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    Five Steps to Foster Innovation in the Newsroom

    by Chris O'Brien
    August 5, 2008

    Last month, Dan Pacheco asked for readers’ ideas on How to Foster Innovation in Newspapers. He was speaking at an upcoming Knight conference and was looking for feedback to augment his presentation. I didn’t have a chance to respond in time to help him, but it’s a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past year as part of The Next Newsroom Project.

    I’m sure there are plenty of doubters who think newspapers are a lost cause at this point when it comes to innovation. Fine. But it’s important to understand that this question is one that any news organization, newspaper or not, must be asking itself. Whether your newsroom is a mainstream media goliath or a virtual community news organization, it’s important to make this question a central part of your organization. Why? Because the era of news we’ve entered is one of constant change, at an ever increasing pace. Nobody can say for sure what is next. But I can guarantee you that even if you create the ideal news organization today, it won’t be the ideal in a few years.

    So it’s important that no matter what size your news organization you find the capacity to innovate. If 100 percent of your newsroom’s time is devoted to just producing your current products, then you’re already doomed, even if it isn’t immediately apparent. This is true whether you’re a traditional newspaper newsroom, or an online first newsroom.

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    Last fall, I sat on a “Newsroom of the Future” panel at the Berkeley School of Journalism with the managing editor of Salon.com. I’d always looked to Salon as a Web pioneer. But things looked different from where she sat. She noted Salon was struggling at the moment because its platform and its organization were geared toward a Web model of publishing from the 90s. As a result, they were having trouble adapting to a world where social media and social networking and user participation had emerged as major forces in recent years. The constraints on employees’ time and financial resources were making it difficult to adapt. Her laments sounded similar to the ones I hear from traditional newspaper newsrooms.

    So you can be online first and still fall into the same trap that newspapers did by failing to innovate and experiment. Just look at CNET, the Web news pioneer that stumbled in recent years and was recently bought by CBS.

    In fact, I think that it’s worth pointing out that newspapers’ failure to innovate is hardly unique. Critics often want to make newspapers out to be a special case of failure, that somehow their inability to adapt to a new landscape is unique. But it’s not. Far from it. It’s the classic fate that strikes any once-dominant company when the world turns upside down. It happens all the time in world of technology. Look no further than Microsoft, which after more than a decade, is still trying to adapt its business to the Web, as evidenced by its ill-fated bid to buy Yahoo (another company that’s failed to innovate). The Redmond giant can’t let go of a legacy product (Windows) enough to reorient itself to where the market and its users have gone.

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    I don’t point this out to let newspapers off the hook. Indeed, the criticism is warranted. But the notion that they’re alone in this failure creates an unnecessary layer of self-defeatism that creates one more barrier to innovating: Newspapers have failed to innovate, and therefore can’t. I don’t buy it.

    But how?

    I’m going to circle back around to focus on Dan’s original question about newspaper newsrooms.

    In an ideal world, of course, newspapers would be investing like crazy in new people, new tools, and new ideas. It’d be great if, like Google, we gave everybody one day each week to work on their pet project. (Though frankly, I’m dubious even Google has much to show for this celebrated program). Unfortunately, newspaper companies have become ensnared in a string of mergers, acquisitions and sales that have created mountains of debt while adding nothing of tangible value. Combine that with the current state of the economy, and it’s pretty much a given that management isn’t going to spend any money. Tragic, but true.

    On the other hand, if innovation were simply about money, Microsoft would have quashed Google long ago. Right?

    No one can simply order up innovation on demand. Wish as you might, the innovation fairy won’t sprinkle pixie dust on your newsroom while you sleep. But you can encourage innovation, nurture it by lowering barriers, supporting those employees with entrepreneurial drive, and providing a fertile environment for their ideas.

    So, let’s start small. Here are five steps for promoting innovation in your newsroom:

    1. Make it a priority: Management needs to make it crystal clear that innovation is now a central part of the organization’s mission. It’s no longer something that employees do on the side, or when time permits. Beyond making that declaration, management needs to incorporate it into the way it evaluates everyone in the newsroom. “What did you start this year?” should be just as important a question on annual evaluations as the journalism produced. Promotions should favor people who have a track record of launching new initiatives. And while opinion on this tends to be divided, I would also assign someone to be a director of innovation. This creates an alternate channel for the rank and file to take their ideas for cover, especially when they’re hitting roadblocks elsewhere.

    2. Create a process: Establish an official system for considering new proposals. Commit to accepting a set number each quarter, or month. If you want to be brave, establish a committee to evaluate them that includes members from outside the newsroom that have certain specialties, like a venture capitalist or a serial entrepreneur. For projects that are selected, set up clear milestones and expectations.

