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