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13 lessons from ISOJ to innovate journalism according to the blog #nohacefaltapapel

The following is a reproduction of the article “13 lessons of ISOJ Austin to innovate today’s journalism” published in #nohacefaltapapel blog Apr. 21. Its founders, María Ramírez and Eduardo Suárez, reflect over the lessons gained throughout the 16th International Symposium of Online Journalism (ISOJ), which took place April 17 and 18 in the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin.

* * * * *

By: Eduardo Suárez and María Ramírez

María Ramírez, one of the authors of this blog, presented her experience with her blog El Español during ISOJ 2015. Photo: Mengwen Cao/Knight Center.


“Every path takes you to Austin,” said Jorge Luis Borges, who taught at the University of Texas during the 1960s. For 16 years, this city has hosted the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, founded and directed by Professor Rosental Alves, who reunites this vanguard for international journalism every spring. This is where this blog was born in 2014. These are some of the lessons that we received from this year’s reunion. They are especially useful for the press outside the United States. Susan Glasser, editor of Politico, said she started an edition of Politico in Brussels because European journalism has been behind for “several years.”

1. Publish everywhere

The 2014 symposium’s mantra was that home page was dead: users reached news content less through news websites’ home pages and more through social media such as Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. This year, many of the speakers offered a twist to this argument: the website of any news organization is becoming less and less important when it comes to connecting with the reader.

The New York Times publishes content adapted to Facebook and Buzzfeed sometimes tweets without including links to its website. But none of these cases are as extreme as the one of the Hispanic channel Fusion, which started being just a little more than a Twitter account and now designs entire series for Instagram and Snapchat. “Every platform is different and counts on different users. This is why our strategy has to be different in each of them,” explained its CEO, Issac Lee, who is convinced that this is a profitable strategy and said that he does not want to make a business plan “with yesterday’s profits.”

This spirit perfectly summarizes Stacy Martinet’s words, who is responsible for marketing at Mashable: “We live in a continuous feed of stories that happen in our phone. In this feed, your logo has to mean something. We do not own the press anymore. We publish in platforms that are not ours. This is why our relationship with our users is more important than ever. Let us think about the value we give to our audience and what we do best.”

Social networks consumption among young people in the U.S.

Few companies have set that standard as high as Vox Media, a company that owns digital leaders like Vox, Eater and The Verge. Helen Havlak, responsible for audience outreach of The Verge, said that their Facebook audience is starting to age. An observation supported by the graph we reproduce here. 

“Our younger followers do not to look for us. They wait for us to reach them through networks such as Periscope or SnapChat,” said Havlak, who explained that they are also more aggressive with less popular platforms such as Pinterest and Tumblr because they do not want to depend on a single distribution platform.

2. Publish notifications 

Another extraordinary way to connect is push notifications in people's cell phones. No other news company has perfected this method as much as Buzzfeed, which includes summaries with images and details that attract users to their content. In this article published at the end of March, they offered some key points about their digital strategy.

Now Buzzfeed is in the process of creating a news application in which they will curate their own content and the one produced by other publications. The app will allow their reporters to publish directly from a smartphone.

“People maintain a much closer relationship with their telephones than the one they’ve ever had with newspaper or television,” explained Stacy-Marie Ishmael, head of news applications at Buzzfeed. “We have to be very careful with our notifications if we do not want our users to delete our application from their cellphones.”​

3. The newsletter is back

“The e-mail is the new ‘home page,’” said Rosental C. Alves, host of the symposium and professor at The University of Texas. “Sending a morning newsletter is a magnificent way of engaging readers and offering a service which contains content from other publications.”

A major reference is the Quartz newsletter, which reaches 100,000 readers per day and has a 50 percent opening rate. The e-mail contains three editions: one for Europe, another one for Asia and another one for the United States. It is written by one person and edited by another one before being sent.

“The newsletter is almost like a letter from a very well-informed person,” Gideon Lichfield, senior editor at Quartz, said in March in Huesca (Spain). “We always elaborate it using a great sense of humor. We try to explain what is important today. The newsletter has four sections: what is going to happen, what happened while you were asleep, the day’s controversies and a bunch of amazing articles. We don’t use just Quartz content. The idea is to give our readers topics they can talk about with their co-workers.”

Why did Quartz decide to create a newsletter? Because this is what was “suggested” by the results of a survey, said vice president of advertising Joy Robins. She says that 1,000 executives responded to 60 questions about the way they consume information. These were the conclusions:

  • 44% consume news during the morning
  • 30% consume news during the day
  • 61% consume news in mobile
  • 60% read information in their e-mail

Quartz is not the only example of the rebirth of e-mail as an informative platform. Rosental mentioned “the Skimm: a newsletter started by journalists Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, which has gathered $6.25 million in financing.

