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“The media mass tourism to Silicon Valley bears fruit”

Innovation in journalism – that is akin to a Pleonasm. Quality journalism should, in fact, always be innovative. But both audience and users evolve continually. What is important here is to keep pace  with the times  – in how journalists tell the stories, but also in relation to which technologies they use to do so. We  spoke about this witth Prof. Dr. Sonja Kretzschmar. She is Head of the Institute of Journalism,  Management and Media Faculty, at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich, and a speaker at this year's Conference Stage of the IFRA and DCX exhibition event in Berlin.

Ms Kretzschmar, it is now some ten years since your book, “Innovations  for Journalism”, was published. What has changed in the interim in relation to innovation?

New business models are certainly still being sought. Publishing companies are often on the lookout for new types of monetisation. But the challenges vary to a very large extent. For example, regional and local daily newspapers had to face the fact that their users have changed, compelling them to struggle with an organisational structure that reacts very sluggishly to innovations. Naturally, nationally distributed dailies have quite different possibilities as regards research and development. But both must reflect upon the role print and online will play in the future media mix and, independently of this, think ahead about how to ensure the future of journalism as a brand product. In doing so, they could follow the example of the German public broadcasting service's “funk” online media offering and content network that uses radical new formats to reach its target audience of youths and young adults. The chosen approach in this case involved learning lessons from the start-up culture: It can be easier to test innovations in a type of  incubator. With funk, the public broadcasting services can realise new “outside-the-box” ideas in their programmes.

News media at times see themselves at a disadvantage in their online offerings compared to the public broadcasting services that finance innovations through licence fees. Do you also consider that an imbalance in opportunities exists?

Unfortunately, this confrontational attitude damages the offering as well as the market situation as a whole. The problem is that their conflict causes the media companies to a certain degree to lose sight of their actual competitors. i.e. the American Big Five. These are not troubled by any such concerns and continue to further develop their offerings in order to make them more interesting for users. It would make more sense to cooperate more closely – in all areas from public broadcasting to private services as well as beyond corporate boundaries. Up to a few years ago, the daily newspapers also did not consider the US groups as competitors. But they were taught a lesson. Anyone wanting to be innovative must abandon the old way of thinking in terms of rival camps. In local journalism initiatives aimed at seeking and pursuing new approaches already exist; the Local Journalism project team of the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Political Education) repeatedly provides important impulses here. In the controversy of public broadcasting vs. private companies there could indeed be cooperation agreements. Before all parties fight among themselves it would make more sense to strive for such a solution, before otherwise at the end of the day all users drift towards the big US corporations, Netflix, etc.

Must innovation always involve online offerings?

“Online first”  has been a catchword already for many years. “Analog first” is long gone, no one would say that anymore. There is no medium in existence that is completely offline, not even print products. Today it is more a question of under what conditions are the users prepared to pay for online contents. Paywalls and pay-for online offerings are no longer taboo. But it is still an open question as to how to give rise to a new awareness among users and convince them that quality comes at a price. But to return to the question: the answer is no. Innovative products naturally exist also in the “print only” area.  

With what steps should media companies launch their innovation strategies?

To begin with, you have to identify the need. A great deal has happened in the last years. Now it is a matter of thinking holistically, beyond individual products, when developing strategy. We observe very often that young managers return from congresses or discussions from their community with innovative ideas. They attempt to implement these in the companies in a top-down process. In print newsrooms or public broadcasting operations they encounter an older personnel structure, a result of many years of economy drives that prevented the hiring of new people. In organisational structures such as these, top-down innovations very quickly get bogged down. People will toe the line as long as there is somebody who keeps after them. But as soon as the pressure eases off, the personnel are only too keen to drop the whole idea. Afterwards no one is able to say exactly why the innovations failed.

Therefore it is a matter of involving the personnel more closely in innovation?

Yes. Frequently the question is put: “With these people, how can we ever change anything?” According to our investigations, this argument is in many cases too simple. Of course, becoming  accustomed to innovations is always stressful for all those concerned. But quite often capacities are lost mainly due to human resources or personnel management, if attempts to win over people for change processes are unsuccessful. Media houses often have a hierarchical structure, so that  the communication from bottom to top does not function. Many persons do not find an open ear for their ideas. Then management and personnel blame each other for the fact that the innovation comes to nothing. It should be the job of the human resources people to promote a corporate culture in which  personnel are receptive towards innovation. The task of selection as well as the definition of targets for  innovation should be carried out together with the personnel. 

Do you have examples of when this approach succeeds?

