“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
– Toni Morrison
As part of research for Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation exploring how philanthropy can support diverse, inclusive newsrooms, I visited local newsrooms, interviewed experts and community groups, sat with journalists and listened.
Leaders agree on the importance of innovation yet few can consistently agree on what it actually means or how it looks in a newsroom context. The journalism field is often seen reacting to disruption and an ever-changing digital media landscape rather than driving and defining change for itself. This reactive dynamic directly impacts diversity in newsroom innovation.
In absence of industry-shaping what innovation means for itself, news media startups tend to walk the similar, unfocused path set by Silicon Valley and often build products with an eye toward securing venture funding first and foremost rather than serving and informing the public. Furthermore, the same diversity challenges in journalism are heightened and exacerbated within the venture-backed technology industry.
The effectiveness of this approach is short-sighted and does not lend itself to sustainability. While the need for innovative, diverse journalism remains more pressing than ever, the venture funding environment has remained tough. Last year, venture funding to media startups hit a four-year low.
“The decline in venture funding comes amid a moment of reckoning across the digital media landscape. Web publishers like Mashable Inc. and International Business Times have fired dozens of employees this year. Smaller players are seeking new business models as they struggle to sustain themselves on digital advertising, which is being increasingly dominated by Google and Facebook Inc. Many of them are shifting their business to focus on web video, where advertising rates are higher.”
In the vacuum of redefining innovation in a journalism context, media startups are beholden to the Silicon Valley’s standards for innovation: growth, scale, and speed. While those conditions may work in some newsrooms, those metrics of success do not translate for local and hyperlocal newsrooms. In this context, these newsrooms are experiencing growth but work and function at a different pace and scale. Venture funding is one method, but there is a myriad of other paths to carve for media funders seeking to support innovative, diverse journalism that strengthens communities and serve the public.
There is an opportunity for journalism funders to study, support and build upon innovations in other fields and incorporate those products and tools into newsrooms. An example of this can be seen with CrowdTangle, a publisher tool embraced by newsrooms large and small backed by several venture funds as well as Knight Foundation’s Enterprise Fund. The tool was first developed to support activist organizing efforts during Occupy Wall Street. The social dashboard tool was later acquired by Facebook continuing the complicated tightrope walk between Facebook and publishers.
Generally speaking, the journalism field has defaulted to the Silicon Valley definition for innovation, a standard that holds even in face of failure. A recent example of this can be seen with Circa, a venture-backed news app once heralded as the future of civic media.
In 2015, the company shuttered:
“It’s with great disappointment that we let you know that Circa News has been put on indefinite hiatus. Producing high-quality news can be a costly endeavor and without the capital necessary to support further production we are unable to continue.”
Former team members humble-bragged:
There is a mission misalignment when newsroom innovations are sourced from companies which exist first and foremost to deliver a return for its investors and not to serve or inform the public or strengthen communities. After Circa shut down operations in 2015, it later sold remaining assets to pro-Trump media conglomerate Sinclair Broadcasting Group.
Larger well-resourced newsrooms have approached this innovation challenge by building out internal research & development units. These R&D labs are often expensive to run, focused on branded content and are quickly shuttered. The research and development unit within the New York Times, NYTLabs, closed last year and will relaunch as Times Story[X], a division that will work closely with TBrandStudio, the internal brand marketing unit within the New York Times. Buzzfeed’s research and development unit, Open Lab, was its in-house open source innovation lab and ran for two years. It hosted Open Lab fellows, cohorts of technologists, developers, and journalists and regularly hosted hacker/maker gatherings. Buzzfeed announced it was closing its Open Lab, citing in a company memo, “As we near the end of our original two-year commitment, we’ve learned that there are better ways to integrate new technologies into BuzzFeed’s mission.” The Washington Post research and development unit, WaPo Labs, was not apart of the newspaper’s sale to Jeff Bezos, it was spun into a company called Trove before ultimately shutting down in 2015.
This grand opening/grand closing clip of internal research and development labs exacerbate the problem of approaching innovation from operating within a silo, instead of collaboratively with communities or by integrating product and solutions-building in close partnership with those who hold in-depth knowledge of internal newsroom challenges.
Innovation Matters: Invest in Collaborative & Sustainable Practices for R&D
A shared challenge among many journalists interviewed for this project included unpacking both institutional and resource constraints to approaching innovation in newsrooms. These challenges include building and adapting new systems to doing business, iterating on hiring procedures or remaking job descriptions to be more inclusive, and also shared challenges around developing and integrating technology tools for covering diverse, shifting communities in new and thoughtful ways.
