Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther Kezia Thorpe: Where did you come up with the idea for journalism.co.uk?

Marcela Kunova: Well, the idea came up in the middle of the pandemic, and what we realised is that loads of people, 1), are isolated in their homes, 2), loads and loads of things in the newsrooms need to change because the whole system and processes have been just thrown up in the air.

People needed to find new ways of doing their jobs, but also their support networks just disappeared pretty much overnight. We all started to work from home, and you didn’t have people to chat to, the water cooler moments, as they call it. Suddenly, people wanted to do something new, they craved the change but there were suddenly fewer people around them they could have these meaningful chats with.

So we thought ‘let’s make the best out of it, of these newly acquired skills, and actually be able to do something just virtually, and pair journalists with someone who went through the whole innovation circle in their newsrooms, and can provide them with support. We want to help people – journalists, but also other people who work in smaller or regional newsrooms – to do something differently.

Unlike many other mentorship schemes that are very often focused on broader career or broader skills, we want to base it around a project. So say, you are in Preston, and you want better audience engagement. Very often, journalists don’t necessarily have someone in their newsrooms who have the skills they need.

They also don’t want to really put themselves forward because no one wants to look stupid, if you get it wrong, or you just don’t really know what you’re doing. And we are all winging it, by the way. I really want to reassure everyone, no one has an innovation plan and just swoops in and gets it done. It’s really not easy to come to your editor or director and say ‘listen, I have a fantastic plan to employ artificial intelligence to edit images. Listen to me.’

So we want to give these innovators, I want to call them, just the support they need, encouragement they need, but also a reality check. Because it’s really useful if you can just talk to someone who did it in another newsroom. And I can tell you ‘yes, you’re in right or that’s completely wrong’. And so the scheme was born.

So when it comes to mentors, what are you looking for in mentors? Are you looking for a wide range of skills, or are you looking for people who really specialise in individual sections to match up?

We were looking for people who have quite particular skills. As I said, we want this to be quite focused. Even the structure of the scheme is six hours in six months. There is quite a finite date by which this scheme will close at this point of the cycle.

Obviously, people carry on having a relationship or friendship way past the scheme. But I think every journalist likes a good deadline, don’t we? A project will not get done, unless every month I know someone will be checking on me or checking my progress. I need to update them, or if I promise to do something, I have to do it.

Add a bit of accountability.

Exactly. Sometimes, that’s the only thing you really need to just have an accountability buddy, who says ‘did you contact to this supplier or whatever? Did you have this conversation?’ These six hours in six months, I think, will help people to stay focused on the project and just get it off the ground. You might not revolutionise newsrooms in six months, obviously. But at least you get that that first move, something started to get the ball rolling. And then, hopefully, you can build up on that.

Yeah, I noticed for applicants, you require five years working in a newsroom? Is that just so you get people of a certain level?

Well, there was a bit of a debate around this criteria, so why not younger people, younger in terms of experience? I think that five-ish years – if it’s four and a half is still fine, it’s not that strict – but the reason why you need to have some experience is because if you wanted to find a solution to a problem, you need to have certain knowledge of that problem.

Usually, people are in a good place to start to be able to take a step back and say okay, so what is the industry problem? What is the organisation’s problem? How can I actually solve it without having that anxiety about their own beginning, their own career, their own reputation that might go wrong.

And the programme is supported by United Robots and Utopia Analytics, I’m just quite curious how that supporti and that almost sponsor relationship works?

One thing that we realised, I think generally with companies in the sector, is that they are less and less keen to just advertise. Loads of companies want to contribute to something meaningful, a true impact. So yes, you still advertise a company, you spread the word, but they can be part of something that can actually help industries to change or to move in the right direction.

And the way it came about is that we had a chat, like, certainly at every other museum, we have a pool of people who we encounter regularly at the events or who support other part of our business. And I said, ‘hey, we are doing this scheme, this is why we’re doing it, what do you think about it?’ And they say, ‘yes, I want to be part of that’.

Yeah, it’s just interesting, I suppose, that sponsors want to be seen as making a difference, rather than just having their logo and standard, something that’s interesting.

I think it’s also our responsibility as the industry to give these companies an opportunity to participate in something more meaningful than slapping your logo on a website. Because at the end of the day, I think people, our readers and listeners, are becoming increasingly logo-blind. All the adverts are just there. If you can click the magic X button to make it disappear, fantastic. If not, you just completely cancel it from your vision field.

