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Publishers: 12 ways to overcome common innovation roadblocks

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The right process, metrics and people are key when it comes to implementing new ideas and digital transformation

This is the second in a three-part series looking at innovation in journalism and news media. Part One explored the characteristics of innovation and identified five major barriers to change.

In this article, Damian Radcliffe asks leading media scholars, researchers and practitioners for their top tips for successfully implementing innovation.

“The bad news is that there’s a pretty low bar for innovation in journalism and media,” says Rishad Patel, co-founder of Splice Media in Singapore. “The good news is that there’s a pretty low bar for innovation in journalism and media.”

Nevertheless, despite this perceived low bar, addressing issues of innovation — and its implementation — is not easy.

“These are important questions… [and] very hard to give a brief answer to,” says Dr. Lucy Kueng who as Professor of Media Innovation (University of Oslo) and the Google Digital News Senior Fellow at Reuters Institute, Oxford, has written extensively on strategy, innovation and leadership with particular emphasis on managing technology shifts.

“I think the industry has a systematic problem with innovation — too much with too little focus,” Keung told me in email correspondence. ”Innovation needs to be embedded in a smart and strategic process, and then setting up the process to match the outcomes needed,” she says.

With that in mind, here are twelve strategic considerations which need to be factored into the processes — and outcomes — that companies looking to innovate need to consider.

Photo by Leon on Unsplash

1. Define what problem — or problems — you’re trying to resolve

“Innovation per se does not lead to growth,” Lucy Kueng reminds us, “and more innovation is not necessarily better, especially if it’s not wrapped in a strategy.”

“Innovation can ironically lead to fragmented attention, resource stretch, complexity and lack of focus. The answer is clarifying at the start what kind of innovation is needed, and why,” she adds.

2. Reframe your mindset to be more audience-led

For Rishad Patel, one major driver that he doesn’t see often enough are efforts that are externally focused, with media outlets innovating with the goal of seeking to solve the problems faced by audiences.

“We don’t see enough of that in the way we run our media organizations,” he adds. “True innovation in media comes from that value exchange: by serving our audiences with anything at our disposal that allows them to make better decisions and live better lives.”

“All of that takes a lot of conversation — actual conversations with the actual people we produce our content and media and journalism for, and an ability to listen with real empathy,” he advises.

3. Measure the right things

Once you’ve identified the problems you wish to solve, and put steps in place to address them, then “a great metrics framework to help show whether innovations are working or not,” is essential says Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ).

One potential challenge to address here, Newman observes, is to ensure that everyone is speaking the same language, especially where innovations involve a mix of tech, editorial and commercial staff. Given that these diverse roles may express themselves — and understand their roles and what success looks like — very differently, it’s essential that they are all on the same page.

Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash

4. Provide effective and clear leadership

Setting this framework, and communicating the vision and focus behind innovation efforts, are cornerstones of the work that those in leadership roles must deliver on.

It’s essential that senior management “set [a] clear vision and mission and ensure all staff are in alignment,” says Joon-Nie Lau, Director, Asia, WAN-IFRA (World Association of News Publishers).

To help do this, that means being clear about “who is in charge” Nic Newman recommends. This is especially important given the myriad of stakeholders (e.g. editorial, tech, marketing, commercial) who may be involved in these efforts.

It also requires industry leaders to possess a broader range of skills than perhaps they have in the past too. As Federica Cherubini, Head of Leadership Development at RISJ, explains:

The task requested of newsroom managers is much more complex now.

The skills needed have widened to include empathy, listening and understanding. It’s about adding on top of the old jobs the ability of taking care and truly leading a team.

We need to rethink what leadership means and who we consider a leader. We need to think about how that strategic change is reflected into having more diverse and inclusive newsrooms.

5. Look beyond the C-Suite

Putting these ideas into practice is key, for those like Devadas Rajaram, a Professor at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, India, who see “the biggest barrier [to innovation] is the traditional mindsets of the people running newsrooms.” “Media management should be open to new ideas and young people should be given a place at the table.”

It’s a view that resonates with Thomas Seymat, Editorial Projects and Development Manager at Euronews. “I would strongly recommend setting up structures or pathways internally for people with innovative ideas where they can find the support of people who “have done it before”, he advises.

Seymat recognizes that this may be difficult in resource-scarce environments, but that a failure to broaden the conversation reduces the pool of people given opportunities to lead change or have their ideas heard. Overcoming this is essential, not just to drive innovation, but also to promote fresh ideas, inclusivity and overlooked perspectives.

Encapsulating these frustrations (and strategic needs), Seymat highlights the Twitter thread from Catt Small, a product designer for Asana who went viral, earlier this summer, after reminding us that:

Allied to this, Joon-Nie Lau, Director, Asia, WAN-IFRA advocates teams “look outside the company and media industry for inspiration and answers,” given that the challenges being faced by the media industry are not unique to it.

6. Commit for the long-term

In implementing new ideas, “your first version probably won’t be right,” instructs Nic Newman, a former BBC News veteran who oversaw the launch of many of the Corporation’s early digital news products, “so you need to iterate and change.”

Recognizing — and committing to this reality — can be challenging, especially when “the newsroom’s understaffed and the higher ups’ focus is solely on quick wins or the bottom line,” acknowledges Euronews’ Thomas Seymat.

