Dubbed as the man who is "transforming newsrooms in India", Nasr ul Hadi works at the intersection of technology and news. As a Knight Fellow for the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ), Hadi helps news organizations redesign workflows and think digital-first. His job involves creating a culture of innovation wherein media organizations are constantly experimenting with new tools. I caught up with Hadi on the sidelines of mBillionth Awards South Asia 2016 to discuss his work and the future of the digital space in India. Edited excerpts have been reproduced below.
SAK: You work with ICFJ as a Knight Fellow. For the convenience of our readers can you please explain what the ICFJ does as an organization? What has your role been?
NUL: The ICFJ is the International Centre for Journalists. They are headquartered in Washington DC. They are funded by a wide range of foundations that are willing to support media development and media innovation work across the globe. They run a portfolio of programmes. According to their agenda, funders pick programmes that intersect with their mission and they go ahead and support those. Their flagship programme is the Knight Fellowship which is basically in global south regions i.e. Latin America, Africa and South Asia.
[P]eople who specialize in organizational behaviour might say [newsrooms] seem to be built for failure. They are not built for efficiency or very clear decision making.
They identify people who have worked not just in newsrooms but also in allied functions that could help newsrooms work better. These include product marketing, technology etc. These people are then supported to be pro bono innovation consultants to various organizations in their local news ecosystems. These can be newsrooms, service providers to newsrooms and start-ups. The most active programme, the one that has accomplished a lot more, is the one in Africa.
Most of the work that I have been doing so far included spending a large past of last year embedded in the Hindustan Times newsroom working with Nic Dawes. I was helping on slices of what was actually a much bigger exercise.
SAK: You were working towards integrating newsrooms...
NUL: Let's not call it integrating newsrooms. Integrating is a lot. It was a very transformative exercise. It has got many layers to it. Shifting into one physical space is just one layer. Creating the technology infrastructure is another layer. Then you have to fit people into that, which obviously involves redesigning workflows. Then there is also a layer of creating a culture in newsrooms wherein they are more open to experimenting with tools and figuring out what works for them and what doesn't.
SAK: You have earlier spoken about designing such a workflow chain that would enable a print publisher to run an online television station tomorrow without tinkering with the news-gathering process. How far have you succeeded in doing that at HT?
NUL: For now that's just been a conversation about building that sense of direction within organizations. It's about starting to think that way in terms of their vision building. It's a huge goal. It's not something that can be accomplished in a year or two -- especially not with established organizations. You begin with small initiatives that could eventually snowball into a transformation of that sort where these organizations start producing very structured content from the ground up.
If you want to make other people work then too you should know how the tools work.
The foundation for something like this is creating structured content. By structuring your content you are able to repurpose it much more easily. What you'll also be able to do then is that you will create one pipeline of content for the newsroom that is agnostic to the medium, language and format under which it will be published.
Let's assume that a story like Nepal earthquake has happened. Somebody is able to say that we will able to create fifty items around this story. Three quotes, four charts, five videos etc. You create a pool of fifty items. Now that the pool has been created, you give the editors of technology, web and Hindi access to it. They can pick and choose what they want to use from the pool and arrange it according to their individual editorial treatments, preferences, agendas and audiences. They are still unique stories but you have been able to integrate the entire newsgathering process.
SAK: Let's talk a bit about the digital space in general. You must have seen the Digital News Report 2016 prepared by the Reuters Institute. They have said that most of the news is being consumed on social media. Do you think homepages are becoming irrelevant?
NUL: Here's the thing. There is obviously this whole thing about people discovering content through social networks and they come directly to the story page. That's the argument behind homepages becoming irrelevant. However, in places like India the fact of the matter is that a lot of digital properties are associated with legacy brands. They already have a very strong recall. There is still a significant chunk of the traffic that does come through the homepage. For instance, an organization like the Hindustan Times has enough audience that goes in and spells "HindustanTimes.com" or Googles it. Will they eventually become totally irrelevant? Yes! Let me phrase it like this. They are much more irrelevant for brands that are not associated with legacy newsrooms. New products that are not associated with a legacy brand.
SAK: Where do you see the online news video space heading?
NUL: The biggest problem in commenting about the performance of online news videos is that they are clubbed into one category. But there are actually several kinds of online video. And if you start to look at the performance of these different types then you'll begin figuring out which one is performing better.
The first type of online video is the TV video that gets dumped online. If the performance of those videos is audited then you'll realize that they do not perform well.
The second type of online video is user-generated grainy content. You search for it online and publish it after repackaging. It is shot on mobile. It might be bad quality but it's much more authentic. It's closest to whatever the incident is. That seems to perform well.
The third kind of online video content is built for the web first. My assumption is that it is doing fine. Production quality is fine, aspect ratios are taken care of and they try to make it slightly peppy. The Quint and AJ+ do a lot of that stuff. It involves young anchors and commentary. There is no emphasis on recognized anchors as in the case of television. I think that should be doing better than the TV dump.
