Let’s talk about innovative journalism. Everyone else is, after all.

What’s usually meant by this is simply any story that’s told in a non-conventional form. Articles that go beyond ledes, paragraphs and a few images.

When the Washington Post publishes one of its amazing interactive stories, people get very excited. And they should. They’re brilliant.

innovative journalism doesn't just mean all the bells and whistles

Thing is, innovative journalism doesn’t just mean all the bells and whistles. Putting a story on TikTok doesn’t make it innovative.

Doing something because it’s on trend isn’t enough. It is, to quote the title of an RISJ report, “time to step away from the ‘bright shiny things’”.

Where journalism is truly innovative it’s because it marries the story with the needs of the audience. And, when the audience is happy, engagement and loyalty scores are correspondingly high.

So innovation is important. Not because newsrooms should be seen to be adopting whatever technological advance is available to them, but because channels and technology available make it possible to reach your audience wherever they are, whenever they are there.

Audience-centric innovation

When publishers pay attention to journalism through the lens of user behaviours, adopting different formats and approaches isn’t just nice, it’s absolutely essential if you want to maximise engagement, enjoyment and habit-forming behaviour. And what publication in their right mind isn’t trying to do that right now?

But there’s that word again: habit.

Twipe’s recent publication on digital editions reminds us that 50% of our actions are not conscious decisions. “Habits,” they say, “are our brain’s way of increasing its efficiency”.

routine creates loyalty

This is an important note for publishers because in the past ‘success’ has been attributable (at least in part) to the fact that the newspaper was part of daily habitual actions: maybe it got delivered before breakfast, so you read it over toast and cereal. Perhaps you picked up a copy at the station to read on your commute. You might even have grabbed one alongside your coffee at your favourite cafe on the way into work. The physicality of the newspaper punctuated routine. And that routine created loyalty.

And it’s been another habit - mobile usage - that’s changed our behaviours over the past decade or so. What’s that got to do with innovative journalism? Well, you’ll be piecing it together, no doubt.

Innovative content can easily inhabit the devices we’ve formed a habit around. Put another way, if you’re staring at your phone at the bus stop, content that’s ‘successful’ is going to be the kind that’s going to be able to be consumed in that ‘news moment’ on that device. Perhaps the traditional article doesn’t quite fit the bill there?

innovation is about enriching experiences

As publishers try to build relationships with their readership, maximising opportunities to engage with them is key. Loyal readers read often, come back often and show a sustained pattern of usage.

So, ‘innovation’ can look different and varied, but at its core it’s about enriching experiences - to whatever news moment readers find themselves in.

Examples of innovative journalism

Clearly, examples are useful here, so let us oblige. It’s usual to think about content from a sections or topics point of view, but here we’ve picked out some great examples that represent the fluctuating time commitments users have over the course of a day.

Micro news moments

Micro moments - or ‘news moments’ - are a newish phenomenon. These are moments where we scroll to pass the few minutes while waiting for a train or a coffee or a Covid vaccination. They’re increasingly being leveraged by marketeers, but news organisations are wising up to this also: if you’re able to distract or divert your readers with your content, you’ve understood that readers have many needs when it comes to news.

The New Yorker has a really fun interactive ‘divert me’ article to celebrate the life and work of renowned cartoonist, Charles Barsotti. It’s only short, but it’s super fun. A perfect thing to occupy a few moments while waiting to do something else - and it also the option to share on social media, hopefully building engagement through complementary channels.

The quiz is like catnip for transient readers, and election time always seems to bring these formats to the fore. There’s nothing new about this one from the New York Times, but the presentation is different from the usual forms

Interactive long reads

Clearly the long read is a natural bedfellow of innovative journalism. As we mentioned in a previous article, when there is a degree of interactivity or more multimedia assets than usual, engagement levels really benefit.

Interactive content is brilliant for consolidating knowledge and visualising otherwise tricky concepts. The US Impeachment was something that was reported with a lot of ‘update me’ stories, but readers required further explanation. The interactive guide helped visualise a tricky concept.

