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Eric Newton: "The Only Thing That Journalists Can Do Wrong Is to Fail to Change"

Eric Newton: "The Only Thing That Journalists Can Do Wrong Is to Fail to Change"

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Eric Newton is quiet but significant force in media. He is Senior Advisor to the President at the Knight Foundation, the US-based funding body that supports innovative, quality journalism. At a time when (to put it mildly) cash is scarce among journalistic projects, Newton has developed $300 million of funding since joining the Knight Foundation in 2001.

Eric Newton, Senior Advisor to the President at the Knight Foundation

But this money is not all given out as straightforward grants. For the past five years the Knight Foundation has hosted the annual Knight News Challenge, an open competition in which applicants with fresh ideas compete for a chunk of $5 million available to the best, newest and most community-orientated projects from ‘anyone, anywhere in the world’. Winners have ranged from fairly small organizations, to journalists working for the Associated Press or New York Times.

Newton has also been on the receiving end of honors. While he was managing editor of the Oakland Tribune, the paper won 150 journalism awards, including a Pulitzer Prize.

He will speak at the 18th World Editors Forum in Vienna from 12th-15th October about media innovation.

WAN-IFRA: The Knight Foundation hosts the annual Knight News Challenge, a competition that rewards the best innovations in news. What are the three most exciting projects you’ve seen in recent years?

One is called DocumentCloud, which is software that allows you to take raw documents, scan them in and then be able to look at them, not just as pdfs, but actually be able to search them, annotate them, easily publish them on the web. This allows journalists to write a story and then to link to the underlying raw documents. We think that this will increase the credibility of journalism because people will be able to see if quotations have been put in the correct context and so on.

Another one I might mention is hNews, which has been developed by the Media Standards Trust. The MST believes that we need to develop a common technological standard that allows news organizations to provide information about that stories that they’re publishing. You can call it metatagging or footnotes. When the electronic story files are distributed, other information is connected to those files: who the author was (in case the file is unsigned), the date of publication, and the code of ethics of the news organization. Because the computers read the metadata, it would allow people to search in much more sophisticated ways through news. Right now it’s being tested by the Associated Press at least 600 news organizations are using it. 

A firm that’s got a lot of attention is, which promotes an entirely different relationship between a community and the news. People who participate in the website look at the stories that are being proposed by freelancers, then donate small amounts of money to the stories they would like to see produced. The community using the website gives money to, which then aggregates it and gives it to the freelancers, and then follows up when the story’s been done.

WAN-IFRA: The face of journalism is changing so fast; how can news organizations keep up and understand which innovations are relevant to them?

For hundreds of years news organizations have developed very intricate systems for deciding which news is most relevant to them. So clearly they could develop the capacity to determine which innovations are most relevant to them. But they haven’t yet. Within news organizations there really need to be a lot more people with digital expertise. There are folks who have the exact same abilities in the world of technology that traditional news people have in the world of news. And most of them are not employed at news organizations. Until more are, news organizations won’t have the capacity to know the difference between the really innovative things and the others.

WAN-IFRA: As the format of news changes so quickly, how can journalists make sure that their readers or their users aren’t left behind and still find the new technology accessible?

Quite the opposite is occurring at the moment. The world is far ahead of the news community. Even in developing countries the introduction of the cell phone has leapfrogged over a hundred years of the failed development of landline phones and suddenly you have a world with five billion cell phones. The problem is not journalists worrying about whether or not people have the means to communicate. Humans have unprecedented means of communication. The issue is, what are they communicating and has the news community adapted to an entirely new age of digital communication?

WAN-IFRA: Could the development of technology for digital media have a positive application for print, or are the two always in competition?

Print is not news, it’s a delivery mechanism. These things are not in competition as far as people are concerned, they’re only in competition as far as businesses are concerned.

Consider milk. In the US people would bring milk to the door but when refrigeration was invented this was no longer necessary. And nobody said, “Oh my God! We’re putting the milkman out of business! Milkmen are in competition with refrigerators!” Nobody thought of it that way, they just wanted to have a lot of fresh milk. That’s what’s happening with news. As far as people are concerned it’s all one seamless world in which news comes in 50 different ways. If a business chooses to collect things once and distribute them in every way that customers want, obviously there’s no competition between the forms because it’s all one company. If a company insists on delivering news in only one way then that company may feel as though it has competition. But that’s because that company has made a choice.

WAN-IFRA: In such a fast changing world, do you think print will continue to be important?

There will always be printed material, just as there will always be hand-written material. When the printing press came, people didn’t stop writing things out by hand, they merely stopped only writing things out by hand.

Does it make economic sense for the daily news to be bought to the doorstep in print when it can be much more economically and conveniently delivered in many other ways? No it doesn’t. And so eventually in the United States, probably by the year 2040, the daily, printed newspaper won’t be bought to people’s doorsteps any more. You still could get printed newspapers on Sunday. There might be printed newspapers on different days of the week. It’s just that there’s a particular animal in the ecosystem called the day subscription, home-delivered, printed daily newspaper that’s being driven out of media-rich ecosystems.

WAN-IFRA: The Knight Foundation emphasizes the importance of community engagement. How can news organizations interact with a community across different platforms?

In a very basic way, news organizations need to be far more transparent; using technology like DocumentCloud to show people the underlying documents and research that you’ve used. Transparency is actually a major part of engagement because it establishes a dynamic of mutual respect.

Another form of engagement is conversation. Rather than the news being a one-way, industrial-age stream that’s sent to people, news is now a two-way relationship. People have a right to reply to what you’re talking about doing.

Then one of the most difficult forms of engagement is collaboration. In collaboration you have new ways of interacting and allowing people not just to comment on news but actually have a say in the news production process. So, for example, allows you to have a say in what freelance stories are done.

People now have the communication tools to produce news on their own, any time they want. And so you’re either going to engage with that or you’re going to ignore it. And if you engage with it, then you can be part of the future of news and if you ignore it then you cannot be part of the future of news.

WAN-IFRA: You’ve stated in previous interviews that it’s important to remember that the same technologies or innovations aren’t relevant everywhere. How can news organizations gauge the needs of their communities?

That’s an important point. We now use the term media ecosystems - it’s how news and information flows through different communities. One of the things we know for sure is that, just like biological ecosystems, media ecosystems are very different from place to place. So the first thing is to know your territory. News and information is complex; it flows around the media ecosystem in ways determined by what people consume and how they like to consume it. You must speak to people. Too many news products are designed by journalists saying “here’s what we want to give to people”. That’s the old way. Now we have to ask people, “what is it that you want?”

WAN-IFRA: How will journalists need to change the way they work in the future?

Everything about journalism has changed: who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium is appropriate and how to manage the two-way relationship with the community. So the only thing that journalists can do wrong is to fail to change.

In the future journalists will find themselves still applying their professional values, but they’ll be doing it in different ways. Rather than just a few sources on a story journalists might have 40 or 50 sources on a story. Rather than a story being defined as a certain number of paragraphs of formulated writing, a story could be an interactive database. Rather than a story being produced in only one medium, a journalist might produce a story in seven or eight different ways. But doing something differently is not the same as doing something different. Their fundamental values will still be the same. 


Hannah Vinter's picture

Hannah Vinter


2011-09-14 14:18

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