Four things we learnt at the International Journalism Festival 2016

13 April 2016

Caterina Visco

For the past ten years, the Italian city of Perugia has hosted the International Journalism Festival (#ifj16), a great gathering of journalists, innovators, but also students and researchers to tackle the future of our newsrooms. This year has been a great edition, and over five days, various experts from the media industry have discussed the most important trends in the world of journalism to shed some light on what might come: from the rise of platform-driven news to robot journalism, investigative reporting in war zones to data journalism. Here are our four takeaways from our favourite sessions this year...

1) Publishers have to face the fact that platforms have a lot of power and need to sort out how to use chat apps

There was a time when if publishers effectively controlled the channel of distribution from end to end, that control over the channel also gave them the control over the revenue. This is all gone, as Matthew Ingram (@mathewi), writer at Fortune Magazine, said in one of the most crowded panels of the festival: Journalism and Silicon Valley. “Now you create the journalism and the content and you throw it away in the wind and Facebook increasingly controls the wind, so they decide where your content goes, they decide who sees it and when,” he argued.

Truth be told though, even if everybody is struggling with this problem, as Emily Bell (@emilybell) Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism said, there are news organisations that are dealing with platforms better than others. It’s the case of BuzzFeed that was represented on stage by Craig Silverman, editor at BuzzFeed Canada.

 Meet Emily Bell Banner

At BuzzFeed they have accepted that the majority of content view does not happen on the website but on social media, and that a lot of their content sometimes lives on social media only. They have also accepted that on platforms there are many things on which the publisher doesn’t have control over anymore.

But what works for BuzzFeed, because of their revenue model, does not necessarily work for anyone else. And social media platforms are not the only places where publishers have to meet the audience, chat apps are part of the equation too, as Trushar Barot (@trushar), mobile editor at BBC World Service, said.

The next billion people that will be on the internet for the first time in their lives will come from areas of the world where having an email address, first name and surname is not necessarly the norm. It’s much easier to own a phone number and to be connected to everyone you know and get the information and news that you need via, let’s say, WhatsApp.

“I’m not convinced that that next billion are even gonna be familiar with traditional Google searches or traditional websites (...) their experience of the internet is going to be a whatsApp-like interface”. Trushar also thinks that because of the still high cost of data, people will also be more selective about what content they visualise and not waste money in “watermelon videos” but might instead be really interested in news.

However, not all platforms agree on their official role. While Facebook has declared that it is “just a platform”, Google has defined itself a publisher. Madhav Chinappa, head of Strategic Relations, News and Publishers of Google, said that this is an “acknowledgement that we exist in the news ecosystem, and that is a news ecosystem that includes publishers, platforms, technology companies. What we are hearing is that in this ecosystem everything is much more complicated and much more difficult, and that’s just the way it is. It’s just harder for publisher now than it’s ever been before.”

It’s not clear to anyone how publishers should react to the rise of platforms in the news environment - where they’ve ended up almost unintentionally. But this is what we learnt by the panel:

- distributed content is unavoidable
- news is just part of a more entertaining and less predictable mix
- what works for someone might not work for someone else
- news organisations need to experiment and know very well their audience
- journalists and publishers need to rethink advertising 
- publishers need to find alternative ways to subsidise news
- platforms need to be active part of the conversation

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From the right to the left: Jeremy Druker, Kate Ferguson, Caroline Giraud, Sameer Padania, Gabriela Manuli. Photograph courtesy of #IJF16

2) Independent journalism lacks - as usual - funds, and it needs to differentiate its revenue stream

Platforms also came up in the panel "Does independent journalism have a future?" Talking about the ordeals that independent journalism is facing, Sameer Padania (@sdp, CEO of Macroscope) explained that alongside the traditional challenges such as physical difficulties, legal issues, or digital safety, journalists need to think carefully about their dependence on technical platforms and technical providers like Google, Facebook or Twitter. He also warned that “the methods of fact-checking are being taken up by political groups or advocacy group within society who are taking these tools, weaponizing them and using them to pollute the information sphere, and add to the amount and quantity of data."

The biggest challenge, anyway, is as usual lack of funding. All the panelists agreed that  investigative and independent journalism are facing a serious crisis and desperately need support. "We need to make a case for the impact of investigative journalism and the importance of investigative journalism for democracy," said Gabriela Manuli (Global Investigative Journalism Network) who cited the Panama Papers as a good example of this impact. "In this hyperconnected world, people have to understand that the lack of independent media half across the world can in a way ultimately affect us locally," reinforced Jeremy Druker (executive director, Transitions)

PressstartPress Start home page

Accordingly to Manuli, independent news organisations must think about alternative revenue streams that can complement, but not substitute, donations or grants. Here are some ideas that she came up with: offer services, do consulting, become a fixer when something happens in your country, offer training and charge for that, charge for stories, get paywalls or pay-per-read, organise special events, crowdfunding.

