A Brief Guide to Newsroom Innovation

With business models under pressure and competition for audience and advertising dollars increasing, media organisations inevitably search for innovative new ways to attract audiences, tell stories or earn revenue.

Yet newsrooms often rush into innovation projects, expecting journalists to participate, or even to lead them, without explaining why, what the project is for, or how it should be done. Alternatively newsroom staff may be eager to bring ideas and innovations to their employers, but are deterred by hurdles on the way.

The following is a brief guide to newsroom innovation that draws on my 20 years experience of working in different media companies, 15 of those in leadership roles. But, even after reading this guide, never forget what media strategist Lucy Kueng concluded after looking into dozens of companies for a recent study, Going Digital: Innovation is not the same as strategy and “shiny new things”, as Kueng describes innovation, can even be a distraction for news organisations.

Why do innovation projects happen?

The obvious reasons to engage in innovation are tied to strategy on the one hand and market pressures on the other: the company wants to explore new business models, compensate for loss-makers or gain access to new audiences. These days there is hardly a newsroom that doesn’t reflect on how to attract younger audiences, more female readers and audiences that can be drawn in through different channels, for example digital, video or audio.

Examples of recent newsroom innovation projects, highlighted in Kueng’s study, include: experiments by The New York Times with virtual reality and by the Financial Times with new platforms, such as Snapchat. The Economist recently tried putting content into a machine learning system, but concluded it was not a worthwhile innovation.

But sometimes motivations are more complicated. Innovation projects are also conceived for the following reasons: to pre-empt the competition, to show off within the industry, to engage in symbolic policy, or to spend money from external funding that wouldn’t be handed over otherwise. Often innovation projects are nothing but symbolic policy to signal that ‘something is being done’ or they are driven by a new CEO or editor-in-chief who wants to shine and leave her or his mark. Other times these projects are invented to keep someone senior, who is perceived as a burden in his or her current role, busy and out of the way

How to go about them: top down or bottom up?

Some innovation projects are mandated top down, others are developed bottom up from within the newsroom. Both ways have advantages and disadvantages. When the editor-in-chief or CEO pushes the project, chances are that support in terms of financial resources and encouragement is more generous. It might also be easier to attract top talent to the group. When the project fails, a blanket of silence might descend, because nobody from the top wants to lose face.

But there are also disadvantages and traps to this approach. As a project leader you are not necessarily allowed to pick your own team, you have to accommodate members who are ‘boss favorites’ or simply want to be there because it reflects positively on them. If the project is a success, top leadership might claim all of the credit and forget about participants; if it fails, the project manager is most likely to be blamed for bad management.

When innovation projects are conceived bottom up from within the newsroom, there are other advantages and risks. The big plus is you can benefit from a start-up spirit. The key team will identify strongly and the project can profit from an underdog feeling. Under the radar it might be easier to circumvent bureaucratic processes and get started sooner. If it fails no one at the top will lose face, so consequences are unlikely to be severe.

The big disadvantage of bottom-up innovation, however, is the lack of identification among top leadership. The project might lack resources but you may be tempted to ignore this in the early stages, in order to make things work. It could also be harder to convince potential supporters. And any envy from within the newsroom can be voiced more openly if no senior managers are involved.

Method: From Scratch or Copy?

To develop something from scratch can have a huge excitement factor. You are free to explore, without being trapped in “this is how it is done” schemes. And the project will not be subjected to comparisons such as “theirs is faster/more reliable/customer-oriented”. But there are disadvantages. Obviously everything takes much longer. If software is involved, plan for lots of coding time because in the beginning things are likely to be bug-prone. Also establishing a market or a pattern of behaviour can be difficult. In the history of great innovations the inventors of a new technology very rarely reaped the rewards. The benefits were usually earned by those who successfully scaled the product .

There are advantages to copying something that is already there and adjusting it to your own needs. First of all, you can draw on the experience of others and don’t have to repeat their mistakes. You get inspiration and can use existing infrastructure, for example an established advertising market or advanced technology. You can’t be the first, but you can be better than the others. And it is possible to position the new product as the renegade – look at the market leader and do things exactly the opposite way.

On the other hand, it might be harder to gain market share or reap other benefits like attention, if the market is already crowded. Also you might be tempted to copy and paste something while neglecting the particularities of your own organisation: company culture or the special needs of your audience. And obviously you will always be compared to the competition.

The Challenge: Managing Transformation To Daily Business

Inventing something is very different from keeping things running. There are quite a few traps in the process of transforming an innovation project into daily business. The biggest challenge is to put the right team together. Very often you need different people for the regular operations than for the phase of innovation. It is important to create satisfaction beyond the honeymoon period, because people who worked through nights to make things happen won’t be willing to commit to overtime forever. Thus it is vital that you carefully draft your resource plan.

As a project leader, carefully listen to your team while planning – and take their observations seriously. Assign clear responsibilities, keep an eye on things and take stock from time to time. It is easy to fall into the “didn’t we just invent this?” trap – being convinced that you have something fresh and new while others have long outperformed it. Also, be honest: if it doesn’t work, do something else. In the long run, marketing benefits are not enough, a project should always contribute to the bottom line. And lastly, as a project leader, you need to be able to let go. Hand over responsibility and innovate something new.

Lessons learned

This list is by no means conclusive, but here are a few lessons learned from leading innovation projects and watching others lead them: For a project to be successful, you need the support of the key people in your company. If you are running a bottom-up project, communication is the most important thing to keep things moving. It is time-consuming but essential that all the important formal and informal stakeholders stay informed. To achieve this, draw a map of the potential fans and enemies within the organisation and potential fans and supporters outside the organisation. If you are the project leader, make sure you are allowed to pick your own team. If this is not possible, find a workaround and build a shadow team of people you have experienced to be most constructive.

Don’t go without the resources, at least not for too long. If a project is launched, it is very hard to convince leadership to commit more resources than initially assigned. Never, ever underestimate envy. Respect rules, but keep in mind that rules don’t always make sense. And finally: start pragmatic. But always try to think bigger.

This text was published first on 14th December 2017 by European Journalism Observatory.