Everyone likes to have an impact. I don’t know if anyone who says, ‘oh, I absolutely don’t care about the impact I have in the industry’. People want to help really, and we create opportunities that also allow the wider ecosystem to participate in just moving the industry in the right direction.

Yeah. So if our listeners are listening to this, and thinking they actually quite fancy signing up for that, what do they need to do to sign up for it?

Super easy. Go on our website, or anywhere else, where you’ve seen this advertised, there is a link in the podcast. All you need to do is to fill the form out with your contact details. There is a little field where you need to explain in 100 words what innovative idea you want to start in your newsroom.

One word on that: people very often think of innovation as they have to just invent a new computer or whatever. Innovation is not necessarily Apple and New York Times. Sometimes, improving things, finding a new way of doing things, or just simplifying something – that is innovation in itself.

You don’t need to just create something that has never ever existed, you can also do something that exists, you can just make it much, much better. That’s also innovation. So please do sign up. It shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes, tops. And if you have print separately right there, you will just dash it out.

We love a word count. I’ll make sure we pop a link to that in the show notes, as well on the website,

Please guys, do sign up. If nothing else, we really want to create this community of people who just want to see change. Sometimes, you don’t revolutionise everything, but you can chisel away at that stuff that doesn’t work and, little by little, nudge it in the right direction. It’s really about mindset. There is nothing really mysterious about innovation. It’s really just roll up your sleeves and just experiment, and just try to do the best thing you can with what you have.

And talking about innovation, News Rewired was a few weeks ago and I think you did it virtually this year, didn’t you? So how did you go about planning that?

We obviously decided to do virtual because of the COVID restrictions. First thing we did, we split the conference into sessions and the reason behind that is very simple. I do not believe anyone is able to stay in front of the computer for a day watching the conference.

Definitely not.

So it’s unfair to put this on attendees who want to do it, on speakers who will miss out on the interaction. It’s not working. I mean, I haven’t seen a single event where this was working. What we decided to do was to split a one-day conference into four two-hour sessions.

These were taking place on Tuesday and Thursday, in the afternoon, from three to five. What I tried to do is find the most optimal possible time for everyone to just tune in. You can do two hours, especially if it’s an engaging and interactive session.

Are you doing another one later on this year?

Yes, we always do. So right now, it’s about October. Dates to be revealed, keep an eye on the website. There is a big debate about physical and hybrid and all virtual. I think we will decide in few weeks time, probably looking at how the pandemic is going. On the one hand, I know people are craving that physical contact, and they just want to come together in a physical space and see their peers and then talk and just have that interaction, again, that we’ve been missing so much.

On the other hand, I have a nightmare of sending out an email, someone will see they’re testing positive with COVID, everyone gets tested, everyone has to quarantine or something, or worse, having someone actually getting ill and that potentially affecting their life.

We all need to be conscious, we can be part of a problem. It’s not because we can that we should. I think we wait until the time to decide whether we invite people into a closed physical space. Because there’s a problem with conference venues, isn’t it?

I know there are quite a few companies that are hesitant as well, because especially when it’s an industry event, if you send your staff, you’re then responsible if they get sick.

100%. For me, it’s not only the whole legal and logistical obligation coming with it, but just humanly, I just couldn’t bear it if any of the attendees or their loved ones would get ill as a result of them being at this one event. We are there for the community, we want to help them not decimate it.

It’s really, really tough. I suppose we just see how the infection rate and everything is going. Would we require a vaccination pass? I don’t know. We just wait to see how it’s going and how the infections are progressing. But the event will certainly take place, either hybrid or online because this conversation and the knowledge-sharing just needs to keep on going.

And on top of all that, you also coordinate a lot of the training courses for journalism.co.uk. So I’m just curious, how do you decide which ones to offer? And if you’ve seen any change in what people are taking up over the last year?

Here, shout out to Jasmine, who is really the one who’s doing the bulk of the work. I’m the kind of person who just looks at it and says ‘yeah, okay’. So 97-98% of work is done by Jasmine, so hats off to Jasmine. Regarding topics, you have the evergreen core skills that are always popular: sub-editing, mobile journalism, social media, Instagram. These are skills that more and more journalists want to pick up.

Then you have the slightly original courses, for example, career building, especially during COVID. We had one on social video, which wasn’t really that popular, I suppose, just a few years ago, and now it became really massive. Videos you see on TikTok or on Instagram Reels, how to perhaps communicate and use content through social video. It’s trickier than it sounds, so there is a course on that.

