The journalist’s toolbox: new apps, tech and innovations for newsrooms

It’s been an interesting year for the publishing industry: there’s been a marked shift in both attitude and application of business models and there’s been no shortage of creative thinking and innovation. 

The New York Times and The Guardian are just two international outlets reporting significant increases in the subscription and membership rates; The Washington Post is in the process of expanding its offices and staff. De Correspondent are now ready to roll out their English-language venture, headquartered from New York.

But, those are the big guns, and there’s plenty happening at a more grassroots level, much of which has got the press it has deserved, but some of which needs shouting about. In the course of our conversations and conferences we’ve come across some innovative approaches to publishing and journalism that deserve to be seen – our gift to you is really a gift to all of us.

Business Models (subscriptions, memberships and more)

Blaize

A lot of publishers face the same issues: they need tech, they want tech, they know they need to want tech, but they just aren’t programmed that way. It’s a tension we understand, and why we designed CI the way we did, and it’s an approach shared by subscription start-up Blaize. CEO, James Henderson, describes the three challenges facing publishers as “personalization, optimization and scale” and it’s in addressing these things that the solution was born.

Their mission is to help publishers understand and implement their own paywalls to suit their own requirements and to deploy them, quickly. The interface they’ve developed to do this is easy to use and designed to be integrated into the general workflow of the newsroom, not just operable by those with serious tech credentials. It’s another great example of a move towards a data-informed, democratic newsroom.

Steady

There’s subscription, and then there’s membership. Steady, a German startup, is a platform that helps publishers – especially those on the smaller end of the spectrum – embed the codes and tech onto their websites to make membership happen. Crowdfunding has, as CEO, Sebastian Essler told us (in a Q&A to be published next week), long been a successful mechanism for creatives to secure funding from fans, but it hasn’t quite gathered the same kind of momentum yet in the publishing sector. Essler believes that – as with most things – it’s down to the UX. Steady was designed to be easy to use – both from publisher and reader perspective. ‘We built Steady because we needed it ourselves’ – something we can entirely relate to. What is it they say? Necessity is the mother of invention, right?

Agate

Dominic Young at Agate raised an interesting question when we spoke to him recently. If there’s a ceiling on the percentage of people any one publication can hope to convert to subscribers (and there is), and if ad revenue is on the wane (also a concern), and if you’re the kind of person fast approaching subscription fatigue (author raises hand), there needs to be another option.

This tech startup proposes a wallet system that’s being trialed on The New European and PopBitch as we speak. The idea is that you register an account with a balance, and every time you click on an article you are debited a per-article fee (usually around 10 pence). Unlike content aggregators like Blendle, each publication sets a weekly limit and after you’ve crossed this threshold subsequent articles are unlocked and free to read. It’s hoped that the relatively frictionless way this works could prove to be a solution for how to monetize for the high percentage of readers who don’t – and won’t – take out subscriptions, though obviously this all hinges on the number of publications who offer this service.

Engagement

Hearken

Hearken are all about public-powered journalism, and they’re partnering with an increasing number of newsrooms and outlets as publishers are seeing the value in the kind of pre-publication engagement that – only a few years ago – was restricted to specialist journalism schools and departments. They believe that the more engaged people are in the research phase of news production, the more likely they are to become engaged with the published articles themselves and furthermore the more likely they are to trust that publication. It’s kind of a no-brainer when it’s laid out like this, no?

Jennifer Brandel is lined up to speak at 2019’s Digital Innovators Summit in Berlin.

Gather

If Hearken is an engagement journalism tool, Gather is a communication tool for engagement journalists. Recognizing that many journalists with this approach work in isolation from each other, Gather is a collaborative platform where members can share ideas, approaches and feedback with each other. Lightning talks on various subjects are a regular feature, and newsletters are useful and informative.

Is there a need for this? Joy Mayer, founder, think so: “It used to be that you could find somebody else in your newsroom who’d done what you were trying to do, or found the sources you were trying to find or that had expertise and the specific skill that you were looking for and we’re just trying to do so many things now.”

