When did your passion for journalism start?
Very early. Drawing was my big interest as a child, and I always imagined myself becoming an architect. But that all changed when I turned 12, because that’s when I truly discovered the joy and thrills of language and writing. At first, I wrote fictional stories (that’s what kids normally do), but I quickly realized that my bottomless curiosity and talent for writing was a perfect combination. Hence, I turned my attention to journalism, and decided to become a journalist.
Who inspired you to pursue a career in tech and digital?
I would have to say Internet pioneers such as Aaron Swartz and Ev Williams, because they made me realize that all you need is a curious mind and a bit of tech-savviness – and luckily enough, I possess both of these traits – to make a difference. As a matter of fact, I think that Aaron Swartz was one of the best data journalists that has ever lived, without ever being a journalist. And I have to admit that I never really stood out as a reporter (my wife is way better at that), but I excelled as an editor and co-worker in the online newsroom, thanks to my tech savviness and creativity. Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to spend my days in this industry than by helping people get past all of the barriers and distractions of the digital age to gain actual knowledge of our society through innovative design thinking, as well as assisting reporters and editors [to] make the most of their storytelling through smart, creative solutions. Regarding persons that inspire me within the news industry, I’d have to say Jessica Lessin and Arianna Huffington. Without knowing them in person, I consider them to be modern, progressive leaders. Leaders I would gladly follow.
How do you spot the ‘white space’ in a story to capture a fresh angle, especially across social channels?
Through a game of apples. Some of you have probably done this exercise a bunch of times in various versions. The basic idea is that you have a sheet of paper with 20 or 30 boxes. You draw an apple in the first box. Then a team member – or you, again, if you’re doing it by yourself – draw another apple in the next box. But the second apple mustn’t look anything like the first one, the third one mustn’t look anything like the first and second ones, and so on. This is a great exercise to get all of the basics out of the way. It’s like you cleanse yourself of all the obvious ideas. Now, apply this to news angles. The weirdest angles you find by doing this mind tricking exercise are usually the greatest. The ones with hidden potential waiting to be discovered.
How would you define innovation?
Innovation is when you define a problem, a need, and/or an opportunity, and provide a solution that no one had expected.
How do you feel the news industry has responded to innovation?
Poorly. The primary issue being legacy, and the secondary one being narrowness and redundancy. Unfortunately, the news houses have been too obsessed comparing themselves to their closest rivals, instead of comparing themselves to other industries. Because the real innovation is happening outside of the news industry. I mean, isn’t it quite amazing that so much of the storytelling and communication innovations are born outside of the news sector, when we are supposed to be the experts on storytelling?
What are the biggest challenges that face the news industry?
The brain says monetization. Selling information in an age when people have unhindered access to information and data – from too many sources to count – is really hard. The heart, though, the heart says legacy-thinking. That’s the hardest battle of them all. Especially since it’s standing in the way of innovation and progress, and therefore indirectly standing in the way of monetization. The news industry must talk less and listen more, in my humble opinion.
What role does your podcast ‘Check Your Facts’ play in a news landscape full of alternative facts?
With the ‘Check Your Facts’ podcast, we try not to be the aggressive defenders of journalists and ‘mainstream media.’ We’ve chosen a softer approach, scrutinizing and questioning ourselves, as well as debunking fake news and alternative facts. The bottom line is that we believe we’ve lost connection with our true employers – the audience, the readers, the users. There’s no love lost between opposing factions, and that’s one of the big problems we’re facing today; the lack of empathy. We will do our best to bring empathy to the table. Not by cosying up the tyrants and flag-bearers of alternative facts, but by humanizing our industry. Yes, the ambition is high, but we are humbled by the task.
New digital formats and tech innovations are allowing journalists to tell stories in more immersive ways. What are your predictions for 2017/2018?
To say that 2017 and 2018 will be all about video and audio is like kicking down an open door at this point. So I’ll say this instead: 2017 and 2018 will be all about efficiency and empathy versus privacy. The more we depend on technology in our daily lives, the more suspicious we become. At some point, we will start to withdraw. And we can’t really say that we didn’t see it coming. I mean, it’s not like Mozilla released the super-private Firefox Focus mobile browser for no reason. When The Big Withdrawal happens, the news industry must be prepared, because at that point vanity metrics such as page views, ‘unique’ visitors/visits, and inscreen/time spent will offer us little salvation. That’s when we will be in desperate need of empathy. I strongly believe that if we can prove that we make a difference, emotional and practical, that we can make people’s lives more efficient and improve their level of fulfillment, then they’ll have strong incentives to let us in and loosen up the privacy.
If you had one piece of advice to offer someone starting a digital journalism career, what would it be?
To question others is your job – to question yourself is your responsibility.
Which DNI Innovation Fund Project do you like the most and why?
Are you really making me choose just one? Impossible. :) I really like La Stampa’s ‘The Room.’ Even though it explores trendy technologies such as AR and VR, it’s surprisingly down-to-earth, and inclusive. I like Correctiv’s ‘crowdnewsroom’ for the same reason. But if I’d have to pick just one, it would be Deutsche Welle & LETA’s ‘Speech Media.’ Facilitating multilingual news production is simply brilliant. If it's done well enough, it could be groundbreaking.