    3. Foster new collaboration: Tear down as many walls, both literal and figurative, in the newsroom. Find new ways to get people from different areas to work together. This includes editorial and business side (Sorry, but it’s long past time to kill this sacred cow). And look for opportunities to regularly mix in people from the community. The goal should be getting as many people as possible to be interacting with people they don’t typically encounter as often as they can. Get people out of their comfort zones and routines, and get them talking and meeting, both formally and informally, with people from online, advertising, operations. Change the entire seating arrangement so that each person is surrounded by people from different departments (a photographer next to a reporter next to a sales rep next to a Web producer). When people need to have department meetings, then can gather in temporary spaces. Innovation is often sparked by random conversations between people of different perspectives that create new moments of insight. Do everything possible to create the opportunity for such moments of serendipity.

    4. Offer incentives: Newsrooms should, but won’t, offer financial incentives. They should, but won’t, offer bonuses or revenue sharing for ideas that prosper. But there is one commodity even the most tightfisted operation can offer that will seem like gold to most employees: Time. Anyone working at a newspaper these days is working at 110 percent capacity. In many cases, their managers are fine them trying just about anything, as long as they keep doing everything else. That’s unrealistic and unsustainable. Instead, for proposals that are accepted, offer the employee a set amount of time to focus solely on that project and set aside their usual duties. You’ll have folks banging down your door for the chance.

    5. Evaluate and learn: Review progress regularly and ruthlessly. It’s important to know when to pour more resources into a project that’s blooming, when to make adjustments to a project that has promise but has underperformed, and when to kill a failed idea. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a middle manager said they’re worried that if they support the launch of a new project that it might live on forever as a resource drain even if it’s a total failure because no one will take responsibility for killing it. Every newsroom needs to learn how to stop doing the things that don’t work. Alas, it’s easier said than done. Trying new things means being okay with the fact that most won’t succeed. The only thing that matters is learning the right lessons. And making sure that the people whose idea tanked know that you can’t wait to hear their next idea.

    Literally, I was just preparing to post this late Tuesday night, I received a tweet from Dan as part of a conversation we were having where he said of newsrooms: “But I concede lots are behind. The thing is … many have innovation “sleeper cells,” so there is hope of revolution.”

    Agreed.

    So those are mine. Let’s hear yours. What tricks or strategies have helped promote innovation in your newsroom?

    Tagged: google innovation microsoft nextnewsroom
    • Roddy Stinson

      Just another exercise in journalist naval gazing.

      Your “solution” is the problem.

    • Cherie

      It took Chris an entire year to come up with this? Kinda tells you what’s wrong with the mindset of people who work in newspapers– A regurgitation of old ideas, years too late.

    • Your premise of innovation in the newsroom is a good one, Chris. My concern (as an independent/entrepreneurial journalist) is that some of your strategies are too scripted. Innovation occurs in large and small ways, but not on command. While I think it’s beneficial to include innovation as a tool for evaluation, I think a better question is, “What new thinking, method, process or tool did you bring to your job?” versus “What did you start this year?”

      Similarly, I think systems and innovations clash. It’s as if you’ve made it OK on the one hand to be creative and innovative, but then you’ve clamped it down by creating a fabricated system for reviewing that may or may not work. Innovation occurs in a more free-flowing environment.

      Collaboration is key and I think your idea about tearing down walls is a good one. I would take it even further to encourage newsrooms to collaborate in their communities by bringing citizens into the reporting process, particularly on large stories that involve tracking many threads. The TPM/U.S. District Attorney firings can serve as a model for how effectively this can occur and enrich the reporting/writing process. The community in which I live is experiencing a massive county public corruption investigation involving contractors, patronage and who knows what else. This story is ripe for tapping the wisdom of the crowds.

      Innovation shouldn’t be anathema to journalism. Journalists should thrive off of innovation and change that improves content and how we read, view, listen to that content. I would agree with you that given the financial realities of newspapers, a worthwhile incentive would be the gift of time to pursue a pet project.

      Finally, in order to conduct a review of innovations and the process for bringing them to fruition you need an equally innovative bunch of editors or managers who can effectively evaluate what works, what has potential and what to ditch. I’m afraid it’s that last point that could prove to be the sticky wicket in newsroom innovation.

      Thanks for the opportunity to think about this some more.

    • JD

      6. Hire people to run newsrooms who come from digital product development, and not editorial, backgrounds. Get a marketer, a technologist, anything but something who worked their way up from night cops beat. New blood needed, and not just generationally.

    • A good post, Chris, but not that unique. This has been touted for the past few years, but too many publishers have retrenched because of the economy. In addition, there are too many publishers who still feel the “institution” of newspapers is unlike any other business. And until that mindset changes, I fear innovation will not thrive.

      As you say, there are sleeper cells of innovators out there. Unfortunately, publishers tend to follow trends rather than start them. We can only hope that some of these cells can break out into the mainstream so those how own the presses can follow like ducklings.

