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#ijf11: ‘Innovation is about about throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks’

April 18th, 2011Posted by in Business, Events, Hyperlocal, Local media

Journalism conferences, as with all conferences I suspect, are always vulnerable to least a bit of tiresome industry navel-gazing, if not a lot. Even when they’re good, which the International Journalism Festival was, there is inevitably a lot of talking.

But on the last day of #ijf11 there was a welcome antidote in amongst the talk to round things off, a coherent message from several of the panelists: go out and do things, try things, find out what works. This particular session looked innovation in news, specifically at what it takes to go from having a good idea for a news site, to getting off the ground, to staying solvent.

Nigel Barlow trained as an accountant. He worked in small businesses for 20 years before he decided it was enough, and packed it in for a journalism course at UCLan.

Shortly after graduating Barlow co-founded Inside the M60, a local news site for the Manchester area. He told the #ijf11 panel that people need to start worrying less about the traditional journalism routes and start trying new things.

It’s a difficult time for journalism, but difficult times tends to bring out the best innovation. Don’t just look at the traditional routes, if you’ve got an idea just get on and do it. It’s abut throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.

A model example of getting on with it, Nigel was covering news for Inside the M60 before it even had a website.

Before the site was even there, we started to report on news in the area using Twitter, and created momentum for the site a few months before it launched.

We actively made connections with what I would call the local movers and shakers, MPs and businessmen for example.

We got a couple of big interviews with local MPs as well, which helped a lot at the beginning, and we were the first on the scene to cover a large gas explosion in Newham and were covering it live from the scene, after which we put about 1,500 followers in a couple of days.

We didn’t have a lot of money and we still don’t, so we have to make the most of free tools. But we got started by using social media and basically making a big noise on Twitter.

Using Barlow’s site as one example, Google News executive Madhav Chinnappa said the important thing was “the barriers to starting a news organisation have fallen”.

Fifteen years ago, starting a news organisation from scratch would have been impossible, but we have three people on this panel who have done exactly that.

And Chinnappa echoed Barlow’s sentiments on just getting on with it.

Google’s take on this is experimentation and interaction. Go out, try it, try it again, see what works.

He acknowledged it was difficult for smaller sites like Inside the M60 to get a decent ranking on Google news, and they would inevitably be dwarfed by the big global stories.

We know that if you’ve got a local news story that no one else has that it can be difficult to get out there. If you go to Google News and you don’t see an Inside the M60 story, that’s because they are getting outweighed by the likes of Fukushima and Libya.

And he acknowledged Google News was not giving proper due to certain types of content.

We’re not as good as we should be around video, or image galleries. And we’re almost playing catch up with the news organisations as they innovate, whether that’s graphics or slideshows.

But he also said there isn’t a magic formula to cracking Google, and argued that original, creative content was still important.

I think there is this myth about getting the technical aspect just right, and hitting on a formula and then you will suddenly be great on Google.

I don’t want to sound cheesy, but having good original content is still very important.

I spoke to Nigel Barlow after the session about making money as a local news startup:

Listen!

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