Impressions after a Digital Innovation Tour Visiting Northern European Frontrunners

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By Klaus Henriksen & Henrik Keith Hansen

The digital trends today are all about collaboration and sharing, wild experiments in digital labs with not too many journalists, moving away from websites to social media and mobile and to understand and communicate intensively with our audiences. This article sums up the findings of 20 Danish editors visiting big and small European digital frontrunners, start-ups as well as well as established big media organizations, private as well as PSB in Copenhagen, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Brussels and London.

1) Collaboration
Collaborating among media companies and across sectors in order to innovate and to find new digital solutions to the benefit of all is really what it is all about in times, where the competition from the biggest international, digital players seems devastating for many traditional media companies. Sharing and open collaboration across media companies and between private as well as PS organizations is absolutely crucial. It is on time to slaughter all holy cows and not just to stick to yourself in order to find your own digital solutions. Media companies must also understand that they cannot only rely on their own talent and resources, and that will have to cooperate with other sectors as well.

Frontrunners in this process of transparency, collaboration and sharing are
e.g. Next Media Accelerator, NMA, in Hamburg and the Sandbox project of VRT, the big Belgian PS Broadcaster. NMA is initiated by DPA and financed by 10 German media investors with the goal to accelerate digital media start ups from Europe in order to speed up the digital transformation of the investors and to give them access to a pool of digital talent. NMA offers support in the shape of funding, mentoring and access to leading German media companies. Sandbox is a unique collaboration-project between VRT, 850 Dutch researchers and the digital start up scene in Belgium. The start-ups develop digital solutions, apps etc. and test their beta versions in the ecosystem of VRT’s programs and digital platforms and thus get access to a trusted brand and a big audience. The spirit is to experiment, experiment, experiment. As the GD of VRT, Paul Lembrecht, says: “Failure is not an issue. It’s a lesson”

2) Digital labs – avoid journalists
All big media companies we visited have established digital labs like e.g. at the PS Broadcasters VRT, NOS and DR and obviously also at Google and the Guardian, where they experiment with new digital solutions, apps etc. The experience with the digital labs across all countries is crystal clear: Don’t put journalists into the labs. If you rely too much on journalists the new digital solutions will not be radical enough, because the journalists are too critical and too self-critical, and they often have difficulties understanding the digital development. You need developers, IT experts and designers and maybe a few journalists and you must combine in-house expertise with external expertise. The development phase should be short, and you must at a very early phase include your users to understand their needs and to get their response.

3) Digital innovation based on the content of others
Many start-ups do what the established media themselves are not so good at: Picking up content across media outlets and platforms and giving it a digital twist, so that the value for the users will be increased. A Dutch startup, Blendle, offers an excellent overview for the busy user and gathers articles from some of the world’s best media on the major issues of the world right now. Narrativa, a Spanish startup, which is part of the Next Media Accelerator in Hamburg, claims it can copy the writing style of any journalist and in any language by data analysing a number of articles by a journalist, so that the computer can write like e.g. any sports-journalist after having been fed with all the statistical data from a match. Another NMA start-up, Yatrus Analytics, argues that their news events discovery machine – based on the analysis of tweets from all over the world – can warn newsrooms of big events before the big established news agencies will discover that something big is going on.

4) Digital business models – very few have cracked the nut
Nobody seems to really have cracked the nut of getting users to pay for digital content. But there are several interesting experiments: Building a popular and credible brand for young audiences (Vice and the new start-up News Monkey in Belgium), while the money is earned by selling marketing know-how or marketing services to private companies, who want to reach the young audience. Another experiment is to create a community or a club with very loyal members, who will finance content of high quality like e.g. De Correspondent (NL), Charlie Magazine (B), and Zetland (DK). No matter who your target group is, it is a general trend that you must first build up a community with a clear profile (and a great goodwill), before you can even start thinking about a sustainable business model. As the co-founder of De Correspondent Rob Wijnberg says: “It is not so much about re-inventing business models as it is about re-inventing journalism. What do you offer that people will pay for? And it’s not news – it is just like water, everybody can get it.”

