I am so used to hearing about innovation in journalism that when I first heard about the Innovation Journalism program at Stanford, I assumed that’s what it focused on. Not exactly.

The VINNOVA-Stanford Research Center of Innovation Journalism actually focused on helping journalists cover the field of innovation. David Nordfors, a Swedish punk rocker-turned-molecular-physicist-turned-journalist, found that journalists were stuck in silos of “business journalism” and “technology journalism” and couldn’t see the big picture of innovation.

In 2003, Nordfors started the Innovation Journalism program, bringing mid-career journalists from around the world to Stanford University as fellows. They were placed in San Francisco Bay Area newsrooms to learn the new ways that reporters and bloggers were covering technology and innovation. Those newsrooms include the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, CNET and even the Technologizer blog. There’s also an annual Conference on Innovation Journalism at Stanford, where the fellows present their work and discuss related topics.

i-83eb16e6f069528e7cd9a1b0dc9db572-IJ conference.jpg

While the program was set up to help journalists do a better job of covering the topic of innovation, there is now a need for journalists to do a better job of covering innovation in journalism itself. Nordfors told me that journalists charged with covering the media are good practitioners of innovation journalism, because they are mixing business, technology, lifestyle and political journalism in one beat. He stresses that journalists need to break out of their silos and go across disciplines for better coverage of innovation.

I recently sat down with Nordfors at Stanford to talk about the Innovation Journalism program, and get his take on the current state of journalism, and how media companies — and even journalism schools — need to change. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation, including audio and video clips.

Tell me a little about your background going from Sweden to the U.S.

David Nordfors: I was in the first generation of punk rockers in Sweden, and then I broke that off to become a quantum molecular physicist. After a number of years doing that, I decided that I was much more interested in the interaction of people. I wanted to think about how knowledge creates value when it spreads in society. I looked at my own research and wondered, “who has a use for this?” It was the process of spreading the knowledge that fascinated me. I had worked as a journalist for a computer magazine and [found] some joy in it, and some success. Physicists are heavy users of super-computers so I covered that for a Swedish computer magazine. I became the science editor of that magazine.

Then I got a job offer to help build up a new foundation about innovation and the introduction of information technology in Sweden, and [and about] collaboration between industry and universities. I jumped at it, I had to take it. What I brought with me from the magazine was that all these research structures in society were very bad in communicating to the outside world. They produced brochures but never served the needs of journalists. My point of view as a journalist was that all these booklets have the same message: “We have a booklet!” They have nice color, glossy paper, but the message is “booklet.” To get knowledge out there, you need to have journalism! And journalism wasn’t part of that system.

So we said science had to interact with society, and get research out so people could interact with it. Normally, science is about intra-community — you publish for peer review. If scientists are in the outside world being very visible on TV and newspapers, their colleagues will stop taking them seriously and think they are vulgar or sensationalists. We tried to change that. I always pushed journalism as part of the system.

Nordfors discusses how power is shifting from Washington D.C. to Silicon Valley boardrooms:

What was your impetus for starting the Innovation Journalism program?

Nordfors: We aren’t able to have a public discussion [about innovation] because journalism is organized in those same darn verticals as the rest of society. So you have one part of innovation stories on the business page, another part on the tech page, one part is on the politics page, one part on the lifestyle page. All these editors have one part of the story and have no intention of collaborating with the other editors. You have the same stack of silos in the newsroom as out in society. If you’re into changing things and finding new solutions, the opportunity is to go across disciplines.

When I started with Innovation Journalism, I said we must cross the barrier between tech journalism and business journalism [that existed] in early 2000. I talked to a business journalist about it and he said, “It sounds interesting, but you know it won’t work. We business journalists don’t cover products. That might give companies control over us.” His job was covering the numbers from the company, but it’s impossible to cover a company if you don’t cover both how it’s managed and the products it makes.

If we want to discuss the iPhone or Nokia or the future of the U.S. car industry, we have to discuss their ability to make future products, and there’s no way to do that without crossing the silos of tech, business, politics and lifestyle. And these barriers can be very high. I was lucky to be at a small magazine where all our readers were engineers, so we could write enlightened things for enlightened engineers — but we couldn’t set the public debate.

How has the program evolved over the years?

Nordfors: We started it as a Swedish program, I came here as a visiting professor at Stanford and then after a year I was hired by Stanford. Pretty soon Finland joined; there was a guy here as a Fulbright Scholar, Dr. Seppo Sisättö. He started the first commercial news outlet after communism in Finland. Finland has the most robust innovation journalism program [operating] today. They send three journalists a year here to work in the program and work at news outlets here. They sent researchers here, who returned to Finland and got funding to do research on innovation journalism. [It’s a] similar story in Slovenia.

You are training people who are mid-career journalists, right?

Nordfors: Yes. The first innovation journalism fellow we had from Finland, Jyrki Alkio, had covered Nokia for five years for the largest daily newspaper in Finland. He was at Red Herring, and he did a lot of valuable reporting for them, and brought valuable training back to Finland about how to report on innovation. He became very influential in Finland, and co-founded FINJO, the Finnish association for innovation journalists.