We try to follow trends, we see where new skills are needed, but crucially, who is actually able to teach them? Because it’s one thing to say we need to improve newsletter strategy, but then who are you going to ask to do this newsletter course? It’s not because someone says ‘I’m interested in the topic’ that the delivery of the course will be good. So then there is the whole other round of looking for the right person who has sufficient knowledge and authority and obviously willingness to teach other journalists. That’s about the process.

For example, data journalism used to be really popular, and the interest I have to say, calmed down, somehow. I hoped the pandemic would bring it back. We’re looking at another course about the use of statistics and data, which is painful for a massive number of journalists. So we do try to follow trends, we gauge interests, and it fluctuates. Newsletters was a sellout course, there were fewer attendees at the last one. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down, which is quite interesting.

I suppose I’ve seen a lot about how data journalism is really important this year. But I suppose that doesn’t necessarily drive people wanting to pick it up as a skill.

There are some skills that are really intimidating, even something like mobile journalism. I can’t even believe there are still journalists who would not do video with their pieces, especially if you’re local reporter. I mean, video is so important.

As a podcaster. I understand the terror of video.

Exactly, right. But this is where you can really learn something in a safe space, small, predefined groups. You don’t start producing fantastic videos tomorrow, but you can start to dip your toe, you can do one video a month. Little by little, you learn it.

This is why I think these training courses are so good, because they are short and very specialised, you get tasks you started to learn. It’s safe, it’s upside of your working space, worst comes to worse, your colleagues don’t have to see any of the disasters you ever produce on the course. It will not impact your professional reputation, but you have an opportunity to learn something new.

And I noticed the site is actually one of the few that offers a directory and a bit of a growing community for freelancers, is that something you see as being particularly important at the moment?

100%. We’ve been supporting freelancers since forever. It’s such an important part of journalism, and I don’t think we talk about freelancing enough, and just how important this community is to the media. So what we offer freelancers is the space to obviously advertise their services, but also, we offer them editorial coverage, or podcasts and just all around help to, not only do their jobs better or just to feel more comfortable in their freelancing career, but also to offer some solutions to some very concrete problems that you encounter as a one-man or one-woman band.

But also, very often we hear from freelancers, it can be quite isolating to work on your own and work from home. Loads of freelancers miss their old colleagues or a community, so we try to provide that as well just by giving them a bit more space. I remember talking to them, featuring experiences, and just trying to keep this community connected with each other and with the world of work.

Other people are choosing freelancing even for a part of their lives, so it doesn’t mean you have to be forever a freelancer or never a freelancer. Sometimes, it makes sense during certain periods of people’s lives. I think it has to be a viable choice. Either it works for you, or it doesn’t, but someone needs to be there to help you, to fight your corner, to help you out with even just the logistics of where do you advertise your services? Their careers are so important.

Yeah. You’re often covering the latest things publishers and journalists are up to, so from your perspective, what do you think are some of the big areas of opportunity over the next few years?

I think the first one will be covering climate. We have Dr. Balkan Blau from a Reuters Institute who was talking about it at News Rewired. It’s a massive topic. COVID is here to stay, but the interest in coverage of COVID, little by little, is probably going to call off as we are kind of emerging from the pandemic.

Climate is increasingly important, as a problem that humanity has. Media are waking up to today’s reality. So climate is definitely an opportunity where, as a young journalist or someone who’s looking for a new career path, that is definitely a beat where I would look to go, because that coverage will only increase and the knowledge of data, science, you need people who are actually able to cover climate in a way it deserves to be covered. It’s not a bit like any other. It can be quite specialist.

Another opportunity I see is definitely technology. I mean, there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking, but using artificial intelligence to pick up some of the most boring tasks of newsrooms, and actually helping journalists to almost go back to what they are able to do the best, which is telling stories and reporting news. The more sophisticated technology is and the more opportunities to do something we have, we just do something else, rather than our own actual job.

I welcome solutions that are taking some of this burden off of journalists shoulders and helping them to just go back to storytelling and to the actual jobs. So whether it’s comment moderation, whether it’s reporting – we’re running this series that we are now running on journalism.co.uk called Artificial Intelligence for Dummies, for people who don’t necessarily want to know anything about the tech, but what it does.

You see papers all around the world using machines to do anything from just gathering large data sets and process them and all the things you don’t need to be doing because they take forever. You can go through spreadsheets for six hours a day looking for spikes in property sales, but you can let the machine do that.

Once you get a story lead, you’re like, ‘oh what happened here? I can go in and check it out’. That’s where you can do really, really good stories. So employing artificial intelligence power tools in newsrooms is definitely an area where I would look as a newsroom employee.

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