Are Traditional News Operations Really Ready for Innovation?

    by Larry Dailey
    July 16, 2013
    Image courtesy of NS Newsflash of Flickr.

    As news professionals — and journalism educators — rethink their businesses, they are championing the words “innovation” and “disruption.”

    A few years ago, University of Nevada graduate students did an informal study on how people react to the words "journalism" and "news." This is what they found.

    A few years ago, University of Nevada graduate students did an informal study on how people react to the words “journalism” and “news.” This is what they found.

    "Since the news industry is one of research and explanation, it seems reasonable to look at what we know about innovation and compare that knowledge with what news organizations are actually doing."

    But do they really understand the complexities and the costs (both financial and cultural) of innovation and disruption? And are news organizations truly prepared to innovate, or they are merely playing a kind of organizational “keep up with the Joneses” (a phenomenon that  scholar Wilson Lowrey would call “institutional isomorphism”)?


    Since the news industry is one of research and explanation, it seems reasonable to look at what we know about innovation and compare that knowledge with what news organizations are actually doing. This might be helpful in determining whether they are likely to accomplish meaningful innovation in journalism and, if not, what may need to change.

    Sameness, Difference and Innovation

    In his seminal work, “The Diffusion of Innovations,” scholar Everett Rogers argued that sameness (which the scholars call “homophily”) creates cultures that are easy to manage, but relatively unlikely to innovate anything meaningful. Difference (“heterophily”), on the other hand, is more likely to spark innovations but it is much more difficult to manage.

    A look into the culture of the news business, then, will provide clues as to whether that business is likely to innovate.


    At the risk of oversimplifying the research, it seems that news organizations embrace sameness to the point that they are right down defensive about it.

    Back in 2001, the Readership Institute at Northwestern University found that news professionals embrace sameness (link opens PDF). It said that “newspaper cultures are more defensive than other organizations — and the results are fairly uniform across all newspapers. In a defensive culture, employees lose sight of the overall goal, get lost in details, and make little effort to coordinate with others.”

    To look at an example of this, a study that I conducted with Ball State colleague Mary Spillman found that newspapers are significantly more likely to share information with organizations that are like their own than they are with organizations that have cultural differences. Newspapers, as expected, embrace sameness and eschew differences in their partnership. Our study is scheduled for publication in the fall edition of Newspaper Research Journal.

    On careful reflection, this should not seem surprising. The news business is one of deeply embedded routines and carefully followed habits. Newspaper editors and television newsrooms refer to their products as daily miracles because, essentially, they’re publishing a book or creating publications every day of the week. Without deeply embedded routines and strong habits, these tasks would, indeed seem miraculous.

    So embracing habits and routines has served the industry well in the relatively non-competitive past.

    But this miracle came at a cost. The news business has, historically, sacrificed opportunities that could spark cultures of meaningful innovation for habits that produce cultures of efficiency.

    This is in contrast to the habits of Silicon Valley innovators such as Google and the design firm IDEO, who champion risk; build playful, creative environments; encourage uncomfortable collaborations and spend significant amounts of money on innovations — arguably all efforts that may endanger their current business models while they provide pathways to future models.

    Don’t take my word for this.

    Learn by Doing

    Take a moment to do a web search for “Google office images.”

    Go ahead, do it now.

    I’ll wait.

    Did those images look anything like a newsroom? Are they what you expected from one of the world’s most powerful companies? What does Google know that the news businesses might need to learn?

    An indoor bike track at a Google office (photo courtesy of Google)

    An indoor bike track at a Google office (photo courtesy of Google)

    Google mandates that its employees spend one-fifth of their time on projects that are not directly related to their jobs. One of these projects led to the creation of Google News. IDEO mandates that its employees develop empathy with people who are quite different from themselves. Both organizations champion the importance of playfulness and diversity of ideas. This type of thinking led to the invention of Google News and IDEO design innovations such as the first Apple mouse, Microsoft’s first ergonomic mouse, and those squishy-handled toothbrushes that most people now use.

    In their book “The Innovator’s Solution,” authors Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor argue that cultural change is the single largest barrier to innovation. Organizations confuse old, bad habits with core routines. And, at the time when they most need to discard those routines, organizations tend to embed themselves more deeply into their habits.

    To become disruptive innovators, organizations need to reverse those habits. They must embrace the uncomfortable, fail at innovation and learn — quickly — from those failures, and try to make their existing models obsolete.

    To apply those concepts to journalism, news organizations need to focus less on saving their organizations and, instead, focus on creating products that actually make newspapers and news productions obsolete. They need to find new, better ways to serve the public while they let go of behaviors that did that job in the past. That’s the path to success.