EJC

Europe’s Engaged Journalism Centre has been going strong since 1992 as a useful source of support for journalists on the continent, but it’s the Engaged Journalism Accelerator which merits a mention in this roundup. Conceived as a way to support organizations who are striving to put community engagement at the center of their editorial mission, they offer coaching, resources, and events to European newsrooms, in a similar vein to Hearken in the States and – as Engagement Lead, Ben Whitelaw, says “create long-term solutions that can positively impact journalism and society”.

The next round of open calls starts in February 2019, with successful applicants likely to represent a diverse range of publications and audiences, though all must have proven user loyalty at the heart of their mission.

Workflow tools

Trint

Transcription is the bane of most journalists’ lives. As Trint’s Jeff Kofman explained to us, “people just don’t understand that amidst all of the revolutions in technology that we’ve seen in the last generation that part of the workflow – which is essential – hasn’t really changed.” Trint was conceived as a way to automate the process, and while they’re the first ones to say that it won’t enitrely eliminate the transcription process, it does reduce the load. If that wasn’t enough, it tethers together audio with transcription, making it easy to search back through the audio.

When we spoke to CEO Jeff Kofman last year, Trint were closing out a good year. 2018 seems to have been an even better one: in September they won the Gannett Foundation Award for Technical Innovation in the Service of Digital Journalism.

“I think that Trint’s role in this media landscape is to free journalists up from tasks that can be automated and use their time to produce stories that need to reported”

Content Insights

Content Performance Indicator

CPI

Engagement and loyalty are hot topics this year, and not just because they’re the latest fad. No, they’re important because – unlike measures of volume, like page views – they correlate strongly with the kinds of behaviors that encourage conversions to subscriptions and memberships. In short? They measure quality. And what’s not to love about that?

We’re tooting our own horn here for a bit because we believe our analytics approach delivers an essential service to newsrooms everywhere. More than that, it offers an approach which puts the user at the centre of the analytics measurements, not the browser. Read more about how we’ve been helping The Local and De Persgroep here.

Deep.bi

“You cannot monetize a relationship that doesn’t exist” Sebastian Zontek told us recently. We entirely agree. Deep.bi’s solution to this is a data-rich tool that helps massively with audience segmentation – something that’s vital to understand as subscriptions roll further and further out.

The way they segment their audience is based on engagement levels – a combination of recency, frequency and volume – but it’s not so much how they ascertain those levels that’s interesting, but what they do with those results.

What they’re uncovering are variations in user habits, which – when identified – can help tailor subscription offerings, alert publishers when certain audience segments are falling away and identify when it’s best to use things like emails rather than subscription offers. When you consider that most subscriptions rates are just 2% of readership, there’s a huge amount of potential readers who might be tempted behind the paywall, given the right kind of optimization.

EzyInsights

News gathering isn’t just about researching news articles. It’s increasingly about being aware of how other publications are reporting on the same issues and current affairs. Helsinki-based EzyInsights do just this by looking at social media platforms to see how and why news articles are spreading – or not. Their blog is an interesting repository of research and findings, particularly with regards to how Facebook is being used and abused by publishers.

HARO (Help a Reporter Out)

Since it started in 2008 as a Facebook page connecting journalists with sources, HARO has grown into a website of its own, been acquired by Cision and, according to the company’s website, reaches more than 800,000 sources and 55,000 journalists and bloggers. In this respect it’s the poster child for tapping into the potential of the social media age: its simplicity of purpose has been undeniably effective, and its inclusion here seems almost too obvious. If you don’t have this bookmarked already, get onto it now.

Ahrefs

SEO is important. In fact, it’s so important we dedicated a whole bunch of column inches to it not a few weeks ago. If backlink analysis, competitor analysis and search traffic information is something you’re needing to get into (and, at the risk of repetition, if not, why not?) then you need a tool that can provide the kind of actionable insights to get things moving along.

Since they started in 2011, Ahrefs has become indispensable to marketers and, like all good tech companies, there’s a wealth of SEO-related information, guides and how-tos on their blog. There are plenty of ways this could be applied to newsrooms now, too.