Several journalists interviewed lead side projects and affinity groups of like-minded peers also interested in building solutions. Many had participated in events such as Hacking Journalism, This American Life’s Audio Hackathon or open data unconferences. These convenings proved valuable in building trusted relationships and communities that engined momentum for projects. Universally, journalists interviewed for this project expressed energetic hope for what was possible for the field. Unfortunately, they also expressed resignation at the lack of mechanisms for continuous support to integrate systems and tools developed after-hours back into their newsrooms.
In this context, the practice of innovation and solutions-building becomes siloed to nights and weekends, which is both unsustainable and an approach that neglects the most likely source for the future of journalism: journalists themselves and the communities they cover.
One journalist shared:
“I feel as though participating in these events gave me the opportunity to be both a learner and an expert. It exposed me to new ideas and fresh ways to approach covering communities and improve how my colleagues and I work. But trying to take those ideas back to my newsroom felt like hitting a brick wall. To make the case internally on implementing or simply testing new tools was really hard to the point that it became a distraction from my actual job. It’s ironic because these skills and learning experiences are absolutely crucial to doing journalism well. That is my job.”
The journalism field does not suffer from a dearth of ideas of how to improve the field and build the future of news. There are, however, a shortage of pathways for journalists and communities to continuously and collaboratively test, iterate, fund and implement innovative ideas in sustainable, collaborative local ecosystems.
To that end, the Coral Project, a joint initiative by Mozilla, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Knight Foundation is a refreshing antidote to the siloed approach some news organizations take to research and development. It is collaborative, the software the project stewards is open-sourced and the development and integration of new technology products are community-driven. The outlets part of the initiative “wanted to join forces to improve commenting, invite reader interaction, and expand our notions of audience engagement beyond comment moderation. The project aims to help publishers foster meaningful conversations with readers on their own sites,” explained in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Greg Barber stated in the Post’s announcement:
“The Coral Project has been an unprecedented partnership that took on one of the industry’s biggest challenges: improving the digital dialogue about the news. Its exhaustive research, which included collaborating with hundreds of journalists around the world, has produced technology and best practices that will have a lasting impact on the way newsrooms and readers engage with each other,”
The Washington Post is the first publication to use the Talk system, “the Coral Project is in talks with a number of other outlets who didn’t want to be among the earliest adopters,” Nieman reports.
Newsrooms suffer from risk-aversion and innovation is inherently risky. Adaptation patterns indicate that newsrooms comfortable testing new solutions are outlets large enough to mitigate the potential downfalls but also large enough to reap the rewards of first mover advantage.
There is an opportunity for media funders to mitigate risk for smaller, local and hyperlocal newsrooms. But to do so, it must also seek to reframe and redefine innovation for this specific newsroom context. There is potential to reimagine R&D from a technology-centered orientation to community-centered orientation.
Invest in Community Expertise
To build diverse, informed communities, journalism funders should explore more inclusive, iterative methods to fund innovation. The lack of diversity within venture-backed companies reinforces the constraints women and people of color experience building and scaling technology products. There is an innovation Venn diagram in play: women and people of color not only make up the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs but also represent rapidly increasing audiences for local newsrooms. Diverse newsroom leaders building products and relationships at hackathons and after-hour work sessions are already shaping the future of news.
There is an opportunity for media funders to directly influence the rate and face of newsroom innovation by meeting these leaders where they are, listening to their unique needs, and designing accessible systems to support them.
A Technology Case: Say This, Not That
Listening and building upon the expertise among us is a resource all newsrooms can leverage. Tapping into this innovative capital requires recognizing gaps in our understanding, the humanity in other people’s lived experiences and seeing the space between these two realities as an opportunity to elevate the standards of journalism. This requires looking beyond traditional innovation labs and tapping into the expertise of communities around us.
Yee Won Chong is a management consultant who regularly leads racial and workplace equity initiatives to support foundations, nonprofits and community organizations seeking to build and live inclusive values. Yee Won is a transgender activist from Malaysia, earned political asylum in the United States and as a college student bootstrapped an independent newspaper in college called The Other Press (or The O-Pressed for short). Yee Won is the co-founder of Say This, Not That, “an online platform that identifies harmful words and phrases in copy — any written content you choose to analyze. Then, STNT offers alternative words that are more inclusive and compassionate, with detailed explanations.”
