Dealing with the myths of innovation in the newspaper industry

Bryan Murley and Angela Grant touch on the idea that innovation is incremental, not driven by sudden flashes on insight.


It’s tempting to get focused on a solution that you think will help your online efforts (let’s give everyone a video camera! Let’s give everyone a blog!), when experience says that real innovation is built over time.


He thinks professional media organizations have fewer challenges because they have dedicated web staffs.

I’m not 100 percent sure about that. Online staff members are really busy keeping up with the job responsibilities associated with the same old same old. Put the stories online. Organize the stories online. Put in a picture if you have time. These backbreaking duties significantly decrease the time available for stacking the building blocks of innovation.

These posts both reminded me of Scott Berkun’s book, The Myths of Innovation, which I previously wrote about in the context of the newspaper industry.

There are some false assumption going on, IMHO, in both Bryan’s and Angela’s posts.

Innovation can come from any where. You don’t need dedicated staff driving innovation. Creative people are innovators. It doesn’t matter what their job descriptions are. It’s a cop out to say, “I don’t have time to be an innovator.”

The important thing for a manager to do is to recognize this and give creative staff members room to roam — don’t just turn down every idea they present, or deny them the tools to try new things. The creative ones, the ambitious ones, will naturally come up with new and interesting ideas.

That’s why making blogs and video-capable cameras available to every staff member — and I mean every staff member, not just newsroom or online personnel, but advertising, production and circulation, too — is a good idea. You never know what wide distribution of these easy, inexpensive tools might yield.

Furthermore, its important separate innovation from incrementally following the leader. The web staff making incremental changes to a CMS is not innovation, as Angela seems to suggest. We all know what a modern CMS should do, what tools it should have — the fact that many newspaper lack these tools is more a matter of regret than R&D.

If you really want to be an innovator, it’s important to understand what innovation is.

Primarily, it’s standing on the shoulders of those who went before you. It’s a matter of looking at what tools and technologies already exist and figuring out how they can be used differently, remixed and recombined, to solve the unmet needs of your target consumers.

There was a great post from a developer named Paul Ingram the last week: Six Principles for Making New Things. The nut graph:

I like to find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1, then (f) iterating rapidly.

This pretty much defines using available technologies, finding unmet needs, getting them out the door quickly in a “good enough” fashion, and then incrementally improving the product or service as customer demand or opportunity dictates.

In other words, it fits in very well with The Innovator’s Solution, a book every journalist with an inkling of interest in innovation or “saving the industry” should read.

4 thoughts on “Dealing with the myths of innovation in the newspaper industry

  1. I agree that anyone can innovate. I don’t mean to leave anyone out.

    I think the reason I singled out the web staff is because they have the building blocks of technical knowledge that would allow them to innovate in that direction.

    It would be hard for a newsroom employee who doesn’t know the difference between cockerdoodle and django to come up with the same ideas as a web employee who knows more about web technologies.

    Like you said: it’s about using available technologies. It’ll be easier to innovate for those who know what those technologies are in the first place. That’s why I singled out web staff in my post.

  2. But newsroom people know content.

    Innovation isn’t necessarily about technology, or web programming languages — give creative newsroom people tools like blogs and cameras and maybe they’ll come up with some new ideas on how to use them.

    The flip side is, there’s nothing stopping a reporter from learning a few things about Yahoo Pipes, or custom search engines, or the Google Map API and figuring out new content ideas. I realize that takes a little more thought and effort, but you only get out what you put in. Individual initiative counts.

  3. I think I should clarify that I did not say that you *shouldn’t* give everyone a camera or a blog. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it isn’t necessarily “innovative.” And a newsroom manager who thinks that doing so will generate something innovative in and of itself is not doing his/her staff any favors.

    I like Google’s 20 percent approach, while realizing that it would be a difficult fit for the news industry. But perhaps reporters, editors, and web folks could be given a few hours per week to push themselves in new areas (on the clock, no less). That would be a better approach to bringing truly innovative ideas like the ones you mention.

    My original point remains, however. Continuity increases the potential for innovation. Constant churn in staff (in college media particularly) hinders innovation.

  4. There are different levels of innovation:

    On a personal level, you might learn about new social networks and tools because it’s fun and could boost your career.

    On a newsroom level, you might develop new relationships and responsibilities, such as reporters taking photos and video, or photographers recording audio or learning Flash.

    On a company level, you might see new publications or strategies.

    On an industry level, you might look for new markets.

    On every level, innovation tends to come from a gentle defiance of the norm. The newspaper industry is desperately looking for a USA Today-scale or larger innovation, but at the time, USA Today had to defy the industry.

Leave a Reply