Yesterday at the closing panel of the Online News Association conference, Anil Dash and Josh Cohn of Google talked about the newspaper industry’s failure to embrace change.
Anil made this astute observation, “Journalism is the culture of infallibility.”
Josh said, “The fear of failure can stall innovation.”
Recently, the online-news e-mail discussion list sprang back to vibrancy after years of near dormancy. Some of us made the public observation that, “wow, there hasn’t been this much activity on online-news in nearly a decade.”
And this prompted the question, “so what have we accomplished in the last ten years.”
It’s easy to conclude, not much.
Sure, there are newspaper companies out there who have tried many interesting things, and some ideas have helped grow both audience and revenue.
But there are two areas of concern. On one hand, those innovations remain relatively isolated instead of widespread, and second, it’s still legitimate to ask, “Where’s the break-through?”
Even the most innovative newspaper companies can’t point to a product or project that is such a huge success it would be stupid for other newspapers not to try it.
As I’ve said before, game-changing ideas may not be required. We can do a lot with a little, but I can also look back at a decade or so of insider experience and see how entrepreneurial thinking is often resisted by otherwise forward-looking people.
There are online leaders who think every project requires a business plan, or a clear path to revenue or some other guarantee of success.
But true innovation doesn’t require a “can’t miss” plan.
Most ideas fail. Entrepreneurs know this, and realize that the true path to success is often strewn with mistakes big and small, many changes in direction and few missed opportunities.
On the other hand, even if you’re the most entrepreneurial person running an online operation, if there isn’t an understanding of innovation at all levels of the organization, it’s very hard to propose ideas that are unproven or have no obvious return on investment.
Seat-of-the-pants ideas lack gravitas and therefore rarely get prioritized or funded, even if the necessary expenditure is $100 and a day’s worth of staff time.
Too many “let’s try this” ideas get strangled by the minutia of metrics and measurements.
There’s a tendency to see the forest and not the trees in strategic planning sessions. We’re so busy concentrating on thinking big, that we miss the small-ball opportunities. And even if the idea has the potential to produce a home run, we fail to take the big swing because we think the circumstances aren’t perfectly aligned.
I’ve been guilty of this myself.
Somehow, we need to get around the culture of infallibility and find ways to move faster and do more.
If true innovation means a willingness to risk failure, then we’ll produce more mistakes than successes, which means if we want to guarantee the survival of this industry, we better get busy. We need big ideas. We need small ideas. We need to try all we can, then change, discard or embrace them as required.