In an interview with me, Yee Won describes the experience where they recognized such a tool would be transformative for their field, “As a communications person I have to think a lot about how do we use language that doesn’t just perpetuate certain attitudes or have implicit bias. I remember clearly at a training that we were co-facilitating, we were using the term “the achievement gap.” We were the trainers and we were talking about racial equity, and someone in the audience said to us [achievement gap] is actually not a phrase that is very inclusive and it actually reinforces racial bias.”
Yee Won immediately recognized the challenge to scale sharing that information, “As the communications person, I was thinking, ‘Well, you know, it’s great that people are telling us but what can I do to kind of spread that news even more?’”
Several years later, the Nonprofit Technology Network’s Leading Change Summit was hosting an Idea Accelerator, a competition where participants could pitch ideas for platforms and tools and win support for turning product concepts into reality. “I was taking a stroll around Union Square in San Francisco and taking a break from the conference. I was walking around and thinking about my experience back when someone told us about the achievement gap and to this accelerator program. I thought, ‘If something like spell check can do this, why can’t this work on words and phrases that are harmful? That is when the tool came together for me.’ Yee Won entered the competition, met those eager to support turning the idea into reality and won first place and the Community Choice award for Say This, Not That.
Yee Won’s vision for the product is similar to the ease of consumer-facing tools like Grammarly and would have immediate utility in a newsroom context. It sources and pulls information and expertise already used within media organizations and leverages it in a way to produce stronger, more inclusive journalism. “There are campaigns like Stop The R-Word, Drop The I-Word, things like that and this is all about language… what happens if you put all of them in one useable practical tool? A tool like Say This, Not That, where when you’re writing it will right away highlight the problematic word or phrase. It’s not like have to create resources to explain to people why that word can be problematic because there are people already writing about it. We can pull in things that already exist. There are people who do this language work already. There are people who do this leadership already.”
Yee Won’s recognized a space for their expertise as a racial equity trainer and the expertise and lived experiences of the communities they were working in. In doing so, Yee Won was able to build a bridge to potentially accelerate communication, expand understanding of how bias appears in language and by extension, improve humane coverage of marginalized communities.
“We are using words that are potentially harmful without even knowing because it is ingrained in so much of our culture. Again, the example of me as a racial equity trainer, using this phrase that is not actually very equitable because it is a jargon that we use so often in the nonprofit world. For me, I was using without thinking too much about what the implicit meanings are. Even when I look at people who are covering and working on these issues they are also not even aware because we don’t get to stop and think intentionally about certain terms. Usually, it is either used by thought leaders and we just assume, ‘Oh yeah, that’s trusted.’”
“We can evolve together”
The development of Say This, Not That follows the arc of other platforms conceived during journalism hackathons and intensive accelerator events. Yee Won was matched with consultant support to develop a funding proposal and was able to connect with a co-founder, linguist, and technologist Katie McCormick. Together they built an online community to support future development of the platform but progress toward a beta product has not emerged far beyond that stage. In this example, community is the innovative capital fueling this initiative forward while a relatively small amount of funding to secure developer hours could be the real gamechanger. Yee Won describes the challenge as weaving together community knowledge capital with technology, “Those are the two things, the two main ingredients that have to come together to make this happen.”
A Systems Case: Language Style Guide
Language is a powerful tool that can bring people together, bridge divides and builds power. But how journalists report and experience language, both as practitioners and as members of communities, can also be unintentionally exclusionary, harmful and divisive. In this case for journalists who understand how newsrooms systems implement language guides and communications design, there is a case to be made for funders to support internal systems innovators. Internal innovators occupy all levels of newsroom leadership; from human resources to editorial to business. As individuals who experience internal operations and systems first-hand, internal newsroom leaders can provide necessary insights to optimize and build better news products.
Hanna Thomas is a Campaign and Culture Director with SumOfUs, a global consumer watchdog group that campaigns to hold big corporations accountable. In her role, she regularly writes and publishes widespread email campaigns and public communications to encourage the SumOfUs community to take action. Like Yee Won, Hanna experienced a communications gap between her expertise as a campaigner and the communities she was working to mobilize and was able to recognize an opportunity for internal systems innovation.