As a result, too often, it would seem, organizations risk being “fair weather innovators,” committed to the idea of change, but not necessarily sticking with it. This can be one reason why, implementation can be such a challenge. Lucy Kueng’s recent work on strategy and culture, for example, revealed that “only a fraction of strategies are ever implemented.”

“This is due to the complexity of strategy implementation,” Kueng wrote. “It involves shifting from a rational, deeply thought-out plan to the messy realities of human action, organizational inertia, and small ‘p’ internal politics and personal intractability.”

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

7. Trust — and invest in — the process

“We might have a good strategy on paper but its implementation brings lots of uncertainties. And this is because change is not just about process, but people,” says Federica Cherubini.

The process needs to match the outcomes that an organization is looking to deliver, advises Lucy Kueng. “Is this open-ended experimentation to test an idea, and learning is just as valuable as it working, or are we dealing with a fundamental pivot that has to deliver?”

“Each of these categories needs an entirely different processes, and teams people working on it,” Kueng observes.

“So underlying this, the big point is the process is as important as the innovation. Those doing well tend to have nailed the process — a central piece of which is simply unpicking the learnings that emerge.”

8. Acknowledge fear, risk and uncertainty

A consistent theme among contributors to this article was what Joon-Nie Lau categorizes as “FUD.” Fear, uncertainty and doubt.

“Fear of change, of upsetting whatever’s left of the status quo, fear of the unknown… fear of taking risks and investing in technology or new ventures which may not pay off.

Uncertainty in the political and economic outlook… uncertainty over what audiences want (or don’t) despite the existence of tools and techniques to determine and measure such preferences.

Doubt over whether any changes or new ventures will actually work, doubt and insecurity over being left behind.”

The sum of all these fears is understandable. After all, as Federica Cherubini, reminds us, “change is hard. The result of change is often (always?) unknown.”

Industry leaders need to lean into this, setting clear objectives and expectations.

“We are all afraid of change and what it implies,” confesses Patricia Torres-Burd, Managing Director, Media Services Advisory Services, MDIF (Media Development Investment Fund). “[But] I will say that fear of this need for continued relevance brings out the insecurity in the best of us!”

“Similarly, and the reverse is true,” argues Thomas Seymat. “It’s easy to imagine that change management in news organizations bloodied by cuts, buyouts and layoffs cannot be fully effective, or even well-received by the staff.”

9. Bring people with you

“Buy-in from a critical mass of people at all levels of an organization is necessary but is exceptionally difficult to obtain,” Dr. Jane Singer, Professor of Journalism Innovation at City University in London, divulges.

“Changing habits of both practice (how things are done) and thought (what things we believe ought to be done, and how we believe we ought to do them) is not only hard but also tends to happen unevenly: Some people will be enthusiastic, some will be less keen but receptive, and some will be resistant.”

“The size of each group will vary, but all will include senior managers, middle managers and junior staffers — and not just on the editorial side but right across the organization.”

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

10. Empower managers, cut the detractors loose

Everyone knows that culture change is hard. To help drive it, “remove detractors and naysayers,” counsels Joon-Nie Lau. “They are toxic!”

“Make it easy for them to leave if they do not agree with the new direction,” she recommends. At the same time, you need to “build trust [and] empower staff,” Lau says, which means showing your trust in your teams and working hard to “identify talent gaps, train, promote from within or hire from outside.”

Stressing some of the same lessons as those espoused by Jane Singer, Federica Cherubini points out that “strategic change has implications at all levels of an organization.”

Because of this “it needs to be embraced, pursed and championed by the top leadership, understood and implemented by the middle management — who often are confronted with the most real implications on the people aspect of this — and it needs to make sense and work for everyone who is executing that strategic change, working on it every day, throughout the organization.”

“I think a way to overcome these challenges goes through investing on and empowering managers,” she says.

11. Let go of the past

Having put these principles into practice, outlets may find themselves looking — and feeling — very different from when (and where) they started.

“These solutions, or products, may not look very much like the journalism business we grew up with, but that’s a good thing, because it probably means that we’re meeting those audiences where they are, rather than asking them to come to us, as we’ve done for so many decades,” proposes Rishad Patel.

Nevertheless, “it is complicated to change the ethos of a newsroom that has for decades been the leader in the market… but in print,” says Patricia Torres-Burd, sharing a sentiment applicable to players across multiple mediums. “Switching to digital is an enormous shift on so many levels! Managing this need internally and externally is hard work that takes vision, time, and strategic expertise.”

Photo by Hadija Saidi on Unsplash

12. Understand that change is the only constant

That said, few organizations can rest on their digital laurels, so however uncomfortable and uncertain this ride is, it remains a necessary one.

“We’re on a journey and there is no playbook or silver bullet to solve it all,” Federica Cherubini says.

“It’s about learning and iterating,” we need to “keep evaluating [because] what works now might not work in the future,” Cherubini argues. “This has been true probably for a very long time, but the pace of the evolution has increased dramatically.”

“The ecosystem is constantly evolving and embracing change means embracing the fact that we’re not simply trying to figure out how to get from A to B, but that that finish line keeps moving forward,” Cherubini cautions.

Subsequently, “transformation is the default,” she adds.

In the third and final part of this series, we will look at examples of innovation in media and journalism, and some of the key ideas and principles that these case studies demonstrate.

This article was originally posted on the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) blog and is republished with permission.