Three changes that I'd want in the digital space versus three changes that'll be possible are very different.
What's one more that everyone seems to say works best, though I have never heard people talking about numbers for it, is actually video but it's not as in people talking to you. It's actually text describing a story. There is B-roll but there is also text that is narrating the entire story. We used to call it audio slideshows or one version of it. Because the audio plays it is a video but it is mostly supplemented by photographs and a little bit of video. That's one version. The other version is of text slideshows.
The reason it works a lot more is because I think a lot of video that gets consumed on social streams is consumed on mute. Auto-play also plays a role in it. This stuff works really well. Can somebody give you a consolidated answer whether online video is the future or not? Reuters Institute says, "the media is more excited about this than the audience." You can't look at online video as one. You need to segment it. Some people are doing a really bad job of it.
SAK: How effectively are Indian news organizations using online tools to tell stories?
NUL: It's about what kind of organization are you building. Newsrooms by their very nature are crazy organizations. Hierarchical structures are very vague. It seems to an extent that they are intentionally vague. There are dotted lines of reporting apart from the direct lines of reporting. To be honest, if you look at them very closely purely from a people management case study, a lot of people who specialize in organizational behaviour might say that they seem to be built for failure. They are not built for efficiency or very clear decision making.
You can get tools but the adoption drive would require a certain culture. Culture hacking is important. One of the things that I tried at HT and now I am doing the same at WION, Zee's upcoming international channel, is an open curriculum. It's called Digital Friday. You walk in and you get them to do a series of exercises using a particular tool. They do this hands-on. In newsrooms, we run this as a totally sign-up-driven process. We will do a session on mapping and whosoever wants to attend can sign up for it. Seats used to get filled in half an hour.
I have seen old people who have the right attitude and want to adopt new stuff. I have seen young people who don't have the right attitude...
It's at the end of the week during the afternoon, between 3-5pm, and it's easier for people to break away from their schedule and come. But it's not mandatory. No boss nominating people and forcing them to go through training. It's a very different kind of training. The user expresses interest in it and comes. There are a couple of benefits of it. The first benefit is that you get people coming in from across departments who have never worked together and across levels of seniority. I have seen a managing editor sitting next to a trainee and asking how a particular thing is to be done which would never happen in a newsroom considering the way in which they are structured. The seniors come in not because they will be doing it on a daily basis but because they work on big projects that would use these tools on a daily basis. If you want to make other people work then too you should know how the tools work.
What it ends up giving you is collaboration across hierarchies and departments. You end up with projects where a very senior investigative journalist is working alongside a cub multimedia reporter to produce something that is much more compelling. This happened at HT. That's one thing. The second part of this, from the management perspective, is that you are able to identify people who are genuinely interested in changing. People who are attending these sessions genuinely want to change and experiment with and adopt new stuff.
Have you seen systematic adoption of these tools? You've seen one-off adoption of these tools. Should the objective be to drive adoption of a tool? No! Tools keep coming and going. They will change tomorrow. The objective is to create that culture where an organization is constantly testing out new stuff that is becoming available in the market. That said, we tried to implement some tools enterprise wide. Slack was one such tool. Did the entire organization use it? No! It's still being used but people using it in the organization are the ones who want to effect change, the more innovative teams.
SAK: Three changes you expect from the digital space in the next five years?
NUL: I am very pessimistic that way. Three changes that I'd want in the digital space versus three changes that'll be possible are very different. I would want people to actually stop thinking about integrated newsrooms in a particular way. Integration means that three entities were separate and you are joining them and that will lead to a lot of conflict. Multimedia is about multiple media being integrated. But omnimedia is a single entity from its inception. It has multiple touch points. It has got touch points on TV, print etc. Can you build it from the ground up as one operation that is going to have print, television and digital without any outcaste platform versus prioritized platform? That's one change I would like to see.
I don't think that organizations are as committed to mobile-first as they are to mobile-first jargon.
How much for that to happen? It's very difficult for legacy institutions to do it. There is a huge people challenge. You need the right attitude. You need the right talent. People have gotten so used to working in specific templates that getting them to move away from it is very tough. It's not a matter of age. It's a matter of attitude. I have seen old people who have the right attitude and want to adopt new stuff. I have seen young people who don't have the right attitude and want to remain old school. That's one!
The second change that I wish to see can we get people to genuinely explore handheld devices as content-creation platforms. Can you give that kind of training? Can you send these people out in the field? That kind of training is not happening in the communication schools or newsrooms. Everyone is talking about mobile-first. But mobile-first does not simply mean user experience. Mobile-first also means mobile-first in terms of your workflow for content creation. Will it happen? I don't think that organizations are as committed to mobile-first as they are to mobile-first jargon.