4. Choose what you cover carefully

Attracting attention from our audiences within a context full of distractions is more and more difficult every time. This is why it is more important than ever to choose your topics carefully and focus on angles that will attract the reader’s attention. Susan Glasser, editor of Politico, summarizes this with these words: “We are our own competition. Especially in a world where there are so many things to direct our attention to. The most important thing is to be very good at choosing what to cover and what not to cover.”

Susan Glasser with Evan Smith. Photo: Gabriel C. Pérez/Knight Center.

Glasser said that every time it gets more and more difficult to “create an indispensable product” and that now “it is not enough to be the first to tell a story” in order to be more successful than the others. This idea was emphasized in the presentation of her colleague Emilio García-Ruiz, a managing editor at The Washington Post, who talked about his journalists’ obsession to elaborate stories with things such as games, animated graphics and visual elements that attract the readers’ attention on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. These are some of his best examples:

  • A text written by a woman who ponders if she should drive her Mercedes to go to get food stamps: 6 million unique users and 30 million page views.
  • An interactive special about the ‘N-word’ and how African Americans and Caucasians perceive it.
  • A marvelous animation on how to maintain a healthy body.

Here are the reflections shared by Robert Picard, from the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford and author of an influential blog: “The information is incredibly abundant. What we are producing and reproducing has less and less value every time. The news organizations say that they do not have any money, but they waste it sending a bunch of journalists to sports competitions where it is very difficult to add anything of value.” What was his advice to the editors? “Spend your resources on something that people will pay for; unique, local and specialized content.”

5. A different kind advertising is possible

Native advertising was one of the key points at the symposium. Leonardo Cruz from Folha de São Paulo presented this formidable special story financed by three institutions. But Joy Robins from Quartz gave the star presentation, in which she detailed the online news site’s relationship with advertisers and explained the criteria they use to publish their ads. Their motto is producing quality content that is relevant to readers, optimizing it for mobile and social networks and being transparent about the promotional character. About 87 percent of the companies advertise more than one time, she said.

Their ads are special banners that come out between articles: big, well made and sometimes interactive. They also have articles written by the advertisers and they are identified as such. “It is interesting content for our readers, even if it is not written by us,” said Robins. “Our advertising department helps the advertisers to improve their content.”

Traditional ads are less and less profitable and acceptable for young people, who have a different concept of advertising. “They hate banners and they do not care about the ads mixed within the news feed,” explained Bonita Stewart from Google. “They value relevant ads which help them in their daily lives and are willing to finance the pages they like through innovative models.”

6. Loading speed

This is a main concern for news companies. Among other things, they compete for the attention of a distracted audience, especially on mobile. Vox Media has a team of three engineers exclusively dedicated to improving the performance of its content. In other words, controlling the loading speed of its pages and their adaption to mobile.

“Loading speed matters a lot,” Vox Media chief product officer Trei Brundett continuously repeated. Figures from Google indicate that load speed is even more important in mobile. “If your page does not load in one second, you will lose the user’s attention,” Brundett said. “If you take away the search and domain, you are only left with four-tenths of a second. And yet, most websites take about seven seconds to load.”

Vox Media is obsessed with increasing its page loading speed, especially for its most popular pages. “Our goal when we informed about the launch of the Apple Watch was for this ‘live blog’ to load faster than any other,” Brundett said.

Slow loading by some news sites is what makes Facebook a tempting option, something that can be summarized like this: since your site takes multiple seconds to launch an article, publicize it directly on the Facebook platform. By doing so, speed is guaranteed and you will gain more readers. 

7. Edit on mobile

To adapt well to mobile content, reporters have to get used to working on mobile devices. “Our obsession should be designing mobile experiences,” says Stacy-Marie Ishmael, head of news applications at Buzzfeed, who recalls that news publishers still spend too much time tied to their desktop computers or laptops. “The editorial system should allow the journalist to publish a story, video or image on mobile without going through e-mail,” Ishmael said. She also insists that we must test content on all types of phones, including those that have a poor Internet connection.

ISOJ 2015. Photo Gabriel C. Pérez/Knight Center.

Working on mobile allows for a different way of thinking. Robert Picard, of the Reuters Institute at University of Oxford says that “we must change the way of practicing news,” something that younger reporters have already understood. “There is tension in the newsroom because the new journalists question the old ways,” said Picard. “In many newspapers the definition and news formats are from the 19th and 20th century. A news organization cannot prepare for the future by hiring journalists with over 30 years of experience, regardless of how many Pulitzers they have, to tell young people what to do.”

8. Long stories on mobile

News organizations are betting on longer texts and are not afraid to do so through mobile devices. In fact, this increases the reader’s time on the site and increases brand loyalty as well as the ability to include non-intrusive ads. “Our long stories on Politico Magazine attract many readers on cell phones. It is not true that our audience only reads short pieces on their smartphones,” says Susan Glasser, editor of Politico.

