Independent Lab: developing products through developing people
The lab within Independent Media is training technology graduates in media, so they can apply technology in the newsroom and innovate in the media sector.
Independent Media is a South African company based in Cape Town. With 24 major newspaper titles that cater to 10 million readers daily and a unique online audience of almost three million, it is one of the leading multi-platform content companies in the country.
Independent Lab was born in December 2016. As a largely print-focused organisation, Independent Media asked Kaya Labs to create an environment aimed at introducing graduates in the technology sector to the media industry:
“Essentially become the environment in which Independent Media can develop new products through developing people,” says Wesley Diphoko, founder of Kaya Labs and now Head of the Independent Lab and Online Editor.
While there is a need among media companies to integrate technology in order to remain competitive, there are few tech people in the local market who are trained to work in media. The project will therefore focus on enabling the candidates to get a very good understanding of the media with the purpose of assisting them to use their understanding of technology in the media industry:
“The success of this project will be instrumental in the transformation currently underway within Independent Media. It will allow Independent to get the necessary human resources who can assist the company to withstand the technology challenges faced by the media sector,” explains Wesley Diphoko.
The project will assist the candidates to apply their technology skills in the media industry, which will go a long way in skills development of technology graduates. 15 graduated computer scientists form the first group that is working in the Lab, from December 2016 until November 2017. The idea is to have a larger group next year.
There is close collaboration with major universities in South Africa that are training computer scientists either for a job in academics or for more general technology jobs but not to work in media. Wesley approached them and told them about a 12-month internship program at Independent Lab. For many of the tech graduates this is their first job, the first time working on practical projects.
Although no targets were set for Independent Lab with the signing of the first year contract in December 2016, they have already developed a number of solutions that will be useful for the newsroom. For example Infonomist, which is a data journalism project that will collect facts in a database that’s directly accessible for the journalists. It will allow them to create stories based on data and is a response to the fake news problem. Or a graphics platform that will enable journalists to have access to infographics.
A double role
These developments are inspired by the fact that Wesley works at the intersection of media and technology. At the same time he is responsible for training technology graduates in media at the Independent Lab and operates as an Online Editor for Business Report, one of Independent Media’s publications. This approach is not understood easily by traditional people in media, he feels, but he believes there’s a big advantage to working within the innovation lab while also being part of the newsroom:
“You innovate because you feel a pain. And because I’m working as a reporter as well, I feel certain pains that we can then develop a solution for in the media lab. At the same time, a normal editor doesn’t have time to think about innovations because he has the 24/7 task of making sure the site runs.”
He suggests there might even be need for a new type of editor within newsrooms that has a lesser workload, but is still involved in the newsroom. This person would be aware of what’s happening in the newsroom, while also having the time to think about possible solutions for some of the challenges he encounters.
Understanding each other
A related element that Wesley is trying to achieve in his work within Independent Media is to get people to understand each other. People from different departments of the company regularly come to give a lecture to the tech graduates. They talk to them about subjects as varied as marketing, editorial and business.
But this is not just important for the tech graduates in the lab. Wesley believes it’s important to understand what other people in the company do to allow for collaboration and cross-pollination:
“There is always this separation between business and journalism. So you have the business and the editorial. And then you have creative elements that also traditionally sit outside of editorial in most media organisations. But if they would work together, they could make better stories.”
Internal innovation and trust
Wesley’s initial idea was to set up an independent media innovation lab that would work on solutions for various media companies in South Africa. But he quickly learned that the media industry is very competitive. As an information architect, he’s not rooted in the journalism profession, but soon after he started working on the media lab, Independent asked him to become a business editor for one of their publications as well. And he left his position as CEO of his company Kaya Labs to focus entirely on his work within Independent Media.
Although open innovation is generally referred to as the ideal, Wesley finds that him being part of the company instead of being an external contractor makes the company more open to him and this makes innovation easier. In addition, the speed at which you need to develop makes it hard to rely on external entities to develop internal capacity.
The ultimate goal is to create a dedicated division within Independent Media that will be entirely focused on developing solutions for the newsroom.