Interestingly, this often works well in local newsrooms that are at a remove from the main editorial office and do not receive so much attention. They are allowed simply to get on with it. This makes it much easier for them to put things to the test. Ideally, they then share their experiences with the main office or general editorial office. Sometimes it does not require far-reaching solutions or great amounts of money to set things in motion.

Time is also an investment. If journalists are caught up in their everyday production activities, how are they supposed to turn their attention to innovations?

Time is naturally an argument – concerning both innovations though also advanced training. Journalists are mostly intrinsically motivated, there is a great deal of potential. But it becomes difficult if management does not allow sufficient freedom. The discussion should be permitted as to whether all standards and formats must be retained if the objective is to be innovative. Perhaps some things should simply be done away with to create space. The aim is to be able to define new priorities.

In your opinion, are the skills of the persons working today in the news media sufficient for innovation or is there a need for more advanced training?

Several multinational studies come to the conclusion that the majority of journalists working in Europe feel that they lack sufficient advanced training. A major need exists here, though naturally the pace of development is very rapid, e.g. in the research and verification tools. Although the journalists do receive advanced training, the pace of development is dynamic. It would be important, however, to broaden the range of topics covered. The demands made on journalists have grown greatly in the last five years.

To what degree to you promote innovation processes  in media companies already in media studies?

In a type of journalistic newsroom, we attempt, for our students, to process innovation-related topics   that we receive from outside sources or that we develop ourselves with the students. A training newsroom is a protected space that is not subject to everyday constraints and production pressures. There we can test  experimental things and ideally launch them on to the market. We would like to further strengthen the links between companies and our training units. With a new study reform we are able here, in our x-media-campus training newsroom, to direct our focus even more towards digital data journalism and innovation. We are consciously going in the direction of cross-media training that takes into consideration innovations from the start. We do not have to turn to the market for financing, but have already received several queries from media houses that approached us in this connection. I would also very much welcome the opportunity to work at a more multinational and international level  in this area.

It is not just a question of technical tools, but also new dialogue processes with the users who have become more mobile and critical. It is essential to make the production processes more transparent and continually adapt them accordingly as the needs of users change as well as the ways in which the users want to consume news.

 

Bearing this in mind, what could be targets for innovation?

Of importance here are quality criteria in conjunction with a specific budget. The media houses must know how much time they want to invest in researching and verifying information. This applies also where parts of the news material are supplied by general editorial offices. It is vital to have clear guidelines. Furthermore, it should be decided how much to invest in specific formats that improve both reputation and quality. While multimedia stories and data journalism projects process facts in an innovative way, they do not always bring about a greater reach. Despite this, it can still be worthwhile if it strengthens the brand.

For example, the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper developed a multimedia story about one night during the Second World War, “The Night of the 100,000 Bombs”. This is a topic that is of special interest to older people, communicated in a medium that continues to be foreign to them. Above all it is regional and local newspapers with a good access to people in a certain region that can make effective use of this local monopoly for their brand. The message is to state that we make the effort to output x numbers of media products which are costly to produce but that strengthen our brand. In some cases it is possible to compensate for this via new, standardised products compiled with the aid of Artificial Intelligence. It is a matter of achieving a good mixed costing.

 

Data analyses frequently focus on user behaviour, time spent on the site and numbers of clicks. To what extent is it good to take these factors as a basis for orientation?

If it is only the number of clicks that is concerned, that will be the end for any form of  discernment and quality. Journalists don't sell bread rolls, but a commodity that is important for democracy. Sometimes it is necessary also to set priorities that are not marketable. Anyone who offers only attractive click-streams showing the most beautiful island paradises is diluting his own brand. Of course, this can be done on occasion, but too much as click-bating is no longer serious journalism.

Automatically generated products, e.g. in the area of consumer journalism, has a lot to do with service orientation, such as reports of traffic jams on the way to work or weather reports. If I receive this information from my local media house, with my personalised preferences, so much the better. Otherwise I get it elsewhere. Therefore it is worthwhile making initial investments in order to produce automated texts in the areas of regional sports or financial information.

Is there resistance in the newsrooms from journalists to such tools, frequently lumped together under the heading of robot journalism?

The term robot journalism is somewhat misleading. It conjures up images of a robot sitting at a computer screen, typing on the keyboard. The magazine “Journalist” had such an image on its front page as long ago as 1985. In fact, what is meant is automated text-generating programs. But the term “robot journalism” shows the deep-seated human fear of creating artificial beings that get out of control, act destructively or simply take our places. There is no escaping the fact that these technical innovations potentially also pose a threat to jobs.

