Microsoft launches newsroom project to foster innovation in journalism

(Left) Mary Snapp; (Right) Mary Irby-Jones, Monica Velez and Greg Halling
By Cindy Durham for America's Newspapers

Today, Microsoft launches a new initiative in partnership with  newsrooms in the U.S. that will be designed to address three pillars to help bolster journalism.  During today's opening session at PIVOT, Mary Snapp, vice president, strategic initiatives with Microsoft, outlined the thinking that has gone into this new initiative designed to support high-quality, fact-based journalism.

Snapp talked about the contractual relationships that Microsoft has developed with about 1,200 news publishers over the past 25 years.  As the news side of Microsoft's business was  learning about the issues that newspapers face, the corporate/social responsibility side of the house was also looking for ways that the company could help.

"We know we can't do it alone," Snapp said. "We know that we are a small part of it.  But, we were really thinking about what we might do to help."

She cited the importance  of the community bonds that local journalism fosters, saying this keeps "us all together and driving toward  keeping a community safe and healthy and connected to each other."

She also acknowledged the role that technology has played in some of the disruption in newsrooms across the country — with the rise of social media platforms, different forms of journalism and changes to ad models.  But, she also said technology can play some part in helping with new innovation.

Based on some of the work Microsoft has done in other aspects of its corporate and social responsibility, the program that the company is rolling out will focus on three pillars.

The first pillar will focus on business models for newspapers, including digital platforms.  Snapp said this area of the program would seek to identify some pilot communities that could help to determine needs that Microsoft could assist with — be that cash, the ability to partner, or to assist with technology that would help to support the telling of modern stories in a modern newsroom.  Journalists from three of those newsrooms joined Snapp for Wednesday's discussion at PIVOT.  They included: Mary Irby-Jones, executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi; Monica Velez, education reporter at The Fresno Bee in California; and Greg Halling, managing editor of the Yakima Herald-Republic in Washington.

Integrity and trust in the news is the second pillar.  Something The Clarion-Ledger has found helpful is spending more time re-establishing conversations and relationships with residents in the community. "I find that you increase the trust that people have in you," Irby-Jones said, "when they know who you are and see that you are invested in the community."

Velez noted that The Fresno Bee has partnered with Arizona State on ways to improve transparency in its reporting, which she said helps with credibility.  With investigative stories, the staff now frequently runs sidebars that explain what went into reporting the story.  Explaining terms like "anonymous sources" also helps readers have a better understanding of why the paper decided to leave the name out of the paper.

Halling talked about the importance of putting the news in context — helping readers understand what's at stake, particularly what's at stake in the local community.

The third pillar involves security — the security of the journalistic sector and of journalists themselves. Snapp said, "That might be technology to help ensure that devises stay encrypted, providing technology to journalists that today we provide to elected officials to ensure that they can guard against cyberattacks on their sources." It also might involve legal support for journalists through a pro bono program.  She said Microsoft has been working with The Seattle Times to identify some of the policy areas that the company may be able to assist with.

Civic engagement, community engagement and the role of the newsroom also were discussed.  Snapp shared Microsoft's interest in helping newspapers find new ways to do visual storytelling and to create more awareness and knowledge about community issues.

While the ideas will come from journalists, Snapp said Microsoft's hope is that the company can provide some of the backbone and infrastructure along the way to help newspapers innovate and rebuild.

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