What media innovation looks like in 2018

A Q&A with Neil Brown, Rick Edmonds and Ren LaForme about Poynter’s Media Innovation Tour

Poynter’s weeklong Media Innovation Tour is an exclusive, behind-the-scenes tour of major media organizations in Washington, D.C. and New York City. Announced Thursday, the 2018 tour will return to The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Quartz, The Associated Press, Chartbeat, and the Pew Research Center, and include new stops at Twitter, Chalkbeat, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and Politico.

As applications open, I asked former tour leader and Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds, Poynter president Neil Brown and Poynter digital tools reporter Ren LaForme what innovation in media looks like in 2018. They talked about new ways to focus on audience, why it’s important to create a culture of innovation and how the organizations Poynter selected for this tour will “stir the pot in your own mind.”  

Click here for details on the 2018 Media Innovation Tour program.

Mel Grau: Ren, you have not been on this tour before. As a newcomer, what are you most looking forward to?

Ren LaForme: Seeing all the stuff we’re constantly reading and writing about in action. That includes going to places like Quartz and Politico that have these deliberately designed newsrooms to facilitate better communication.

I’m also interested in seeing how the sausage is made. We get to hear from the specialists who create the many new digital products for The New York Times. We get to go to a Washington Post editorial meeting. Seeing the backend of how these successful news organizations make their news and put it together will be interesting.

Grau: You cover digital tools. What digital innovations are you looking forward to hearing more about?

LaForme: I’m looking forward to seeing the things that are on the edge of my radar. I know that Quartz in particular, and a bunch of other newsrooms, are constantly doing these experimental things that may or may not pan out at all. I want to see what types of things they’re playing around with that might become something for the rest of us in a couple years.

I’m also expecting to see forward-thinking things about topics like augmented reality and virtual reality. I’m not sure how much of that will be things that we will do on a regular basis, but you never know.

Grau: What other innovations are on your radar?

Neil Brown: Last year, I became fascinated not just with what National Geographic was doing with Snapchat, but how that started to open up the possibilities of Snapchat as a form — a form that, to me, has become even more relevant for Poynter in thinking about MediaWise. So, I’m looking for different forms for how you can get information.

When you can go to these places, and meet people face-to-face, you start to get a handle on not just the ideas, but the cultural dynamics that either build the idea or defeat the idea. Culture at these places is very different, from what I’ve found on the two tours I’ve been on. It’s not that there’s not a specific product I’m interested in — I want to know about all of it — but I want to find out about how these leaders brought cultural change. There’s an honesty and candor when it’s in a room of 12 people. They talk about, ‘here’s what it’s going to take,’ in terms of money, in terms of personality. It’s hard to quantify how valuable that is. It’s certainly valuable to me.

LaForme: Innovation doesn’t happen when you hire someone with a six-figure salary. It happens because of the way you cultivate your staff and your news organization and even the newsroom’s physical layout. Being able to see how different organizations are cultivating that atmosphere is going to be really interesting.

Grau: On this year’s agenda, we added daily wrap-ups after a day of sessions. Why is this important?

LaForme: It's definitely interesting to learn from the most innovative newsrooms in the country. But it's only helpful with context and relevance. That's why we build in discussions as often as we can — to make sure we're finding ways to take these big ideas and lessons and make them relevant to everyone on the tour.

Grau: Being a stop on Poynter’s Media Innovation Tour is a signifier of excellence. How do we select which news organizations are included?

Brown: Part of it is leveraging the relationships we have to not just to get access to the places, but to the people doing innovative work. We also select organizations based on diversity. We’ve got print, digital-only, radio.

LaForme: Social media, analytics, research groups.  

Brown: It’s got everything.

Grau: Why only East Coast? Obviously, there’s innovation all over the country.

Brown: We’ve thought about and are interested in taking this thing west. Certainly, there’s a cultural, critical mass that comes from being in New York and Washington. A week sounds like a long time, but it’s super short. It’s unbelievable, having gone on two of these, how fast the time goes. Logistically, we’re trying to hit as many places as we can, in a short time, and be accessible to international visitors. We will continue to pursue whether we can do another version west of the Mississippi.

Grau: When we talk about ‘media innovation,’ we’re not just talking about newsrooms like The New York Times or NPR. We’ve also included organizations like Chartbeat and Pew Research Center on the tour. Why?

LaForme: I like Pew as a stage-setter because you have to know where you are to know where you’re going. Pew does a great job of sharing how the industry looks right now and what we’re up to.

Chartbeat is one of those analytics companies that’s not just looking at your numbers now, but they’re always looking ahead at what is going to be the future of analytics. A couple of years ago, they were talking about engaged time being a new big thing. We’ve found in the last couple years that people have been paying more attention to that, particularly advertisers. I think they’re good at talking about the innovative side to analytics.

Brown: We call it the ‘media innovation tour,’ but so much of it really is about audience. Pew sets the table and gives you context on audience, and Chartbeat is all about audience. We never want to get too far from that. Whether that’s how to reach them for revenue, reach them for content — audience is a major theme throughout all our programs.

Grau: What advice would you give people wanting to go on the tour? How should people prepare?

Rick Edmonds: Think about why you’re going and what you most expect to get out of it. You also may want to think about what you want to ask a given person when they’re in the room, like Arthur Gregg Sulzberger or Emilio Garcia-Ruiz.

Brown: I think that’s right. It’s like a lot of Poynter programs in that sense. Just come relaxed, with the opportunity to get a bunch of ideas and not feel like you’re going to school. The beauty of the size of this thing, keeping it small, is it’s pretty collaborative. There’s a lot of opportunity for conversation, both with your other participants and with the folks on the tour stops.

Edmonds: I think we should encourage people to ask their bosses to come! You might think that it’s too much money for your newsroom, but I was at a reception at a previous tour and two different people talked about how they were hesitant to ask their editor, and when they finally did, they were pleasantly surprised.

Brown: If you’re thinking about your next round of strategic planning, re-organizing, looking for what’s next, considering new revenue streams, there’s great opportunity for you in the Media Innovation Tour. When I came, I was getting ready to reorganize the newsroom, and I’m still calling on ideas from the tour three years ago and even the one from last year. If you’re poised for thinking more strategically and more broadly about your organization, your products, your culture, you’re in a good time to come. It’s very much about stirring the pot in your own mind.   

Registration for the Poynter Media Innovation Tour is intentionally limited. Sign up to attend this year's tour before the early bird deadline of July 13 to guarantee your spot and save.

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    Mel Grau

    Mel Grau is the marketing communications writer at The Poynter Institute. 

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