    Left to their own devices, however, even the best organizations tend to embrace routines and safety more than innovative cultures. That’s what people do — they look for what worked in the past and try to apply that knowledge to an uncertain future. Further, defensive organizations with almost no history of disruptive innovation, for the most part, do not have the institutional knowledge to pull off truly disruptive change.

    This would seem especially true of the news business where, to be blunt, many news managers were promoted to their current positions because they were good at producing routine news products, not because they are were experts at managing change and rewarding risk. And, again, the news business tends to embrace its old habits more than most businesses.

    So it appears that news organizations face significant cultural challenges if they are to succeed at the type of innovation that keeps Silicon Valley organizations alive.

    But there are other indicators that provide clues into whether innovation might actually happen.

    Another way to behaviorally measure organizational commitment to innovation is to look at the organizations’ spending habits. Do the organizations “put their money where their mouth is”?

    Show Me the Money!

    As I’ve already mentioned, it appears that Google’s culture walks the talk of innovation. A look at the company’s spending habits will help determine just how deeply committed that company is to innovation.

    Google’s 2012 annual report states that the company invested $3.8 billion, $5.2 billion, and $6.8 billion into research and development in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively.

    Yes, that’s $6.8 “billion” with a “b.”

    To glance quickly at other businesses, USA Today said that these companies, in 2011, spent the following amounts on research and development:

    — Microsoft: $9.4 billion
    — Pfizer: $8.4 billion
    — Intel: $8.4 billion
    — Merck: $8.3 billion
    — Johnson & Johnson: $7.5 billion
    — International Business Machines: $6.3 billion
    — Cisco Systems: $5.6 billion
    — Google: $5.2 billion
    — Eli Lilly: $5.0 billion
    — Oracle: $4.4 billion

    Which leads to the question: How much does USA Today’s parent company, media giant Gannett, spend on innovation?

    In looking at Gannett’s 2012 annual report, I cannot find how much, if anything, is being spent on innovation or research and development.

    A search of the document for the word “research” yields results that primarily discuss market studies about how audiences are using existing products and how existing content can be made more widely available. Searching for the word “innovation” produces results concerning the company’s partnership with ConnecTV.

    A look at NBCUniversal’s annual report reveals similar results. There seems to be no line item for innovation or research and development.

    Again, searching for the word “research” yields audience research — this time by Nielsen Media Research.  A search for the word “innovation” provided no results.

    Admittedly, I have only sampled a couple of organizations. And I am not a financial reporter. But perhaps that is the point. It is not easy to determine news organizations’ demonstrated commitment to innovation, research and development. It is easy to determine that commitment with companies like Google.

    In addition, anecdotal experiences lead me to believe that a more comprehensive effort would not lead to significantly different results.

    So, if news companies and educators say they want to innovate, they may have significant hurdles in front of them.

    It’s not impossible. But it will take commitment — much more commitment than is currently being given — to accomplish this task.

    In the meantime, it may be prudent for news professionals and educators to look less upon the changing, apparently disengaged public as the primary reason for the difficulties that their craft now faces.

    Instead, perhaps we should consider the reality faced by a cartoon character more than 40 years ago.

    Perhaps, as Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

    Larry Dailey is the Donald W. Reynolds Chair of Media Technologies at the Reynolds School, University of Nevada, Reno. There he teaches classes on journalism innovation, game design for journalists and photojournalism. He was a charter member of MSNBC.com’s multimedia production team. He has also worked for the Associated Press and United Press International in Washington and for several newspapers. He researches media innovation and culture.

    Tagged: Budget collaboration culture google innovation journalism journalism education research

    2 responses to “Are Traditional News Operations Really Ready for Innovation?”

    1. TK says:

      This whole issue of defensive routine (or defense of routine ) goes double for newspaper advertising departments. Analysts like to focus on hidebound green-eyeshaders’ difficulty in effectively building audience across platforms, but even more so the industry struggles to deliver effective multiplatform marketing solutions for customers.

      As the news audience moves to mobile platforms, the bottom is about to
      fall out of traditional banner ads, which never yielded value for customers or serious revenue for us. Some papers have launched digital agencies that sell around audience targets rather than our branded products alone. But most local newspapers have nothing else going.

      The content side can innovate to high heaven, but if the revenue side can’t gin up new revenue streams to go along with it, we’re still dead.

    2. maalbert says:

      I could not agree more! As a Broadcast Consultant with over 30 years of experience I have been screaming this to many deaf ears. Fear of change and a quest for comfort in these uncomfortable times allows gravity to pull us back to doing things as we’ve always done them. That will only put off the inevitable if this culture doesn’t evolve. Also, most broadcast companies are publicly held and fear of declining stock values cannot be ignored. I find many of this also true on the sales side of the business – stations are selling as a commodity rather than value which is a system of sameness and “keeping up with the Jones” as well. The entire industry needs a major overhaul of innovation to thrive today and in the future.

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