From ISOJ, insights on the future of news

Everyone’s heard of South by Southwest. But Austin’s smaller and slightly geekier International Symposium on Online Journalism is also a big draw for Knight Fellows, staff, and alumni. This year, JSK Managing Director Dawn Garcia and current Fellows Cindy Royal and me met up with former Fellows Adriana Garcia, Carlos Dada, and Teresa Bouza to learn about innovation and business models in online journalism.

Below are a few high points from the first two days of ISOJ. The conference continues through Saturday; for continued updates, check out the ISOJ livestream and follow #ISOJ on Twitter. And on Saturday, our accomplished Cindy will be giving a breakfast session, Lessons From a Year in Silicon Valley: Toward a More Innovative Research Program.

This year, ISOJ kicked off with a one-day summit on news revenue, hosted by the Texas Tribune, an Austin-based nonprofit news organization. Keynote speaker Michael Maness, VP of Journalism and Media Innovation at the Knight Foundation, started with a discussion of how innovation best practices — including design thinking, disruptive experimentation, and the lean startup methodology — can help newsrooms succeed.

“The biggest problem we see in the field and in the industry is a lack of transformational leadership,” Maness told attendees. 

He noted that “very few companies in the world” produce a new product every day (or even every few hours) in the way news organizations do. That makes it hard to stop and think strategically about innovation, so newsrooms must make a concerted effort to create a culture and organization around it. 

Texas Tribune Fellow Jake Batsell, the summit’s organizer, opened the next panel with a series of slides showing how the Tribune’s revenue sources have changed in its four years of operation. In Year 1, more than half of the Tribune’s funding came from individual and foundation donations (respectively 37% and 22%), with much small amounts coming from corporate sponsorship/advertising, membership, and events. Last year, the revenue picture was much more diversified. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Individual donors: 16%
  • Foundations: 18%
  • Corporate Sponsorships/Advertising: 23%
  • Membership: 13%
  • Events: 22%

The point is pretty obvious: In just four years, the Tribune has successfully diversified its revenue streams so that it’s not overly dependent on a single source of income. By learning from its methods, other news organizations could do the same.

The Pew Research Center’s Jesse Holcomb presented research that included a lot of interesting insights and one “wow” stat: $300 million, the amount of venture capital investment in news organizations last year. After that, Tow Fellows Kristin Nolan and Lara Satrakian shared some interesting findings from their research into niche news organizations like their own Syria Deeply. One key success factor they mentioned: “marketing, marketing, marketing.” In other words, journalists can’t just expect people to stumble upon their work; they have to make an effort to publicize it.

Friday began with a keynote from Jim Bankoff, the CEO of Vox Media, which runs content verticals in sports (SBNation), food (Eater), tech culture (The Verge), and recently hired Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein to spearhead, its venture into news.

Bankoff outlined three phases of media’s transition to the web: 1) “porting to the web,” the practice of taking print content and plopping it online; 2) “race to the bottom,” the competition for traffic that led to what he described as “gimmicks and tricks” to elicit pageviews and clicks; and 3) “race to the top,” a new push for high-quality design, technology, and content (see mini-Storify below).

After Bankoff, a panel on new media technology was overshadowed by University of Nebraska Prof. Matt Waite’s drone-flying experiment (video here); other programs explored ethics and the business of newspapers in the digital age.

Again, follow #ISOJ on Twitter to keep up with the rest of the conference.