At the end of the 1970s, when the computerised data recording programs arrived on the scene, they represented a threat to printers, compositors and typing pool staff  – jobs, that today no longer exist. But with the aid of text-generating software it is also possible to cover areas that before were neglected because it cost too much to do so – regional sports leagues, for example. In addition, these programs have rationalisation potential. The question arises as to what happens with the money that is saved. Do companies reinvest it or not?

And how do the users accept contents produced by AI systems?

Various studies, e.g. by LMU München, conclude that users of AI-produced texts trust them even more because they contain more facts and figures. After all, the texts are generated out of databases. Apparently in times of disinformation and fake news texts containing many figures are considered  especially trustworthy. Though the “readability” is often poorer, this tendency is increasing with every year; the programs are getting better. The text is not perhaps produced in a very elegant style, but it is also not bad. Frequently the consumers cannot tell the difference.

 

But AI systems can only build on the existing data with which they are fed. Humans are presumably somewhat more creative in the choice of topics, or are they not?

To date, it is especially routine tasks that can be automated, i.e. processes that always run in accordance with a specific pattern. That is the exact opposite of creativity. A new way of thinking is called for here and links realised on the basis of prior knowledge. Of course, any system is only as clever as the information that it can use. If there is an incident on the sideline of the playing field that the camera does not cover, no system can record it. But I would not rule out the possibility that human creativity, at some time in the future, could be replaced by AI. Up to now we have used only “weak”  AI. What “strong” AI will look like, what will then be possible – these are open questions.

It is quite simply difficult for people to imagine that the world is continually developing further in the area of technology. My students frequently have problems explaining to their grandparents how to use a mobile phone. Then I ask them: “Which new technology will your grandchildren try to explain to you, a task possibly demanding of them a great deal of patience?” It is very difficult for us to imagine future technological developments. When I first started working as a journalist it was clear to me that we would have no use for mobile phones. We had landlines. But that was too shortsighted. Likewise we should not exclude the possibility that Artificial Intelligence could conquer new fields, such as creativity, in the foreseeable future.

 

Bearing this in mind, what is important for the implementation of such innovations?

A good mixture of people who remove fear and provide the personnel with the training they need. Most people fear a downgrading of their skills, accompanied inevitably by a loss of status. This can happen also if they are not sent on advanced training courses and the opportunity to create an innovation-friendly culture is not seized. It must be shown that new technology can also serve the journalists' interest in achieving quality.  Some solutions help them to concentrate more on the processes that they want to perform, e.g. to work focused on a specific theme. What is needed is a target-oriented, holistic approach with which the personnel can identify.

 

In your view, how innovative on the whole are the products and services currently available on the market – e.g. from the start-ups?

One gets the impression right now that everywhere new incubators are popping up. In Germany, we have Medialab Bayern and Berlin-Brandenburg. In Hamburg there is the next media accelerator and companies such as Axel Springer have their own incubator. Apparently the media mass tourism to Silicon Valley is bearing fruit. Efforts are being made to assist young people, helping them to get financing for a six-month period as well as coaching in media innovation. A wonderful form of empowerment. The next step is to realise this approach a bit more systematically, analyse the reasons for start-up failures and promote several initiatives for a more extended period. This is something my colleagues and I are at present actively considering. We would like to jointly develop a system for taking stock of media innovations, monitoring and evaluation. To the best of my knowledge, no such system as yet exists in other countries. The  IFRA & DCX exhibitions present a very good opportunity for me to network internationally on this topic and to meet people with whom I can jointly develop ideas.

Interview: Stefanie Hornung


About Prof. Dr. Sonja Kretzschmar

Prof. Dr. Kretzschmar is Professor for Innovation in Journalism and Vice Dean of  the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich. She  is head of the  journalistic newsroom of the Institute for Journalism and training newsroom of x-media-campus. Prof. Dr. Sonja Kretzschmar conducts research with special emphasis on innovations in journalism, such as multimedia stories, cross-media journalism, technical innovations. She is a member of the RISK research centre of the  University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich,  DGPuK (German Society for Journalism and Communication Science), ECREA (European Communication, Research and Education Association) and the panel of experts of the Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian broadcasting corporation).


She will speak on the topic of “Innovations in Print and Digital” at the Conference Stage of the IFRA World Publishing Expo and DCX Digital Content Expo event at 13.00 h on Tuesday, 8 October 2019.

 

German translation of the interview

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