In the UK, The Guardian frequently uses a timeline structure to present a ‘give me perspective’ or ‘educate me’ point of view to headlines. With all of us fully conversant with the infinite scroll, this format allows users to explore large topics in visibly manageable chunks - and as each section includes a link to further reading on the site (which opens in a new tab), the user can delve in as deeply as they wish.

The Washington Post has long been great at immersive, interactive and innovative storytelling. Last year the publisher announced the creation of The Lede Lab - a team of journalists dedicated to exploring new, multimedia approaches to storytelling. They’re not committing to applying this approach to all content, but where it fits the story, it’s used.

This example - a long read equivalent - reports on how the pandemic is affecting California’s Sonoma Valley wine producers and it utilises a combination of smart scrolling, still and moving images, video and audio to tell the story in an engaging and attention-retaining way. It doesn’t feel gimmicky or overly-long because it fits the story - something that some other interactive articles struggle with. And, it performs particularly well on touch screens as opposed to desktop, where the mouse functionality definitely compromises the UX for the reader.

Storytelling on social media

We always say it’s important to meet people where they’re at, and this is especially important if you’re trying to reach younger audiences who don't have the same kind of relationship with newspapers that their parents did.

The omnichannel approach is vitally important for the modern newsroom and TikTok is the latest social media platform that news organisations are trying to use. It doesn’t always work - TikTok in particular is successful when it creates viral, shareable moments - but as a way of distilling important information quickly it can be really useful. Thing is, there’s reposting news clips, but then there’s creating Tik-Tok specific content. At the time of writing even The New York Times haven’t yet embraced the potential that TikTok has to offer (a single post - a short video clip), but The Washington Post absolutely has.

The Washington Post’s TikTok account is synonymous with a guy - Dave Jorgenson - whose Twitter handle is in fact ‘WashingtonPostTikTokGuy’. Their approach is to create ‘bits’ - comedy shorts, really - which convey key information in headlines and news stories. It’s him in the videos, often playing multiple characters and while they respond to very current and on-trend information and news, the facts are clearly articulated. The obvious question is how do users follow up these video shorts with more substantive information? Links in the bio divert readers, but these are only linked for the most current posts, so there’s no opportunity for readers to get deeper into an issue without friction.

The Guardian Australia does a pretty bang-up job of sharing breaking news and updates in a high-octane, high-velocity style that ekes out every nanosecond of TikTok’s posts time capacity. Links to the breaking news feed on the main site are helpful - if you’re viewing TikTok in realtime, of course.

What’s great about this feed is that while The Washington Post creates what are essentially viral videos and memes around breaking news, The Guardian Australia provides context and explainers on their channel - in user needs speak, these fall comfortably into the ‘educate me’ and ‘give me perspective’ categories.

innovation is different, new, a break from the norm

Where does innovation come from?

The criticism may be about what happens when TikTok is inevitably usurped by the next social media platform. It happened not so long ago with Snapchat, after all.

This is absolutely the key point to understand innovation in the context of the newsroom. Platforms are methods of distribution to be sure, but Julie Posetti is right to warn against the dangers of bright, shiny things.

The packaging can be a mirage. And the next mirage won’t be far off.

So, as always, the secret to success lies in that little overlapping bit in the middle where brand identity,user needs, story, and channel meet.

Innovation is inherently different. It’s a break from the norm. It’s new.

What you’ve always done - no matter how great it is - isn’t likely to be innovative. And even if it was, it probably isn’t anymore.

It follows then that the other key to embracing innovation is to embrace the possibility that the best ideas may come to you from unfamiliar quarters.

  • We have the ability now to see what’s working across various channels - and even to take an omnichannel view of a news story. This is something that’s vital to understand if you want to see if an article or video or post is working, but before you even hit publish, there’s a lot that analytics and notifications can do to help to set you on the right track.
  • The StoryLifeCycle is a useful framework to refer to to help you optimise every stage a story goes through - and you can read about that here.
  • The user needs project we’re currently working on is helping newsrooms to identify what users really need from their news brands of choice - and what our participants are reporting back is that often it’s not quite what they think is happening.

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