Mark Briggs

What makes journalism ‘innovative’? Lessons from this year’s Scripps Howard Awards

What is innovation in journalism today? I heavily debated that question with Dan Gillmor and Retha Hill earlier this month while judging the Scripps Howard Awards at Poynter.

The 44 entries in the “Digital Innovation” category we were judging were some help. But not as much we had hoped.

The top of the list, thankfully, exemplified the award criteria of finding “fresh, engaging” ways to do great journalism. What does that look like? Think Snow Fall from The New York Times, which ended up winning the award. Big data projects from ProPublica, narrated graphics from the Los Angeles Times, the killer iPad app by Reuters, Bloomberg’s infographics, and News 21’s interactive video trailer presentation also had the judges uttering words like “stunning,” “mind-blowing,” “amazing” and “powerful.”

What set them apart from the rest of the entries was the way that each one found a creative — and effective — way to use a digital technique or tool to tell a story or convey information. Here’s a quick look at this judge’s favorites:

  • Snow Fall, of course, integrated infographics, flyovers, audio and video in a nearly seamless way that was the most immersive experience we saw.
  • ProPublica’s big data projects made it easy for the reader/user to view specific information most relevant to him or her while seeing the big picture from different angles.
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4 media shifts to watch for in China

I was honored to represent the U.S., the Poynter Institute and KING Broadcasting Co. at the Colloquium on Future Global Communication and Journalism Education held Dec. 15-16 at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The first session featured five international speakers — including me — who presented in English.

Here are four key takeaways from the conference and from my conversations with professors and students there.

Journalism education is flourishing in China

Professor Shi Anbin, who invited me to speak at the conference, told me there are 1,000 journalism schools in China. While the government continues to control the news media there, state-run news agencies are growing fast (much like the country’s economy for the past 20 years). There is also an increasing presence of foreign media in China to report out to the rest of the world.

All of this new opportunity means an increased need for education and training. Schools across the country are moving to meet the professional and academic need to understand the impact of Chinese media on, and its place in, the rest of the world.

A flyer at Tsinghua University advertised the talk by author Mark Briggs, who is standing beside it.

In my public lecture to graduate students at Tsinghua the day before the conference, I was impressed with the overall awareness of global media trends the students showed.… Read more

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What’s working at news startups, from Seattle to Vermont

The best sign that entrepreneurial journalism endeavors are moving in the right direction is that so many of them are heading in different directions. That was obvious Thursday during a pre-conference workshop hosted by J-Lab and executive director Jan Schaffer, the day before the annual Online News Association conference, held this year in Boston.

The event offered an amazing stream of data points from operations big — Texas Tribune, New Haven Independent, St. Louis Beacon — and small — DavidsonNews, RVANews, for example — with these compelling insights (for more details, check the Twitter stream from the session).

A non-profit model works best when associated with investigative journalism, especially at a city, regional or state level. This insight came from Cory Bergman, co-founder of Next Door Media, a network of neighborhood sites in Seattle (Bergman is also a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board). The non-profit model is working well at places like the Texas Tribune, which expects to raise $3.5 million this year and reach the break-even point. (As Bergman said on Twitter, “non-profit life isn’t so bad is it?”)

And it’s working at the Vermont Journalism Trust, which supports and is using the goal of an informed society as a motivating factor to solicit checks from donors, according to the trust’s founder, Bill Schubart.… Read more


3 key lessons for entrepreneurial journalists trying to get projects off the ground

It’s all about money. And people. And your ability to adapt quickly and smartly.

A small group of entrepreneurial journalists has found that money and people can make or break your business, especially in the early days when you’re just trying to get off the ground. As their projects developed, they wrestled with critical choices along the scale of staying the course and shifting gears.

During the past year, Poynter has hosted three weeklong workshops for aspiring news entrepreneurs through a generous grant from the Ford Foundation. The second workshop took place last summer and I was part of the faculty team working with the group. Recently I asked all the participants for an update so we could gauge their progress and see what they had learned in the process.

Of the 18 participants who attended, about one-third responded. I know that some projects never got rolling while others are making progress but their founders couldn’t find time to provide an update.

Still, the lessons this small group of new news entrepreneurs shared are important to consider whether you have launched your own project or you’re still in the planning stages. Here are three key lessons these news entrepreneurs have learned in trying to get their projects off the ground.… Read more


What journalists need to know about starting a nonprofit business

There is a misconception among many would-be entrepreneurs, especially in journalism, that starting a nonprofit business will mean relief from the pressure of making money. Not so. Any business, whether nonprofit or not, must bring money in to survive. Nonprofits simply go about it differently.

The advantages of a nonprofit are tax exemption and the ability to accept grants from foundations, while also allowing individuals to make tax-exempt donations.

It sounds enticing to ask a big foundation to write a big check once a year and then spend the rest of the time doing journalism. It’s just not that easy. Simply becoming a nonprofit requires you to master the time-consuming rules and policies under which nonprofits operate, or the regulations and bureaucracy of a university (if you partner with one). Once you are “official,” writing grant proposals and schmoozing potential funders is no less taxing than trying sell advertising.

There are advantages, of course. Andy Hall and Brant Houston, co-authors of the “Launching a nonprofit news site” Web module for the Knight Citizen News Network, suggest you find a pro bono lawyer to help you navigate the complex business and journalism issues that can stem from starting and running a nonprofit.… Read more

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How to tell if your entrepreneurial idea could lead to a journalism business

In the beginning, there’s an idea. It’s how every inspiring story of entrepreneurial adventure begins. But the idea, by itself, is never enough. Ideas only become sustainable when they are transformed into a product or a business. And then developed. And marketed. And improved. Constantly.

Make no mistake, it is hard work. It takes courage, persistence and dedication.

How do you know if your idea is worth all that work? Test yourself.

Transfer your idea(s) into words and onto paper. Draw rough mock-ups of what your idea will look like if you can. This will force your idea through an essential first filter — you. Your head and your gut will work together and tell you whether your idea passes the first “sniff test.” If it smells like an idea with legs, this process will be fairly easy– even fun. It will get your creativity flowing, and you’ll get excited as additional ideas start coming to you.

Would you use this product/website? “Solve your own problem” is a common theme among entrepreneurs. Personally experiencing the “pain” or the problem that you are trying to solve creates a unique passion that will drive you like nothing else can.

Who else would use this product/website?… Read more

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Why News Startups Should Think Collaboration, not Competition, with Big Media

How will new media replace old media? The rise of independent journalism startups, combined with the shrinking of mainstream news organizations, provokes the question. And for some media pundits, the question is when – not if.

While that’s a sexy topic in media circles, more attention should be given to the concept of collaboration — not competition — between new and old.

As part of the Ford Foundation-funded program in entrepreneurial journalism at the Poynter Institute, we’re focused on helping journalists start new media operations. But we will also explore how news startups and traditional news companies can work together to the mutual benefit of both. It’s a new area for journalists thinking entrepreneurially, both at startups and at news companies.

Some entrepreneurs are hesitant to hook up, but there are several potential advantages. The big media partner can jump start your startup with instant traffic referrals. The news organization might share advertising revenues in exchange for placement on your site. If you don’t have a sales staff (or sales experience), this is huge. The exposure and credibility you can gain from working with a big media company is probably worth a lot to your startup, if the focus of your business fits a need the big company can’t fill on its own.… Read more