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.
  • Bloomberg’s interactive connection graphic on China’s Eight Immortals project gave the reader/user control in exploring the information.
  • The Reuters iPad app has a slick and intuitive interface on top of new and interesting information, like the “after” photo from a famous news event or the story behind the shot from the photographer’s point of view.
  • The Los Angeles Times used voiceovers to narrate infographics as part of an impressive package on the problems associated with the growing world population.
  • News21’s 100 Gallons project takes a fresh approach on story presentation with a video timeline as the backbone. The video work and cohesiveness of the stories combine to make a powerful package.

The bottom of the list left us scratching our collective heads, however. It seems some in the news industry still think it counts as innovation when they do something outside of their legacy medium, or apart from their traditional schedule. I’m sorry, but if you happen to work for a once-a-week TV news program, the practice of publishing content to your website on the other days of the week is not innovative. In case you hadn’t noticed, people routinely publish content to websites every day.

In fairness, it was the first year for this category, so a track record did not exist. Mike Phillips of Scripps gave us the Potter Stewart guidance at the beginning; we would know it (innovation, not porn) when we see it.

Once we looked through all the entries, the definition of innovation in journalism became clearer, at least to us: Trying new ways to create a better journalism experience for the reader through digital technology. Even better when it’s journalism that matters. And it works across all platforms. The challenges of journalism haven’t changed. Tackling stories and projects that have the most impact (isn’t Watergate still at the top of this list?) makes journalism matter.

Journalists and news organizations are now armed with an array of digital technologies available to present that information, that story, in an immersive and interactive manner. It used to be innovative to do a clickable graphic or a video as a sidebar or related link to an online story. Now the bar is higher; the more seamless the experience, the more integrated the different pieces are packaged together, the better it is for the reader/user.

Unfortunately, too many news organizations and journalists still see innovation through the lens of their legacy medium and the way they have always done things. A newspaper doing a video or a TV station doing a magazine? This is not innovative to the reader/user.

True innovation in news means connecting that reader/user to important information in a new and meaningful way. Will non-journalists share your project on social media and email it to their friends? Then you might be onto something truly innovative. The day of doing journalism for journalists — or awards — is over. Focus on the customer. Serve the customer.

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  • Mike Fancher

    Great insights. The entries listed all involve impressive innovation in presenting information. Some have innovative ways for audiences to engage with the information.
    But, where is the innovation in terms of actual interaction between journalists and people?
    Mark gets at this when he writes, “The day of doing journalism for journalists — or awards — is over. Focus on the customer. Serve the customer.”
    I would add, “Interact with people and see journalism as a true partnership with them.”