    • cmlundstrom

      My inexperience is embarrassing. This is my fourth attempt to make a comment, incidentally noting Roddy Stinson’s inability to spell navel, which I submt challenges his credibility. I found O’Brien’s reasoning sound. SloeSwede

    • Sorry for taking so long to comment. I haven’t been able to get anything to post until now.

      These are all good recommendations. The challenge is how to get it to actually happen, and for that empowered leadership is the key.

      At the Knight Digital Media Center conference I attended, it was clear that many newsroom leaders want to do these kinds of things (and more), but they aren’t supported from the top. A lot are also simultaneously being asked to hack away at staff while also creating more products — but not necessarily doing less of what they did before. This is the source of endless frustration.

      Thus, my talk started out with specific messages to leaders, which ultimately are intended for publishers, presidents and CEOs of chains (I’m more concerned about them than I am about the independents, which are naturally more empowered). I feel like I can say all of this with confidence because this describes exactly how the publisher of my newspaper (The Bakersfield Californian) operates, and for that I feel very fortunate:

      1. Leadership must expect and support creativity. This is difficult because it means less focus on supporting existing business. But many of those businesses are faltering, so what do you have to lose? Consider keeping a smaller core team focused on shoring up legacy businesses, and using revenues as your own VC firm for innovations that will become tomorrow’s true businesses. Move the rest of your staff into future-focused activities.

      2. Leadership must BELIEVE in the future, and put its money where its mouth is, period. This is necessary for both financial reasons, and spiritual ones. If a team feels that its leaders aren’t optimistic about the future and can’t outline a path to tomorrow, forget everything else. You have to have positive leadership before anything else can happen.

      3. Listen to and encourage people who pitch ideas. Be a spring board, not a buzz saw.

    • My full presentation can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/6rzkwv

      It was short and sweet, as this was delivered before a panel discussion.

    • Great post. I especially liked your analysis of salon.com’s struggle, that even a thriving dotcom in the early days may find itself struggling with obsolescence.

      Don’t know about tearing down the editorial/advertising wall, though–I’ve seen that abused many times.

      –Shel Horowitz, award-winning author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First and six other books
      http://www.principledprofit.com

    • Wendy Hoke

      Your premise of innovation in the newsroom is a good one, Chris. My concern (as an independent/entrepreneurial journalist) is that some of your strategies are too scripted. Innovation occurs in large and small ways, but not on command. While I think it’s beneficial to include innovation as a tool for evaluation, I think a better question is, “What new thinking, method, process or tool did you bring to your job?” versus “What did you start this year?”

      Similarly, I think systems and innovations clash. It’s as if you’ve made it OK on the one hand to be creative and innovative, but then you’ve clamped it down by creating a fabricated system for reviewing that may or may not work. Innovation occurs in a more free-flowing environment.

      Collaboration is key and I think your idea about tearing down walls is a good one. I would take it even further to encour!
      age newsrooms to collaborate in th
      eir communities by bringing citizens into the reporting process, particularly on large stories that involve tracking many threads. The TPM/U.S. District Attorney firings can serve as a model for how effectively this can occur and enrich the reporting/writing process. The community in which I live is experiencing a massive county public corruption investigation involving contractors, patronage and who knows what else. This story is ripe for tapping the wisdom of the crowds.

      Innovation shouldn’t be anathema to journalism. Journalists should thrive off of innovation and change that improves content and how we read, view, listen to that content. I would agree with you that given the financial realities of newspapers, a worthwhile incentive would be the gift of time to pursue a pet project.

      Finally, in order to conduct a review of innovations and the process for bringing them to fruition you need an equally innovative bunch of editors or managers who can effectively evalua!
      te what works, what has potential
      and what to ditch. I’m afraid it’s that last point that could prove to be the sticky wicket in newsroom innovation.

      Thanks for the opportunity to think about this some more.

    • I wanted to thank everyone for posting feedback here. I’ve been traveling the last couple of weeks, so I’ve been a bit slow to respond.

      Rather than address every point, I want to clarify a few things about my original post.

      First, by no means to I consider this to be the “ideal newsroom” or the most optimal way for fostering innovation. Rather, my attention was to provivde some safe, measured baby steps for newsroom that are absolutely hamstrung by a lack of resources or management support.

      Second, to nudge the reluctant newsrooms along, I do think there needs to be some process to rationalize and reward the support of ideas. Yes, it’d be great if we could just throw off the leashes and let everyone run free. But it’s just not going to happen given the demands to publish and maintain the product that buys everybody breakfast.

      What these newsrooms need is one or two success to build more buy in, more support and more momentum.

      On the whole, however, I do feel strongly that what’s really needed is complete revolution in the newsroom. That should bring with it a host of new jobs, new personalities and new skills.

      This is one of many questions I’ve been examining as part of the Next Newsroom Project: What are the new jobs in the ideal newsroom? I’ll publish our growing list in a couple of weeks. But I’d love to throw this out to hear your thoughts as well.

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