How to innovate journalism? Start by reimagining the news story.

The Times must be willing to experiment more in terms of how it presents its content.” That is one of the many findings in this summary of the leaked 2014 New York Times Innovation report published by Harvard’s Neiman Journalism Lab. When one looks closely at the news outlets that are aggressively mastering new digital tools, the very painful truth is glaringly obvious–legacy outlets like the New York Times who still publish a print product are constrained by old habits, practices, and systems.

Here is the essential question:   How can the Times become more digital while still maintaining a print presence, and what has to change? “That means aggressively questioning many of our print-based traditions and their demands on our time, and determining which can be abandoned to free up resources for digital work.” (p. 82)

It is important to focus on what the Times is doing because in many ways they set the standard for news organizations in American and also globally. If they are not publishing “digital first,” and designing and redefining news for the newsphere, then other organizations with fewer resources are less likely to also pioneer innovative practices.

One of those practices involves an “impact toolbox,” and teaching reporters and editors to design a social media strategy for stories. According to the report, at ProPublica, “that bastion of old-school journalism values,” reporters have to submit 5 possible tweets when they file stories, and editors have a meeting regarding social strategy for every story package. Reuters employs two people solely to search for underperforming stories to repackage and republish. (p. 43)

Tagging, structured data, and in general a visionary approach to data driven journalism are important new practices that allow outlets like the Huffington Post to “regularly outperform” the Times in traffic by aggregating and repackaging Times content.

Duke Reporters’ Lab concurred with the Times report–legacy practices are hindering real innovation: “Despite all the hype we’ve heard in the past five or 10 years, there is still a wide gap between digital haves and have-nots in the use of data reporting and digital tools — particularly between bigger national organizations, which have been most willing to try them, and smaller local ones, which haven’t.”

The Duke report, titled “The Goat Must Be Fed,” found that “hundreds of news organizations are still stuck in the analog past, doing meat-and-potatoes reporting that doesn’t take advantage of the new tools.”

It also highlights the truly distinctive and effective digital practices of pioneering outlets. Some of these site include QuartzVoxBuzzFeed and The Huffington Post. And some of the exciting work being done using digital tools include The Texas Tribune’s Ethics ExplorerAlexis Madrigal’s work for the Atlantic, and FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s new Web site on ESPN.

Each of these new practices, outlets, and sites exhibits the following new qualities of news: In the newsphere, news is networked, relevant, participatory and engaging. Pushing the boundaries and inventing new forms of news and the news story is the promising future of journalism.

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