In this scenario of creating a differentiated stream of revenue, Jeremy Druker introduced Press Start, a crowdfunding platform whose goal is "long term support, not one-off articles or investigation". 

3) Automation is changing journalism, and it might not be that bad


The image above was the one everyone attending the panel Can a Robot Do my Job wanted to see. To give the good news was Nicholas Diakopoulos, professor at the University of Maryland (@ndiakopoulos). Actually there is a lot that robots, or rather algorithms, can do, as Andreas Graefe, Tow Center Fellow and author of the Guide to Automated Journalism, showed us.

Graefe defines automated journalism as “algorithms and softwares writing stories based upon data without any human intervention, except for the initial phases of design and implementation.” This is really happening. He proved that with the example of Pollyvote, a project that produces stories about the next presidential election in the US using data automatically collected, and an algorithm that has been designed to identify the interesting information and write stories based on that.

What kind of stories can be written this way? Routine stories and lots of stories on the same topic. Only in this case, explains Graefe, the process can be economically worth it. "The classic examples are financial news, sports, crime, and areas where you have sensors-based data, like earthquake reporting, weather reporting.”

Justin Myers, automated editor at the Associated Press, broadened the definition of automated journalism. In his opinion, it includes many activities, not only generating content (articles, maps, graphics, interactives), but also helping to decide where or when to publish, running bots that helps the reporting and research process, or to interact with social media, implement automated solutions that help with tedious tasks.

“Computers,” argued Myers "can say what happened, but humans are really better at explaining why this happened and putting this information into a context for readers. So, where I see the promises for automated journalism is to give reporters more time to focus on 'why' because they don't have to worry about the what."

What Myers and Graefe showed us was more of a confirmation than a novelty. Meredith Broussard, assistant professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University, instead, blowed our mind introducing us to the Story Discovery Engine, a tool that aims at using artificial intelligence "to quickly and efficiently generate original investigative story ideas using public affairs data."

It works comparing what it should be accordingly to laws and policies with what it is in the real data: any discrepancy is a possible story. What does it look like in practice? Explore Stacked Up, a project in which Broussard compares the books that are really present in school's libraries in Philadelphia with those that should be and writes stories based on this comparison.


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 From the right to the left: Daniele Grasso, Jacopo Ottaviani, Sylke Gruhnwald, Anne-Lise Bouyer. Photograph courtesy of #IJF16

4) European Data journalism is getting a brand new manifesto  

Data has been one of the main issues discussed during this festival, with around 15 panels dedicated to best practices, case studies, specific tools and workshops. But one of these panels was different: Toward a European Data Journalism Manifesto.

Daniele Grasso (@danielegrasso, El Confidencial), Jacopo Ottaviani (@JacopoOttaviani), Sylke Gruhnwald (@SylkeGruhnwald, SRF Data and chairwoman of Journalismfund.eu) and Anne-Lise Bouyer (@annelisebouyer ,Journalism++) have presented a draft of a European Data Journalism Manifesto, that they have published on Medium, to keep it open to comments and replies.  

Everything has begun after last year IJF, they explained, when they first thought about this idea and sent out some questions to other data journalists across Europe. "Some of them ended in large Skype conversations, other were just short answers by email," explains Daniele Grasso. "Starting from that we organised everything in a spreadsheet, obviously, and we started writing this manifesto".

As they said at the conference and as it is written on the document: "This manifesto is a first step in defining and measuring the quality of data journalism projects and laying the foundations of a European data journalism framework."

But why European? Because "a multilingual network of data journalists who cooperate in English will be able to overcome linguistic barriers and create bridges among audiences. Such collaboration is crucial to counteract propaganda and serve the European public on the realities of an increasingly more divided Europe. Data, due to its machine-readable structure, is particularly good to build bridges between journalists and newsrooms across the continent."

"I believe that this manifesto could be seen as a tool to push for common values, that reflects the European values across the newsrooms and the European organisations that are developing data journalism projects or data driven strategies to communication," explained Ottaviani.


Of course there was so much more to take away from the International Journalism Festival. Those who want to know more about what happened can find the videos of all the sessions at the IJF You Tube page, or follow the hashtag #ijf16 on Twitter.


Background Photo Credit: val2103 via Compfight cc