What makes me most happy is what we’ve done in Pakistan, which is such a dark horse. There’s basically only one story going on about Pakistan and that’s [based on] what we envision [about the country], but in all countries there are people doing all types of things. I also learned the same thing while living in Israel — that under the toughest of circumstances, you can find the best people. If you have a country with great working conditions, average people can do very good things. But if you’re in a country with challenges and war and corruption, you have to be very good to make things happen.

I’ve been fortunate with a collaboration in Pakistan.Amir Jahangir became CEO of SAMAA TV after heading the Pakistani Innovation Journalism Initiative. They started things like citizen journalism and reporting. They took tips from the audience, and they started the first broadcast series on innovation in Pakistan that has been extremely successful.

Nordfors explains how the news industry is slowly giving up control of the medium with the switch to digital:

Do you work closely with the journalism school here at Stanford?

Nordfors: We have good relations with them, and with the Knight Fellowships. I have lectured for the Knight Fellows and they will be lecturing for my fellows. My fellows interact with the journalism program and Knight fellows. The difference is that my fellows are off-campus in newsrooms, and the Knight fellows and students are on campus most of the time.

We place fellows in newsrooms such as Fortune magazine, Fast Company, Science magazine, Technology Review, PC World, CNET, San Francisco Chronicle, Red Herring. We had single bloggers like Technologizer, Harry McCracken. It’s not that these guys from other countries come to see how things work perfectly here. It’s to work together with U.S. peers and with people who are knowledgeable in journalism … to dive in and develop their expertise.

So they work for the newsroom here [in the Bay Area] or their home newsroom?

Nordfors: They have a desk in the newsroom — if the newsroom has desks — and work for the ones here. In 2004, back when people wondered whether blogs should be taken seriously, and we had a guy named Marcus Lillkvist who did some marvelous investigative work on an Icelandic company called Decode. This earned him his fellowship and here he was at the Wall Street Journal, and did the first story in the Journal about blogs getting advertising. They’re also in classes here at Stanford …

We also have our own copy editors, because fellows say it’s hard to get into the almost artistic literary writing that’s required for journalists in the U.S., instead of just writing the facts as people are used to in Sweden or Finland. We have a copy editor who has been covering the Valley, so it helps the fellows turn in good first versions of stories to their hosts.

Nordfors discusses how journalists should address solutions for problems such as global warming, rather than just pointing out the problem:

There are some schools that are teaching journalists programming and how to do database journalism. What do you think about that?

Nordfors: That’s very good. We need to redefine journalism. It has always been defined by its relationship to its medium. We need to redefine journalism by its relation[ship] to the audience. Journalists focus public attention on topics of interest to the public, with a mandate from the public. If their mandate is from the sources, then they are PR guys. Why shouldn’t it be possible for journalists to be programmers? They can develop applications that focus public attention on issues that interest the public, and help to build the story, the shared narratives in society, and help us discuss topics like global warming.

If it adds to the journalistic knowledge of a subject, then it’s journalism. I’m all for that.

Who’s doing innovation journalism well, in your opinion?

Nordfors: If you go to publications like TechCrunch, VentureBeat, Engadget, CNET — some independent bloggers that have been around awhile — you can get a good picture on what’s happening here. The journalism here is opening up to take in the social stories, and the politics a bit. What was Obama’s platform on this? I’d like to see a bit more journalism around how well Obama is keeping his promises around this. That’s maybe what’s missing here in the Valley — it’s a bit weak on the public policy, but it’s strong on mixing business and technology.

It’s important that we don’t just see this as tech, but as innovation in society. It’s not the tech gadget that’s the news. It’s the increased ability of us humans to live improved lives, with new improved abilities, and how we use it. Tech is a central part of that story as a key enabler.

How do old ways of journalism need to change?

Nordfors: Journalists have to tear down the wall to the marketing guys, and have to accept that they’re part of the equation. And the technology guys who sit in the basement have to build an elevator up from the basement so they can come up and talk to the people in the light, and sit down and figure out how to co-develop this. It’s not about journalism or marketing or technology, but it’s about co-evolving these so we get good journalism.

Today, journalism companies have to focus on technology, but technology isn’t the answer. Technology will always remain the tool for developing a useful story for the audience to participate in.

There’s so much in the structure of journalism that has to be changed. It’s the curriculum: the principles of journalism that talked about objectivity and not being involved, which we all know is not true. So we need to take that one by the horns and figure out how we are involved, and still uphold the principles of journalism. The Constitution of Sweden, and even of the U.S., talk[s] about freedom of press and who is a journalist. They define a journalist by the medium. That’s got to be changed. That’s important. I think the First Amendment is important and it’s heading over the cliff, because not everyone who’s writing on the Internet is [seen as] a journalist. You can’t define a journalist by their medium.

Nordfors talks about journalism schools and how they could change by focusing on the storytelling rather than the medium:

*****

What do you think about the Innovation Journalism program at Stanford? Do you think journalists could do a better job covering innovation? How? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

Related