Brainstorming for news

Brainstorm! What are future ways to fund news organizations?

By Steve Outing

As much as journalists may hate to hear this, news is not something that lots of people are willing to pay for — especially in this go-go digital era when information overload is an epidemic with no end in sight. Advertising, meanwhile, continues to decline as a revenue source for news organizations, which are requiring more revenue streams to survive and must come up with new ones to add into the mix.

Journalism Foresight SeriesAre there solutions to this dilemma of how news coverage will be funded in the future? Let’s hope so, since if there are some “magic bullets” around already, they haven’t become apparent. This situation, then, gives me an opportunity to demonstrate and apply another method of Strategic Foresight, brainstorming, to the future of journalism and the news industry, as part of my continuing series on foresight and journalism.

If you’d like to dive straight in to a brainstorming exercise, go ahead and contribute your ideas for the next likely revenue sources for news organizations to the interactive brainstorming tool below. (Look for “Add an idea” at the bottom.) You also can help the process be more valuable by giving your feedback on the ideas presented by others, including voting for ideas that you believe are good ones (so they’ll rise higher on the list) and/or adding arguments of the pro or con varieties to the ideas shared.

(If you prefer, scroll down below the brainstorming tool, where I continue with an explanation of brainstorming techniques and best practices as applied to Foresight. I offer some advice that, if read first, should make you a better brainstormer.)

SOME QUICK RULES: Crazy, wild ideas encouraged; don’t hold back!! … Be kind! (Don’t trash others’ ideas.) … Add as many ideas as you like! … VOTE for your favorite ideas (so we achieve crowd rankings). … Visit this brainstorming exercise often.

If you prefer working with a larger version of the interactive exercise above, or experience browser compatibility issues, click here.

If the exercise above is successful enough in getting lots of people to participate, I will analyze the ideas and feedback, and write up a summary of the results here later — and ask for your help in refining the best ideas further.

Meanwhile, let’s talk a bit about the brainstorming process when it comes to ideating solutions to current and future challenges, especially when it comes to gaining foresight into what likely futures are ahead for journalism and the news industry.

Obviously, brainstorming is a commonly used technique, and it’s hardly unique to the field of Foresight. Still, it is important in that it can be used as part of other Foresight methods and tools (covered elsewhere in this series of articles). Indeed, brainstorming by itself is nowhere near as powerful as combining other Foresight methods and brainstorming.

Best practices

(1) A first step in the brainstorming process, for the initiator, should be to narrow the focus and not allow an in-person session or an online exercise to get too broad. For example, using a free online tool, Tricider, in the exercise above the brainstorming is limited to solving a specific problem: ideating new revenue sources to support news organizations in the future (which I’ll continue to use as an example in the following tips for good brainstorming).

(2) Make it OK and acceptable for participants to offer up any ideas, even if they seem crazy, without fear of being criticized or ridiculed by others. This is especially important in online brainstorming, since the quasi-anonymity of the online experience sometimes results in rude behavior that never would occur in an in-person environment. The idea is to get every idea out on the table; the bad ideas will get weeded out later.

(3) Find and include a varied collection of your stakeholders. In brainstorming, avoid gathering a participant group that’s too narrow; you want to include people with different mindset and life/work experiences. An in-person brainstorm among a company’s top executives only is not going to be effective. For open, online brainstorm exercises like the one above, target widely but wisely. For our goal of coming up with future ways for news organizations to make money, we should invite people in the news profession, and those who are customers/consumers; people in related fields who have an interest or stake in journalism, such as lawyers, tech entrepreneurs, futurists, educators and consultants in journalism and other related fields; and people across age groups and ethnicities.

(4) Participants: Check your assumptions. It’s a good idea before you begin a brainstorming exercise to think about what assumptions you are making. For instance, trends in advertising spending for news are mostly heading downward. But rather than assume that news-revenue ideas for the future must involve something other than advertising, recognize that you might have an idea that could turn that situation around. … Or perhaps you’re focused on next revenue streams for public radio and TV news. Don’t assume that funding sources always will involve audience and corporate charitable giving; perhaps a completely new revenue source will have potential, such as in-person celebrity or newsmaker interviews at a physical venue, with significant ticket prices at live events and lower ticket prices for live-streamed video of the event shown in regional movie theaters.

(5) Turn your assumptions upside down. This is a common brainstorming trick that can get your mind thinking in new and creative ways. For example, perhaps your assumption is that young people in the 18-25 age bracket will never pay for news. Assume that, actually, they are willing, under the right circumstances. Your challenge is to brainstorm ideas that will cause young adults to pay money for news. Perhaps (ridiculous-idea warning): A personalized, customizable video-news subscription for mobile devices and smart watches presented in animated form by popular cartoon characters, like The Simpsons family.

(6) Remove all limits from your ideas. This also gets to the notion of thinking creatively, and not letting assumptions get in the way of what just might be a solution that works. In the U.S., for example, the idea of taxpayers funding ambitious, non-partisan, non-profit news organizations (say, at a level similar to the money U.K. residents are taxed to pay for the BBC and BBC News) seems impossible given the current American political climate. But there could be a future scenario where journalism becomes so ill-funded that societal impacts get truly bad, such as corruption run amok, and the political landscape shifts to where ambitious, publicly funded watchdog news media become possible.

(7) Don’t dismiss ideas too quickly. Some ideas sound strange and unworkable. But don’t be too quick to judge — your own ideas, or others’. It’s often said that ideas are fragile, and a harsh dismissal or critique by other people (especially your boss) during a brainstorming session or exercise can squelch an idea that could, if treated carefully and patiently tweaked, turn out to be great.

(8) Build off others’ ideas. One person’s idea may spark a similar but different idea. In brainstorming, don’t get stuck trying to come up with only original ideas. Some of the best ideas that come out of brainstorming exercises are spun off from another’s idea or others’ ideas.

(9) Look to other industries and fields for ideas that might work in your focus area.

(10) Look to science fiction and movies for creative inspiration. As a sci-fi fan and a future-of-journalism junkie, I watch for and sometimes see future-of-media projections in books and movies. The film Minority Report (2002) foresaw personalized advertising driven by facial recognition (actually, iris scanning), for instance. In David Brin’s 2012 novel, Existence, the futurist-scientist-author created a character who is a future journalist using technologies that allow her to stay connected to her audience anytime — showing them what she sees; seeking help from them while reporting; and conversing with them in real time. Are there some revenue opportunities for when journalists can literally share what they’re experiencing while covering breaking news with their followers and fans?

(11) Take some time off. With the online exercise above, there’s no rush to come up with brilliant ideas, which might be the case during an in-person group brainstorming session. If you get stuck, go for a walk, meditate, go shopping, take a shower or hot bath. Perhaps tomorrow you’ll wake up with a great idea to add to our exercise.

Do you have some new ideas to add now? Go back to the interactive brainstormer.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!