Journalists from other news organizations agree with this notion. “Our 15-minute videos have large audiences on small screens,” says Drake Martinet  of Vice News . The Washington Post has increased traffic with longer texts. Univision also displays a strong commitment for long form TV: “People get their news through Twitter. Television has to do something worthwhile,” says Isaac Lee. “Mobile does not mean shorter,” insists Stacy-Marie Ishmael of Buzzfeed. “But my advice is this: if you make a long story, make it f****** good.”

Glasser recounts her good experience with Politico Magazine, which bucks the current trend towards digital. “Digital journalists have spent much time chasing tiny stories and that created an editorial opportunity. Suddenly there was a space to take a break and have more ambitious stories that are not normally told and deserve attention.”

9. No sign of the tablet

In three days of presentations and discussions, there was no mention of the tablet, a device missing at this symposium. Even amongst the public, it was hard to find tablets because large cell phones and smaller notebooks have replaced them.

The obsession of every editor of any news organization — large and small, pure or mixed digital, U.S., Latin American and Europe—is to make the most of the possibilities of the cell phone and prepare for whatever comes in formats like smart watches.

There was no talk of any editorial product being designed specifically for tablets, which are becoming increasingly scarce: 91% of the people have a mobile device in their hands 24 hours a day and that is the only obsession of journalists and editors, who adapt their advertising and design to the place where readers are.

10. Customize your offer

Isaac Lee (Univision), Joy Robins (Quartz) and Bonita Stewart (Google) repeated the importance of personalizing information, advertising it and adapting to the routines of consumers, especially regarding mobile phones.

“Identify the moments that matter,” advises Stewart. “The media should connect with their users wherever they are, especially on their mobile phones. We live in the age of instant gratification. Journalists must identify important moments and offer memorable experiences to their audiences in those moments.”

“The user must be at the center of any equation,” says Adam Symson, chief digital officer and senior vice president of EW Scripps Co., which owns dozens of newspapers and radio and television stations. “In the past, everything began with a meeting at which the editors hoped to mark the day's agenda. Today many publishers continue to make decisions that way but the world is no longer like that. The world revolves around mobile devices. Anyone who does not understand that will disappear.”

11. Invest in virtual reality.

The techniques of virtual reality have been around since the 1980s. But for the first time, devices for “total immersion” are getting better and there are experiments with news, which are efficient and not as expensive to make.

Its defenders claim that falling behind in a technology that the film and video game industry are exploiting would be a mistake for news organizations, which must keep up to avoid falling behind like they did with the mobile phone. Google offers cardboard glasses and applications for iOS and Android to immerse the user in video recorded at 360 degrees or animated three-dimensional recreations. Its detractors insist on potential ethical problems if the reconstruction of the news is not very accurate.

Virtual reality demonstrations during ISOJ 2015. Photo: Gabriel C. Pérez/Knight Center.


Nonny de la Peña  has an immersive journalism business and shows the most ambitious projects listed in  this website  with the recreation of a case of police violence,  the tail of hunger  in Los Angeles or the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Taylor Owen, who led a project between public television and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism, suggests recording specifically for a report, using the interactive potential and choosing the devices carefully. “Journalism can take advantage of the new way of storytelling. But it has to adapt to new ways of representing reality and to the new technological requirements,” he says.

Ray Soto leads the virtual reality project at Gannett , which has launched an application and has spent months making smaller experiments, for example in Iowa. Soto says it is an opportunity with “endless” possibilities of bringing “the world” to the reader.

12. Traffic is something else

The recipe that several powerful speakers repeated is that it is essential to pursue the most valuable audience. “Knowing your audience is the most important thing in this new scenario. Volume does not make sense. The media should identify its most valuable customers,” says Bonita Stewart of Google.

“The transformation that is shaking journalism is just beginning. The home page of the New York Times is still too much like the cover of a newspaper. We spend far too much time chasing clicks without a clear strategy,” says Susan Glasser, of Politico.

A sustainable business model and quality journalism is achieved in new ways, especially with very specific issues. At the colloquium on Latin American journalism after ISOJ, Patricia F. de Lis, of Materia explained how the science section of El País has up to 3 million users and how it manages to lead traffic with only two stories a day sometimes. This story about the Altamura Man ​​was the most read in El Pais in Spanish and Portuguese.

13. Developers in the newsroom

The Washington Post has the best traffic results in its history and has been chosen as the most innovative newspaper of 2014. Its managing editor, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, attributes part of the online success of the newspaper in recent months to the addition of developers and to the real integration in the newsroom. In 2011, there were three or four. Today there are 47.

“We have more developers thinking as journalists and more journalists thinking as developers,” he says. When looking at this example, several media agree that developers work together with reporters. “We are looking for people on a mission. We would never hire an engineer who would not mind working for any other company,” says Adam Symson, of Scripps.

“I test whoever comes looking for work. I ask them to tell me what are the three most important news of the day. I also ask them to tell me what their favorite applications are and what problems they have and how they could be improved. This is how I see the aptitudes a candidate has for product design even if he or she has not been trained for it,” says Stacy-Marie Ishmael, of Buzzfeed.​

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