News apps

Kinzen

Kinzen (formerly Neva Labs) is due to launch in the New Year and is already getting some buzz about it. We saw its Founder, Mark Little make the case for this service at the Newsroom Summit in Oslo this fall. Kinzen is an interesting prospect because it places user behavior (all data-informed insights) at the heart of its remit: users, says Little, are more likely to use an app if they know it’s something they can get in and out of. We’ve heard a lot about curated approaches to news, so this one looks interesting also: a service where users are able to create tailor their own specific, tailored news feeds.

Visuals & presentations

Kontext Labs

If the name Tony Buzan means something to you, then the concept of Kontext Labs will already be vaguely familiar, and will likely give you pause for thought as to why no one has come up with this as a solution for presenting news content until now.

Kontext Labs, a startup based in Munich, is a company that has created a new approach to web publishing software through fully interactive digital knowledge maps. They’re a way to present and (if you’re a reader) explore complex subjects and issues, by allowing the user to employ the now-ubiquitous pinch function on touch screens to dive deeper into subjects, while always presenting information in a wider context. If it sounds complicated, it’s only the case in the explanation: visually it’s about as intuitive as they come, as you can see from various examples on their site.

Alternative approaches to journalism

Pop Up News

You’ve heard of pop-up restaurants and pop-up shops, now meet the pop-up newsroom. Started by Fergus Bell, this idea does exactly as the name suggests: sets up temporary newsrooms, usually to cover specific events. In Mexico City the Verificado project helped fight misinformation around the country’s election period. By placing themselves in the centre of the election, both physically (they were in heart of Mexico City) but also emotionally (they’re collaborative to their very core) they were able to demonstrate how effective this kind of initiative could be. Projects range from long-term, immersive ones, to quick and snappy set-ups.

Answer the Public

What are the public thinking about? Well, wouldn’t we all like to know? Answer the Public is a simple tool (both free and paid-for, depending on what you’re after) that extends the Google search auto-complete we’ve all come to take for granted, packages it into easy-to-use data visualization and sends you on your merry content-creating way. Another example of a tool commonly used by marketers, which also has useful applications in the world’s newsrooms: what are people talking about? And, what do they want to know about?

Newsmavens

What happens when women choose the news? The answer is, says Managing Editor, Lea Berriault, that you get a very different kind of front page. Their team of female editors select articles from partner publications in their respective countries, and they’re presented with an introduction providing context on the Newsmavens website. It doesn’t always follow that the articles are solely authored by women, it’s just that they’re selected by them, and that’s the point. With only 27 percent of decision-making, editorial posts occupied by women in Europe, you have to wonder if there is a resultant bias in the kinds of stories which are selected. Even a brief look at the Newsmavens pages suggests there probably is…

On Our Radar

So from wondering what happens if women choose the news, it’s only a small leap to see what happens when those experiencing those newsworthy issues are given the means to report the news themselves.

Radar was started by Libby Powell, whose background in NGO work and journalism led her to notice the problems inherent in flying in reporters to report complex problems. They have found that by getting those affected to tell their stories directly (often via audio or other non-traditional reporting techniques) the resultant articles have a markedly different feel to them. It’s really a community journalism approach from an issues point of view: they report on Alzheimer’s by asking those in various stages of the disease to contribute their experiences; they give the tools and training to those who want to tell those stories, like Brigitte, the subject of the above BBC documentary.

It’s perhaps telling that they describe themselves as ‘a communications agency for unheard communities.

WikiTribune

While hardly a small-scale start-up, WikiTribune still gets a mention here as a representative of the user-generated news sector. The fact that anyone can edit any article may sound abhorrent to those more traditionally-trained journalists, but as a thought experiment it’s fascinating. How would news literacy improve if readers became stakeholders in the way facts are presented?

StopFake

Misinformation and fake news is a problem in an increasing number of countries and the Ukrainian-based StopFake.org is one organization that’s fact-checking news reports in one country by judicious fact-checking by its team of journalists and volunteers. Because reporting fake news and raising new literacy are really two sides of the same coin, they’ve also expanded their work into ensuring that education about journalistic practice, and knowledge and understanding about how information – and misinformaiton – spreads as far and as wide as possible.

 

As the holiday season approaches, we’d like to wish you all a very informed, prosperous and healthy 2019.

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