News organizations have an innovation problem. Especially print media. As they gingerly wade into digital, their ability to foster innovation becomes more critical than ever. In today’s fast-changing landscape, they should view innovation as their main weapon against direct competitors and emerging players such as tech startups,.

Unfortunately, print media appears ill-equipped to innovate. The reasons are many.

– The weight of the past. Looking back ten years, making changes to a newspaper or magazine used to be a lengthy and complicated process, with technical, industrial as well as political implications. On the internet, by contrast, major changes are a only few lines of code away. Modern CMS (Content management systems) are designed to allow and sometimes encourage modifications and adaptation to rapidly changing needs. As for applications, a minuscule team needs only a couple of months to engineer an impactful product.

– The takeover of the bean-counters. In the newspaper industry, years of revenue depletion have shifted tremendous power to the financial guys. They performed as requested by shareholders (especially because journalist-bred managers lost their credibility).They cut, downsized, optimized. Not exactly the best petri dish for creativity.

– A risk averse culture. This is mostly a consequence of the previous point. Cost-centered management, added to gloomy business conditions, won’t foster initiative and risk-taking. The result is you will not see a group of journalists putting their job in play in order to launch a new product they believe in.

– No management reform. Each time I look at a newspaper’s org chart, I’m struck by the complexity of the management structure, by the level of red tape still remaining. Curiously enough, very little has been done about it. (In most cases, it has to do with a spreadsheet-driven management unwilling to fight organizational conservatism).

As a result, very few news organizations prepared themselves to switch to a genuine competitive innovation model, more comparable to the one used by technology companies. Having said that, questions arise: How to create an environment that will stimulate new ideas; how to restore a risk-taking culture; should innovation be mostly internalized or outsourced; how to select the best decision-making processes for the new digital-driven world?

Last week, the New York Times unveiled its Beta 620 initiative. As Matthew Ingram  puts it in Gigaom, the project is the NYT’s version of Google Labs, with selected projects presented to the public. Innovations involve social media, search, recommendation engines, etc. Let’s be clear: I can’t think of many news organizations with the courage and ability to devote anything close to what the Times is investing in its R&D effort. (To get an idea of the New York Times R&D Labs’s scope and ambition, see these videos shot by the Neiman Journalism Lab.) Still, some of their processes and ideas are worth considering. From what I’m told, Beta 620 is the visible part of a program started several years ago, one in which, once a year, everyone is encouraged to present a digital project. Even the least nerdy will be helped in his/her pitch. An ad hoc committee selects a couple of projects and the authors receive a small prize (a thousand dollars or so). More importantly, s/he will get appropriate resources and time to further develop it.

More broadly, the Times has a low-key but efficient way to stimulate innovation or improvements. Take its new CMS. Developed in cooperation with Infosys, it is carefully designed to be safe and robust. But, at the same time, it lets the nerdiest web producers tinker with the code to alter the layout of a page, or to adapt the rendering of the website to a specific need. When someone described how the improvement process was made available to so many, I was surprised by the level of trust the NYTimes is putting in its staff. (Needless to say: this accessibility comes with suitable precautions, tests procedures and so on).

Obviously,  very few news organizations facing a constant revenue depletion can afford a fully-staffed R&D Lab. Having said that, between its internal contest encouraging out-of-the-box thinking and the trusted approach for continuous improvement, The New York Times teaches us a lesson: Fostering innovation is a matter of creating the right environment as much as pouring tons of money in it.

The dominance of finance-driven management impacts innovation. It encourages a short-term approach. Today, an executive team will be much more inclined to spend money with the promise of a quick — even if small — return, as opposed to investing the same amount of cash in an actual new product. To them, the potential for the greater benefit of a truly new creation is outweighed by the risk of a more distant, more uncertain outcome. Investing $100,000 or $500,000 in a marketing campaign, aimed at boosting an existing digital audience, will get a greater consideration than making the same investment in a new app — especially since the performances of the former will be easier and quicker to measure.

Another side-effect is the alteration of the decision-making process. Ten or twenty years ago, sound businesses with decent margins and growth, along with predictable economic conditions, allowed gut-based decisions. Today is the opposite: with all key economic indicators blinking red, management will run for cover by asking for as much data as possible to justify their decision. And a landscape that changes faster than ever before makes getting reliable data a complicated task. Think about the changes we witnessed over the last two years. In a recent interview to McKinsey Quarterly,  Google’s CFO Patrick Pichette acknowledged that, every single day, 15% of the queries it handles are completely new and never seen before. This says a lot about the level of uncertainty the digital business now faces.

What is left to manage innovation? Based on my observations and discussions with project managers and executives, key recommendations emerge:

– Separate short-term tactics from medium-to-longer term strategy initiatives. Marketing is fine, but it doesn’t guarantee lasting results. A great product does.

– Dissociate production from innovation functions. Those who drive the train can’t be asked to design a new locomotive. Nor to oversee it construction.

– Stimulate creativity. Encouraging staff to come forward with new ideas, helping people formulate projects can be done inexpensively.

– Once a project is selected, assign clear objectives, scope, schedule and ways of measuring success or failure.

– Assign a small, dedicated team that will report to the top of the organization, not to middle management.

This sounds like basic and somewhat obvious rules. With one exception: very few news organizations have adopted them.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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