In an interview with me, Hanna explains, “I wrote this email to a million people about angora fur and I used the phrase ‘falling on deaf ears’ and I got an email from a charity in the UK, the National Deaf Children’s Society. That was really sweet and asked, ‘We care about bunnies. Do you think the deaf children don’t care about bunnies?’ It was a wake-up call.”
In a Medium post, Hanna recounts the message, “What implication lies behind this old, outdated phrase? That telling a deaf person about the plight of rabbits, they wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t be able to communicate, wouldn’t care? Deafness is not a learning disability. I just want to express my frustration and disappointment in an organisation that is clearly working for the benefit of others, without realising in their message they are stigmatising a minority. I hope you succeed massively with this campaign, I really do. But please, remember to write in an inclusive manner.””
So for her own benefit, she began pulling together language and communication style guides and integrating them all into a shared Google document. Newsrooms are no stranger to the language style guides and many larger newsrooms publish their internal style guides online such as Buzzfeed, BBC, and the Guardian as well as utilize style guides provided by advocacy organizations such as GLAAD and the National Center for Disability and Journalism.
The style guide Hanna developed was innovative in the organic fashion it came together (a simple Google doc synthesizing free and available resources), the context of the intended audience (progressive activists) and the approach it took to discuss the evolving nature of language and community.
Working with independent editor Anna Hirsch, the pair “began the compilation of a new kind of guide — one that sparks a conversation about language among progressives.” The guide stated, “We invite drivers of progressive change — community members, grassroots leaders, activists, and progressive funders — to peruse the vital movement frameworks, decolonizing usage, and up-to-date word choice and phrasing for current theory of change directions and momentum across groups and issue areas presented in this guide.” Leveraging their knowledge of internal organizational needs and systems and their awareness to how language impacts marginalized and underrepresented communities, the pair co-designed a valuable repository of resources and stewarded The Progressive Style Guide.
The intention of the guide was to start a conversation and for a community of practitioners to become better together and in turn improve the communities they serve. What surprised Hanna was recognizing a guide on inclusive language was not already accessible within the field. She describes in an interview with me, “There are a handful of other projects, blogs or things along this vein that exists. But I was really surprised that at first instance when I realized I need to get better at this, I just Googled. I was constantly Googling, I was trying to find this and I could not find it. That was really surprising to me at the time. I was like, ‘Has no one thought to do this before?’… I think it is something that we are all struggling with so much.”
Recognizing systems, shared challenges and opportunities for improvement are undeniable strengths from organizations which hold space and support internal systems innovators. This approach can be adapted in a newsroom context for media funders seeking to support internal newsroom leaders. The staff time investment for this initiative was modest by Hannah’s estimates, while the value, impact, and dialogue within the intended community it serves have been substantial.
Innovate Innovation for Local Newsroom Context
Overall, there are tremendous opportunities for media funders to support inclusive innovation in the space between investing in expensive research and development labs and supporting one-off hacker/maker events. Identifying strategic opportunities, that both strengthen journalism and how it serves the public, requires funders and their partners to define innovation in the local news context.
This presents an opportunity for funders seeking to support an ecosystem building networked power. It opens the pathway toward improving diverse, inclusive and intentional innovation in local and hyperlocal newsrooms.
It is possible to innovate innovation and build upon the momentum of initiatives like the Coral Project, accelerator events and support developing systems that allow internal newsroom leaders to build and test new systems and processes in local communities. It is possible to turn to the expertise of the communities journalists cover to build, expand and improve upon newsroom products, language, and systems.
It is possible to intentionally design initiatives that support these activities in ways that collectively serves business outcomes and honors journalistic integrity.
But to successfully achieve that, media funders, local newsrooms and communities alike must be aligned with shared outcomes that do not prioritize shareholder value over a diverse, informed public.
“The invitation, the ask, and the important thing here is that we demand that innovation be something that yields healthy returns well beyond venture capitalists, founders, technocrats… Similarly, innovation and creativity that uplifts the opportunities, voices, and spirits of less fortunate people we walk this earth with must be lauded at least as much as the next viral app, if not more.”
it influences who gets to define innovation and shape the future of news when the journalism field responds to external disruptive forces rather than proactively and iteratively developing new tools and resources within the field and with communities it serves. Defining and resourcing innovation in local newsrooms and communities is the necessary step to building power for a diverse, inclusive and resilient ecosystem.
Sabrina Hersi Issa serves as a Senior Advisor to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, where she leads research on journalism ecosystems and how philanthropy can support efforts to build diverse, inclusive newsrooms.