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Feb. 5, 2017

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Producer and broadcaster Jesse Wente delivers his keynote lecture at the launch of the Digital News Innovation Challenge at Ryerson University. (Amanda Pope)

A website to help children understand the news, a mobile platform that provides newsrooms with better access to eyewitness videos, and an online platform for distributing newscasts on voice-activated devices were among the ideas-in-progress at the recent launch of the Digital News Innovation Challenge.

Nearly 100 journalists, aspiring entrepreneurs and students attended the Jan. 25 launch of the Canada-wide incubation program in Ryerson University’s DMZ. The event was an opportunity to learn more about how to become one of five journalism startups accepted into the Facebook-sponsored program. The teams selected through the Challenge process will each have access to up to $100,000 in seed capital.

Participants attending Digital News Innovation: Framing the Challenge heard working journalists, scholars, DMZ leaders and officials from Facebook outline the selection procedure as well as specific journalism challenges in need of entrepreneurial solutions.

“These days, the most captivating footage of any event is usually captured by someone on the scene with a smartphone,” said Andrei Sabau, the founder of Seen, a platform he says will make it easier for news organizations to discover, verify and license photos and video published online. “While we can be certain that most events are well documented by those in attendance, the inability for news organizations to quickly and securely access that content leads to a slow dissemination of information. Global events take hours to be clearly communicated to the broader population, while many local stories are never covered.”

The Challenge, a partnership between the Facebook Journalism Project, the DMZ and the Ryerson School of Journalism, will accept applications now through to March 9. The five applicants admitted to the program will be announced this spring. In addition to access to seed money, participants will each receive a Facebook marketing budget of up to $50,000 to promote their innovations on the social platform.

The startups will spend from April to September in Sandbox, the DMZ’s skills development space. In addition to accessing support for entrepreneurial ideas and early-stage startups, participants will gain access to high-profile senior mentors, workshops designed by digital news experts in Canada, workspace in Ryerson’s DMZ and the opportunity to work with investors, journalists, experts and researchers.

Richard Lachman, Ryerson’s director of zone learning, said that, among other qualities, adjudicators will be looking for applicants who are coachable: “If you are so fixated on your idea that you are sure you have the most brilliant thing in the world, you probably shouldn’t apply. We are hoping to help. We have expertise to help you pivot that idea, to alter that idea, to become coached with all the expertise around. We are looking for people who are open to refining their ideas based on the program.”

The $100,000 in seed capital will be dispersed in phases beginning with the release of $20,000 to each participant at the start of the Challenge. Each team will receive two more installments of $20,000 upon completion of clearly identified milestones. At the end of September, there will be a final presentation where teams will be eligible for another $40,000.

The launch included a mini symposium that explored journalism-related challenges, including how to attract and retain audiences, the impacts of an advertising-based model on traditional journalism, and the social impacts of obtaining news from platforms that weren’t purpose-built for journalism.

Jesse Wente, the event’s keynote speaker, identified the disconnect between news organizations and their audiences as a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

“When large institutions fail to be inclusive and at the same time their audiences are rapidly becoming more diverse, you have a recipe for irrelevance,” said Wente, an Ojibwe broadcaster and columnist on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. “What happens is you create…enormous gaps where people cannot find themselves in your coverage. They don’t see stories that represent them, that speak to the issues that are present in their daily lives.”

During a panel on the state of local news media, April Lindgren, an associate professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism, outlined a list of problems besetting local news organizations.

“We need ideas that make it easy for local news organizations to engage with their audiences or build them; ideas that measure the impact of individual local news stories; … ideas that make it easier for citizens to contribute to local coverage; and innovations for older audiences that aren’t really digitally savvy,” said Lindgren, who leads the Local News Research Project.

She said her research shows that local news is at risk and unevenly available across Canada. The latest data from the Local News Map, which Lindgren created with the University of British Columbia’s Jon Corbett, shows that 238 local news outlets have closed since 2008, including 212 newspapers in 173 communities. Most were community newspapers that published fewer than five times per week.

Radha Tailor, a senior correspondent for the Bramptonist, said residents in Brampton are news deprived: “Brampton has a population of around 600,000 people, but we are limited on news accessibility. We don’t have our own television channel. There is a huge challenge in that people have not been interested in the news in Brampton for a long time. How do we make them interested?”

The lack of full time staff at the Bramptonist, she said, also means there is no time for innovation: “We have a small team of eight and everyone is freelance or on contract. We don’t have anyone there that is full-time.”

Laura Ellis, the head of online for English regions at the BBC, said the challenges faced by local journalism in the United Kingdom are similar to what is happening in Canada. The United Kingdom has lost about 200 local newspapers over the last decade, she said, along with about half of the journalists who once worked in local news.

The BBC, Ellis said, is seeking to address this “democratic deficit” by hiring reporters to cover civic institutions, placing them in local newsrooms, and sharing their content far and wide.

“We cannot go to council meetings and people are getting away with stuff,” Ellis said. “We now have 150 new journalists who will be covering their institutions, including local councils and health boards. They will be publishing stories everyday online and in the newspapers.”

While panelists outlined a long list of journalism challenges in need of solutions, many in the audience already had ideas in the works.

Trebble.fm is an online platform to distribute newscasts on voice-activated devices such as Google Home or Alexa. Armel Beaudry said his media startup makes it easier for audiences to find local content and for journalists to share news coverage. Local journalists, for instance, can share newscasts with their audience using “capsules”– audio messages that journalists can record through the platform to play to listeners.

