them, if any, have ever employed scientists and given them research labs to mess around with chemicals. That would be complex.

The complexity of computer technology is often hidden though.

If the Social Network movie teaches us that Zuckerberg was able to make Facemash in one night using a computer whilst drinking beers, then it follows that surely one disgruntled hack, a breed no stranger to beer, ought to have been able to throw together “Is the work experience girl hot or not?” during one slow news night shift in a news room full of computers.

Put like that, it sounds ludicrous, but there does seem to be an element in the argument that newspapers are failing to invent new digital phenomena that runs along the lines of “Innovative digital start-ups use computers. Newspapers have computers. Ergo...”

Very few news organisations have huge technology development teams though, and in those that do, they are usually hard-pressed delivering continuous feature enhancements and the dull but necessary scalability and stability of content management systems and web-serving architectures, not play about on the fringes of what might, or might not, be new revenue streams.

What news organisations did do with tools like photography though, was incorporate it into their product at a time when it became economical to do so - the same with colour printing. They’ve also used these tools to distribute content and generate revenue. It wasn’t The Sun that invented the concept of premium rate recorded phone messages, but it spotted the opportunity for extending their problem page advice into that medium, providing a service for readers and making money.

This is where I think the majority of news organisations have been doing themselves and their readers a disservice, and where Nick’s blog post is spot on.

As an industry we have been slow to capitalise on the potential of these new digital tools. We’ve fought with Google in the courts over what constitutes fair use rather than viewing search request data as a goldmine of direct content requests from the audience. We are in awe of Facebook’s aggregate reach, whilst ignoring the fact that it is actually made of overlapping small niches of interest, many of which we’d serve well if only we tried to tap into them effectively. We still see some commentators deriding Twitter for being full of trivia, even as events like the tsunami in Japan demonstrate how it can be used to bring powerful personal eyewitness testimony directly to our audiences.

Technical innovation in software is not about writing code from scratch. There is a huge body of prior art available that developers use to get their ideas to function.

And journalism has a huge body of prior art in story-telling techniques, in synthesising complex problems into something our audience can grasp quickly over breakfast, and in engaging our audiences and making them passionate about issues that affect their day-to-day lives. The innovative news organisations today are the ones constantly experimenting with new digital tools as new ways to source stories, address their audience, and engage with the public.

News innovation isn't just about writing code, it is about how we use that code to tell stories.


I hear what you're saying but I've mostly wondered why haven't newspapers been very good at using the obvious online tools they have available?

Why are their content management systems still tending towards the clunky and unfriendly?

Why is their site navigation often difficult to navigate?

When they have comments, why do they become hate filled pits like old school tech blogs?

I know this is gradually changing and, since I mostly don't check out newspaper websites per se, though I do read individual articles when they get linked to elsewhere, I'm willing to assume they've been getting better here and there if not across the board.

But then I heard the NY Times spent $40 million + on their paywall and I just wonder why they can't use the tools they have available in an effective manner.

You know, the Times could have put that money into a disruptive startup with full ownership and made bank off of people who do know what's up. What's up with that?

Interesting questions. I think all those innovation have one thing in common, they were built as a tool to solve the creator's problem - and that is a strong enough driving force, much stronger then financial objectives.

My understanding is that Twitter was created to do faster more frequent blogging, Facebook to see what is happening in your friends lives. In both example venture capital then plays a big part after the initial idea and minimum viable product is created.

For newspaper to do anything innovative, they would need to have a driving force to solve some kind of problem in their industry. For example, a major newspaper could have invented iPad instead of Apple. And Amazon for example, being a bookstore at its core, created Kindle to solve a specific problem.

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