Innovation SWAT Teams Must Be Integrated Quickly Into Newsrooms

By Jim Flink

Published June 12, 2014, by PBS MediaShift; used by permission.

“The more we venture into the unknown, the higher the risk, the greater the chance of failure. As in science, though, experiments are not really failures if you learn from them.” Searchlights and Sunglasses: Field Notes from the Digital Age of Journalism

Risk and reward. Success and failure. Progress and lethargy.

Too often in our newsrooms we see things in such black and white terms, failing to see the opportunities that lie before our very eyes, blinded instead by our own predisposed ways of thinking.

Most journalists recognize the breathtaking pace of change taking place in our industry. The challenge for each of us lies in how we respond and adapt to these changes. This semester, the Missouri School of Journalism and Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute set out to test that adaptability in six of our newsrooms, (KOMU-TV, KBIA-FM, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Global Journalist, Missouri Business Alert and Treepple), creating a rapid-iteration, multiplatform content creation course that builds upon a far-reaching curriculum that prepares the next generation of journalists.

Missouri School of Journalism Students
Advanced-level Missouri School of Journalism students bring vertical and modular skills to newsrooms, helping organizations create rapid-iteration, multiplatform, layered content in real time. Photo by Jim Flink.

The Missouri Method: A Firm Foundation

Each course at the Missouri School of Journalism is created with a common goal: to have students learn by doing. Every class and every professor starts with that premise, and along with the selection process by which students are accepted into the program, it yields advanced students who are “profession-ready” by the time they are seniors.

Along the way, semester upon semester, students become vertically integrated in a vast array of skills. Beyond storytelling, photography (still and video) and editing (written and visual), students dabble in and develop deep knowledge of other skills, such as data visualization, coding, social networking, interactive storytelling and more, all of which enhance their journalism pedigree. I’ve had countless professional journalists from leading media companies tell me that this curriculum, its training and its students are what draws them to visit the Missouri School of Journalism.

Upon this firm foundation, this class sought to add a new element to the mix: Rapidity. It is the element that is a driving force in our industry’s metamorphosis. It’s not just that we journalists are experiencing change. It’s that the pace of change, the need to adapt not in some macro-organizational way alone, but in our day-to-day execution of content deployment, is the beacon beckoning us forth.

Innovation and Integration

When we set out to build small, tactical teams in each of our newsrooms, we set forth a premise that these SWAT teams, when properly trained, could help move the larger newsroom more quickly toward its multiplatform content deployment goals. We believed implementing such rapid-iteration deployment strategies might distract or detract from the legacy work necessary to a fully functioning newsroom. In part, that theory proved correct. Our teams were able to peel off and create content and strategies free from the daily workload and its many dependencies.

Investigative Reporters and Editors
Five students assigned to Investigative Reporters and Editors helped create new audio and video products for the news organization.

But we also created, in some of our newsrooms, a predictable barrier. Our rapid-iteration teams were regarded as “those other guys,” who were adjacent to, and not fully integrated in, all the other newsroom functions. As such, for every success we achieved, there were at times equal parts failure, at least to our way of thinking. The SWAT teams, in some newsrooms, easily found themselves facing expectations that didn’t align with their own goals, and vice versa.

Thus, one huge takeaway from our 16-week experiment was this: While introducing rapid-iteration, multiplatform content strategies with small, tactical teams may work in early stages, the sooner these strategies and teams can be fully integrated into a newsroom’s workflow and mindset, the better.

Portfolios and Future Promise

As we wrap up our experiment and prepare for its next iteration in the fall semester, here are some other takeaways we learned:

  • Never underestimate the value of infrastructure. Integrated and updated systems for every step of the news-gathering and news-editing process are central to effectively delivering multiplatform content. Fortunately, micro-newsrooms (where cameras and editing equipment are getting smaller and more efficient) allow for such expansion without necessarily adding huge capital outlay.
  • Nothing replaces sound strategy and planning. Our newsrooms best succeeded in this enterprise when they had clearly set forth goals, established organizational workflow and mindset patterns, and adapted as opportunities and obstacles presented themselves, while still staying true to the original mission.
  • Silos are anathema to multiplatform deployment. News organizations, even great ones, must analyze, assess and address internal barriers to rapid-iteration content deployment. These can include people, processes and programs that are not malleable enough to incorporate fluid storytelling goals.
  • Efficiency is key. Journalists, especially legacy journalists and newsrooms, must reassess how and where they spend their time and energies and work toward greater efficiencies.
Global Journalist
By filling out detailed weekly logs and progress reports, teams were able to assemble newsroom portfolios that not only outlined work performed, but also became manuals for what comes next.

Each of our newsroom teams kept weekly logs of the progress they made, which became the foundation for end-of-term portfolios. These portfolios included notes from every step of their journey, including initial planning and goals, implementation and execution methods, outcomes and measurements, how-to-guides and more. The resulting portfolios are a map for future newsrooms to follow, build upon and add to, as we move closer to our highly efficient content deployment objectives.

As the quote from our textbook, “Searchlights and Sunglasses: Field Notes from the Digital Age of Journalism,” correctly notes, the experiment journalists are now undertaking is not just about discovering the answers to what journalism will become. It is a valuable process of learning, stretching and expanding our mindset to understand that just as the stories we cover involve more than one point of view, our adaptation to the changing landscape will require just as diverse a set of skills and thinking as to how we view and measure failure and success.

View Jim Flink’s “Emerging Technologies in Journalism” course syllabus.

Jim Flink assists the Reynold Journalism Institute in identifying and developing mobile news content, distribution and monetization strategies. Prior to coming to RJI, Flink served as vice president of news operations and general manager of Newsy, a digital video news service. He coached and cultivated a young startup news operation into an internationally respected newsroom publishing quality video content on emerging digital platforms. Under his leadership, Newsy delivered multisourced news and original content to MSN, AOL, Huffington Post, Mashable and other news platforms. During his tenure, Newsy won the 2011 Appy Award for Best in News and the 2013 Appy Award for Best in iPad Publishing. Newsy was acquired by E.W. Scripps in December 2013.

Updated: July 27, 2020

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