Even before I read Scott Berkun‘s great book, I was bothered by the common assertion that newspapers had failed in the internet arms race because we didn’t invent a Google or a Yahoo!
Sure newspapers have not invested in R&D sufficiently, nor have newspapers made a rich enough commitment to building online businesses, but to chastise newspapers for not inventing Google seems like a bit much. Google began with one great idea (search rank), and the odds of any one great idea evolving into a great business are nearly zero.
The notion also sells short a whole lot of smart people in the industry who have been working for years to find the right answer.
Innovation is big, bold and a little nuts. Starting an online website and putting video on it is not innovation. Kicking the stuffing out of old boundaries, now thatâ€™s innovation.
If McGuire had read Berkun, he couldn’t make that statement. As Berkun stresses in his book — there’s never been a big, “kicking the stuffing out of the boundaries” innovation in the history of the world. All innovation is incremental and builds on and synthesizing previous advancements and ideas. The light bulb depended on filaments and advances in manufacturing (not to mention work in the same field that Edison borrowed from). The Wright Brothers get a lot of credit for the first manned flight, but there was a good deal of research and experimentation Orville and Wilbur could draw on.
Innovation is not safe. Innovation calls for risk. Look at the innovators of the last several years. Google, eBay, Auto Trader del.icio.us, Pay-Pal, Craigslist, Monster and thousand of others. Those innovators did not introduce incremental change, their changes were giant leaps forward.
Certainly, you must be willing to risk failure in order to build new business opportunities, but none of the examples McGuire cites were big leaps forward. How hard was it to figure out you could put classifieds online? Or that online auctions might be worth trying? Google didn’t invent the search engine, nor did Google invent pay-per-click, auction-based advertising. They just did it better. All of these changes were incremental, not giant leaps forward. They just seem that way in retrospect because they were such huge successes that they make it easy to forget their predecessors and contemporary competitors.
Look at that list again. Any body missing? You donâ€™t see a newspaper on it. Newspapers have shown themselves incapable of innovation for a couple of reasons: they are risk averse and want to keep the business they have even if itâ€™s not going to grow or perhaps wither away; When revenues were pouring in, the industry decided to take 30 percent profits rather than invest in research and development. I have said before â€œ the paltry amount of dollars spent on genuine innovation and risk may turn out to be the greatest scandal when the decline of newspapers is chronicled by historians.â€?
Certainly, as I noted above, you’ll get no argument from me that newspapers have failed to spend enough on R&D, but as I discuss below, I think part of the problem may stem from the kind of thinking McGuire perpetuates in his speech.
But there’s also plenty of examples from the newspaper industry of experimentation and innovation. There’s SFGates (and I would argue VenturaCountyStar.com gets some credit (selfishly) for Top Jobs; and in Ventura, we were the first newspaper in the US to try event auctions; there was all of the work of Rob Curley, and of course Yelvington himself didn’t win last’s years NAA Innovator award for merely pontificating on his blog — he’s done real work at Morris, one of the most innovative newspaper companies on the planet (Spotted was a great incremental innovation). There’s also, of course, the Bakersfield Californian and Scripp’s YourHub project (I’m not a big fan, but it was a substantial risk for Fran Wills and her team in Denver). If this paragraph weren’t already so long, I’d go on.
Just because none of these ideas were as impactful as Google or Ebay doesn’t mean they don’t fit the criteria of innovation.
One last comment about innovation. It ainâ€™t coming from anybody in this room. The chances of one of us here at the Scottsdale Chaparral going out of here an inventing a Google or even a viable innovation for newspapers is the same chance as all of us flying out of here on brooms. â€“None. So where is that innovation going to come from? Young people who, if we are smart, work for us. We donâ€™t get the digital age and they do. And, thatâ€™s why its stupid, yes stupid for you to try to make every decision in your shop and act as if all wisdom resides in your office. It does not. If you want to foster true innovation in your organization involve your staff. Show them you trust them and build an environment which allows them to innovate.
Here’s the rub, and why I think McGuire’s assertions are dangerous: If you believe you can’t innovate, you won’t. And if you believe that innovation takes big blow-out expenses, you will never innovate.
Google was started on two computers in a garage. Craigslist was started by one guy sending out a few e-mails to friends. Yahoo! had the same humble beginnings.
All of these ideas began with an insight on how something might be done better, not with big budgets, bright-light epiphanies, or an understanding how available tools and previous advancements could be used to create a new opportunity.
As soon as you think you can’t do something, you are already defeated.
Any member of McGuire’s audience — and any one of you reading this — can be an innovator. It’s self-defeating to think otherwise.
If you think you need more than a good incremental idea and nothing more than sufficient resources to pull it off, you will never innovate, and I think it’s that fundamental misunderstanding of innovation that has encouraged publishers not to invest enough in R&D. If you think it will take a million dollars to come up with a good idea (that might fail anyway), why commitment even 100K to R&D? Again, I think McGuire perpetuates a false notion of innovation that can hold back the industry.
If you’re waiting for the publisher to hand you a million dollar check, or for that big break-through thought, you’ll never be an innovator. But if you get busy thinking about what problems need to be solved and what available resources you can use to solve those problems, then you have a chance to make a great contribution to our industry.
That’s all innovation is.
Most ideas fail, some are merely modest successes, but once in a while, lightening strikes. It would be wonderful to have that one big, major break-through idea that makes billions for newspapers, but I wouldn’t count on that happening. In the meantime, lots and lots of modest successes can serve us very well.