Advice for innovating in established newsrooms: Get used to messy

The Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds recently cited Michelle Holmes as one of the few top U.S. newsroom editors who has a strong digital background. Holmes, a 2012 Knight Fellow, is vice president of content at the Alabama Media Group, which operates Alabama’s top website, AL.com, and three of the state’s largest newspapers, each with a long history: The Birmingham News, Mobile’s Press Register and the Huntsville Times. The group also runs Gulflive.com and publishes The Mississippi Press. Parent company Advance Publications was seeking to accelerate its digital transformation when it recruited Holmes earlier this year from Ustream.tv, where she was director of business development. At Ustream, she worked with news companies and newsmakers on live video strategy. Before her Knight Fellowship, Holmes was editor-in-chief of two Chicago area newspapers, leading coverage on the web and in print. In this interview, Holmes shares some thoughts on helping journalists meet the challenges facing local news and discusses the impact of her fellowship.

As someone on the front lines, what is your view of the future of local news coverage?

It’s a land of incredible opportunity. I’m something of a missionary when it comes to this conversation. I feel like we’ve allowed local journalism to be defined by those who don’t value it, or by those who warn about its demise. Those crowds are both just wrong.

Like any smart media company, we want to do meaningful journalism that resonates with an audience. That’s the same whether you are reporting for an international or local viewership. In this time of rapid change in our industry, we’re committed to a journalism of the future. It’s why we’re driving web-native reporting styles to build local audiences and get them to dive in and be part of the journalism — to share it with their friends, join conversations about it, tell us what they think is important and why and guide us to where more stories are. I am excited to be able to bring more journalists to this endeavor: We’re looking to hire a data reporter, two investigative reporters, a data analyst and a political commentator in the next several weeks. In the end, local journalism is about journalism.

Our readers care about what’s happening in the broader world and we try hard to explain it to them, but our primary mission is to give them what no one else will — news, information and stories about the place they choose to call home. That will always matter.

What did the Alabama Media Group want to improve about the digital presence of its outlets?

In coming here, my job was less about digital tools or products — a lot of smart people already were thinking about that — and more about harnessing our collective power to use those tools to serve and grow the audience. We have immense opportunity in mobile and in video, and there’s a real thirst for growth in this space. We also are at a critical juncture when it comes to live reporting and the second screen experience, particularly in sports. That will only get better with advances in technology.

My role in leading a modern news organization is to help us become more nimble and adaptable for whatever lies ahead. I’m very mindful that we’re creating a foundation for journalism on tools that haven’t been invented yet, and that concepts like sophisticated data-driven targeting eventually will change how we all deliver news. Preparing for that future includes forging a deeper relationship with our audiences now, and helping understand how to create content that matters to them. Because, increasingly, news organizations are just the starting points: we deliver words, pictures and data not just to be consumed on our platforms, but for people to share, embed, aggregate, argue over, and interact with. It’s raw and rough and muddy sometimes, but it’s thrillingly alive.

What changes have you started making in your first 6 months on the job? What challenges have you faced?

It’s really about trying to approach problems in new ways. My first goal is redirecting the conversation toward an expectation of excellence: not just in traffic growth, but excellence in our journalism — innovation, imagination, depth, breadth; tapping all the new ways of getting and telling stories, while still respecting and excelling at the older ways.

Another goal is thinking beyond our borders and devising new ways to collaborate. We’re kicking off a project with the Center for Investigative Reporting; we worked with a cross-section of community activists and journalists to help explore the uses of Groundsource (founded by 2009 Knight fellow Andrew Haeg) at the Center for Collaborative Journalism; we partnered with Auburn University’s computer science department to host teams for the international Americas Datafest (a project of another 2012 Knight Fellow, Teresa Bouza). I hope I can continue to help join my smart, creative, team with the broader journalism world.

The biggest challenge is inertia. It’s easy to fall back on the easy and the comfortable. It’s harder to wake every day and ask: How else can I be telling this story? What other stories can I be telling? What data can I offer my audience today that will help them see the world in new ways? We cover NASA, we cover Alabama football, we cover beach parties on the Gulf and some of the nation’s greatest healthcare challenges. There’s no one-size-fits-all model. We have to reach harder and higher, every day.

During your Knight Fellowship, you explored how citizens can use smart phones to produce high-quality video content for news organizations. You created a prototype Iphone app called “Illuminus.” Are there lessons or insights from that experience that you are applying in your position now?

The potential for capitalizing on the ubiquity of smartphones to better help our audience tell stories is still mostly untapped. The digital news landscape makes that not just possible, but an important next step. I was lucky to work with some brilliant people in creating Illuminus, including Knight Fellows Deepa Fernandes, and Justin Ferrell, and Silicon Valley engineer Gokul Krishna. Running through the gamut of the founder experience, from prototyping to pitching to investors, gave me an incredible understanding of the startup world where so many of tomorrow’s innovative companies are being born. And maybe more importantly, it allowed me to remember the power of the personal story.

How has Stanford’s startup culture influenced your approach to making changes in a large, established news organization?

Change. Try. Do. Nearly every decision we make is a living prototype. While the oft-repeated fail-fast mindset didn’t originate in Silicon Valley, the ubiquity of the phrase there certainly has helped keep it front of mind. My experience there was also a reminder that great ideas can come from anywhere in a healthy organization.

I also learned what I didn’t want from the startup culture. From an entrepreneurial accelerator class and from my initial post-fellowship work consulting with a venture capital firm, I saw a shocking lack of women or people of color in leadership, and a shocking lack of concern about it. The tech/startup/cool-kid milieu got tiresome in its hoodies and its world-changing self-importance. What I hope I’d never lose from them (and my Knight friends and colleagues), however, is feeling that anything is possible, and that it’s worth dreaming big. That had been beaten out of me by years in bitter, cynical Midwestern newsrooms. My optimism is back.

What is the most important piece of advice you’d give others who are trying to innovate within established newsrooms?

Get used to messy. Be willing to let others see you fail. Trust your team. I rank them all as “most important.” I’d also tell people to stop talking about the digital future. It’s the present. It’s here and now and it’s growing and it’s tremendous. There is no more print-only world, and every projection tells us that world is getting smaller, it isn’t growing. We respect it and embrace it, but we can’t bet on it as the future. It simply isn’t. We are way, way, WAY past an discussion about digital vs. print or print vs. digital. We are just doing journalism and publishing it every way we can, getting it in front of audiences every way we can.

Have a question about this post? Email mholmes@al.com or tweet to @Mlh_holmes