With the loss of so many local newspapers, Beaudry says, “there is a need to better distribute local journalism. There are a lot of people who want news and content but there is only coverage with a broad appeal and a limited amount of coverage with a local appeal.”

Teaching Kids News, co-founded by Joyce Grant, is an online site that publishes stories about the news of the day with extra context and in language children can understand. The team of volunteer journalists working on the site also produces curriculum and grammar questions for every news article that children can understand and that is relevant for teachers and parents who are homeschooling their offspring. Grant said she would use the Challenge funds to pay the volunteers and build her startup.

“We’re looking for expertise and information on how to monetize our innovative idea,” said Grant. “It is really exciting to think we may be able to get into this program and learn what we need to learn. Everything that they’re offering is what we are looking for– a space to work out of, a community to get information from, and contacts and funding. This program can help us to take our idea that is solving a problem and build it.”

Jessica Thom, assistant professor, at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts. (Jasmine Bala)

By JASMINE BALA
Staff Reporter

While most Canadian millennials get their first taste of news via Facebook posts, Twitter shares and other social media, that is typically just the starting point when it comes to their news consumption habits, a new study suggests.

The study contradicts the commonly held belief that young people don’t go much beyond social media in their quest for news, says Jessica Thom, a Ryerson University School of Image Arts assistant professor and the author of the research. In fact, she said, many youth use social media as a gateway to mainstream news sites.

“They’re really reading the trending topics; they’re reading the title of the article that their friend has posted or shared,” Thom said in an interview. “They’re really getting kind of the bite-sized pieces of news from their social media, and then they either click on that article or they search that title and they find out more information through search engines.”

Participants in the research, which Thom did for her doctoral dissertation, said that after social media such as Facebook brought a news event or development to their attention, they would often use Google to seek out more information from a trusted mainstream news site.

“That is a very conscious decision that they make, to find a mainstream news outlet that they have some sort of understanding of or with,” Thom said. “It’s for the most part not things like blogs, live streams, Twitter or opinion comments on YouTube where they’re going to find out the facts about a news story.”

Thom’s investigation of how young people choose which news to consume and which news to believe involved focus groups, interviews and online diary-keeping. Participants were aged 18 to 29.

If young people weren’t interested in the topic of the story or didn’t think it was important, they normally didn’t go much further than the headline on social media, said Thom.

“That idea of importance was also something that was a little bit vague,” she said. “[It] can be something that’s important to them because they have a family member, a friend or a roommate that has some sort of affiliation to that story. They could be from that country; they could know someone who’s visited that country.”

Participants, she said, clearly understood that reading the news is a key part of being an informed citizen and participating in a democratic society. They demonstrated a “sophisticated approach to—and interest in—becoming informed citizens,” rather than a lazy or haphazard approach to news consumption, she wrote in her dissertation.

Thom noted, however, that young Canadians also “depend on sites and aggregators like Facebook, Snapchat and Google, as well as their friends and family, to funnel important or interesting news to them rather than spending time and mental energy sifting through thousands of news sites, blog posts, YouTube videos, tweets, Snapchats, radio broadcasts and television news bulletins to find the most relevant news.”

The proliferation of fake news, she added, has “made judging the truthfulness and deception in news very challenging,” and this is something millennials have to think about when consuming online news.

When deciding what mainstream news outlet to visit and believe, Thom wrote that young Canadians use a mental checklist. It may include questions like: “Is the source credible? Have you used it in the past? Does it have a tradition? Is the language appropriate? Does the language sound like a professional journalist or does it sound like ‘Joe’s blog’? Is the spelling accurate? Is it more opinion-based or is it more fact-based?”

Study participants, she said, used literacy skills taught in their public school curriculums to determine which sources are the most trustworthy. Although participants pointed to mainstream and legacy media sources as credible, she noted that they generally didn’t believe or trust soft news stories, particularly those that were political.

The young people Thom spoke to indicated that a “breaking news story is instantly believable, but a political story is likely spun in some way,” she wrote, noting that they felt these stories could be more opinion-based and have a political bias.

“It was the difference between reading the facts and knowing the news story and being told an opinion about what that news story is.”

The lesson for news outlets, Thom said, is that they need to share news in a way that follows the gateway system if they want to target young Canadians.

“They not only can make their information easily accessible via social media so that the news can be encountered by them, but [they can] also make sure that it’s a brand that comes to be known [and trusted] by young people earlier in their lives so it becomes more of a habit to use them,” she said. “So, when they go about making a decision about what news they’re going to look at through a search engine, that can be one of the options. Because they know that brand – they know the news organization – that’s something that they’re going to come to trust.”

While this brand might not be a news outlet they use every day, millennials will come to have some sort of understanding and belief in the news outlet’s credibility. It “might be one that they’ve heard about [and see online], one that they know their parents watch at 6 p.m., or that they know that their grandparents have delivered everyday,” Thom said.

Thom said her research objective was to increase and add to the discussion of how people, specifically young Canadians, consume news.

“There’s a lack of dialogue about our news consumption in Canada. Not from journalists who are obviously very interested in this, but from our government, from our public institutions,” she said. “I don’t think that we actually have the numbers and studies that can back that stuff up in a Canadian context.

“The way that we get informed in a contemporary news landscape is something that we need to know a lot more about. Particularly [since] our next generation is going to be getting informed that way.”