5) Social media growing explosively – the media websites are dying
More and more traffic for the websites of the media goes via social media. This is not only the case for small media organisations but also the case for big media companies like e.g. NOS (NL) and ITN’s Channel 4 (UK), who says that their websites are dying as platforms for constantly updated content and interactivity and that basically all communication and publication is moving to social media. Channel 4 News says, that 80% of their digital strategy is aimed at Facebook and only 5% aimed at their websites. We indeed experienced that most of the digital frontrunners that we met had a very strong presence on social media and most of all on Facebook, secondly on YouTube and increasingly also on Instagram and Snapchat, which is growing explosively among the youngest audiences, but still very few established media companies seem to have a Snapchat-strategy except for NOS. The need for distinctively different strategies aimed specifically at the various digital platforms (but in line with the overall digital strategy) is pressing – and not least if you believe that you need to be with your content, where your audience is.

6) Everything goes mobile but not all understand the essence of mobile
Everybody seems to have noticed it: The mobile has exploded as the number one platform to access content. But not all seems to follow the mantra that we were introduced to at several media organizations: “Don’t waist your time to develop content and new features for laptop. Do it for the mobile phone.” This explosion in the use of mobile phones to access journalistic content and the parallel explosion in the purchasing of smartphones will force all media companies to think very differently. They all still seem to be producing content for laptops, while a majority of their audience – and all the young audiences – view their content on a smartphone. The mobile is a particular challenge to business-models based on banner adds. As Belgian News Monkey says: “Our business model is challenged by the success of the smartphone. 80% of our traffic goes via mobile, and a vast majority of our young users have installed add blockers.” Many media companies also seem to forget their growing mobile audience, when they still produce content in a big format on laptops. Channel 4 News as well as NOS News have both had “Mobile only” days, where staff could only produce content for their digital platforms on mobile phones to force them to think about the user experience of their audience.

7) Understanding your audience and communicating with them
Those media companies, who really seem to have understood the digital media and how to efficiently use them, are all very knowledgeable about their audience, their behaviour, their digital habits and their mode of using content at different times of the day. They do extensive audience research and extensive analysis of their data.
As they say at DR (DK): “We have to understand our users and their desire to chose exactly us instead of others: This must be the starting point of all innovation. We will have to stop thinking about, what will be interesting for us or for journalism in general.” As a digital start-up said: “Stop shouting, start listening.” Furthermore, the more digitally advanced media have fully understood what audience communication is all about. While NOS is creating their Instagram- and Snapchat profile they constantly ask their (young) users, how they like the design, colours, kind of content, length of content etc. The successful digital start-up in Holland, De Correspondent, says that their reporters spend half their working time communicating with their audience and not just 5 minutes, when the workday is over.

8. Frustrations about news – both ways?
Traditional producers of news are frustrated that they cannot get hold of the young audience, because they do not buy newspapers, watch broadcasts or go to news websites. But the adolescents may also be frustrated that they do not understand key issues or know key people in the public debate, because they are not “hit” by the news, when they browse around in the digital landscape. In any case this is the rationale behind a new promising start-up in London, “Scenes of Reason” that will give young people better opportunities to understand the difficult issues on the news-agenda of the mainstream media. We met a similar editorial youth targeted philosophy behind De Correspondent and News Monkey, who try to hit young people with serious content. A Greek start-up from NMA in Hamburg is trying to make a “Facebook for Democracy” for politically interested youngsters.

9. From young producers to young users
Everyone – both old media companies and new start-ups – are trying to address the challenge of reaching younger audiences. There are different philosophies, but as the most innovative companies say: “The children are digital first movers. Look at them when developing new digital solutions.” The trend is very clear: Young people can only be reached through social media – not through websites or any traditional media channels. And the content must be made by young producers, claims not only NOS, Vice and News Monkey but also a digital platform for podcasts (UK), which produces audio content for young people under 25 by young people under 25.

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