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Innovation: Why is implementing it so darned hard for news organizations?

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This is an excerpt from our free-to-download report, Innovation in news media and journalism

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a media company in possession of a good fortune (an audience, brand recognition and decent revenues), must (still) be in want of innovation.

The pace of change in our industry means that even the biggest, most successful, companies need to continually innovate, refresh and reinvent what they do and how they do it. Those who don’t risk being left behind, overtaken by digital upstarts, or blown away by more established players with deeper pockets and a longer transformational runway.

I asked 10 experts — leading media practitioners, researchers and scholars around the world — for their insights around what constitutes innovation, the barriers to implementing it, and how to overcome these roadblocks.

Here’s what they had to say:

“I know it when I see it.”

Spotting innovation — and its characteristics — in the wild.

“It is such a difficult concept,” admits Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ).

Newman, like others such as Joon-Nie Lau, Director, Asia, WAN-IFRA (The World Association of News Publishers), highlighted the myriad of areas and activities that can be captured under an innovation umbrella.

This includes innovation in the way journalism is gathered (routines, methodologies, workflows and processes), the way it is packaged (workflow, products and formats), as well as distributed and monetized (platforms, services and products once more).

Principle No 1: The innovation process and mindset

In doing this, “innovation could be a new solution to an old problem or a new approach to a new problem,” explains Federica Cherubini, Head of Leadership Development at RISJ. “It could be about technology of course, but more broadly it’s about process and ways of doing things,” Cherubini suggests.

Dr. Jane Singer, Professor of Journalism Innovation at City University in London, concurs, noting how “in existing news organizations, it [innovation] generally requires a cultural shift, going well beyond the integration of some new technology or tool.”

This is an approach that chimes with Devadas Rajaram, a Professor at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, India. “Innovation in media for me is a mindset — not an architectural thing,” he says. “It’s a total revamp of [our] approach to doing journalism and redefining it.”

For Rajaram, and others, integral to this mindset is the need to be user-centric. That can manifest itself in many ways, from storytelling formats to methods of content delivery, but at its heart, Rajaram argues “should be a complete overhaul of our relationship with the user.”

It’s an end goal that Patricia Torres-Burd, Managing Director, Media Services Advisory Services, MDIF (Media Development Investment Fund) agrees with. “Decades ago, an all-news radio station in the US — had a tag line that I loved then and still believe is relevant. It was ‘KTRH — News You Can Use’. Thinking about your readers needs first and foremost is critical,” Torres-Burd says.

The rationale for being audience-led is simple. As Torres-Burd puts it, “audiences are bombarded with so many choices (not all great) and the competition is fierce.”

Principle No 2: It’s not always sexy

There’s a risk that efforts to innovate focus on big, bold and sometimes seemingly brash changes and alterations. A rash of new products. An eye-catching redesign. An expensive new CMS. New hires whose appointments make a big splash in the trade press, as well as the newsroom.

The reality, however, can (and perhaps even should) be more mundane.

As Jane Singer observes: “Innovation can encompass new ways of doing something that’s already being done, as well as doing something that is itself new.”

Nic Newman stresses the role “of innovation within existing rules.” That might mean “making existing things a bit better often with the use of data e.g. iterating and improving an email,” or “creating something completely new” that helps to usher in “the next great leap forward.”

For Newman that magic leap could constitute “a completely new tech framework like responsive design or voice interfaces and the content.”

Building on this, Thomas Seymat, Editorial Projects and Development Manager at Euronews, and an Adjunct Professor of Journalism at Paris’ Centre de Formation des Journalistes and Sciences Po Lyon, posits that “building a new CMS — because of all the technological and operational changes it entails — is perhaps the most innovative and transformative innovation of all.”

Principle No 3: You should start with the end in mind

Either way, it’s important that innovation is “grounded in analyzing a situation (or a problem) and finding the best way to solve it or improve it,” recommends Federica Cherubini.

“We can think of innovative ways of approaching how to engage with your audiences, or how to automate a task that takes too much human time but could be done very well by AI and technology, or how to tell a story in a way that meets your audience’s needs and consumption habits, or how to implement a new business model that is sustainable and in line with the organization’s needs and structure.”

“The news media industry has been through constant evolution, transformation, and adaption for the last decade (or more!),” Cherubini reminds us, “and all of these examples are about… being able to find the right way to produce and deliver journalism in line with those challenges and opportunities.”

Implementation: Five Key Barriers to Overcome

“Barriers to strategic change are as much about mindsets and established working practices and structures as they are about forms of expertise that need to be introduced into the innovation mix,” says Dr. Gillian Youngs, a strategist, innovation and ecosystem expert, who has worked across the creative, digital and academic sectors.

The aim of innovation-focused work, “is to ensure that areas such as values, accuracy, different forms of interconnected content and audience engagement can be extensively explored in the context of technological possibilities,” she says, “with the appetite for experimentation high on the agenda.”

That said, despite their best intentions, the appetite for experimentation can — sometimes for often understandable reasons — be mixed, or its efforts muted. Similarly, the implementation of initiatives focused on innovation can also be stymied by a combination of structural and cultural considerations.

Understanding why this happens is important, not least so that leaders and organizations can seek to avoid these pitfalls and potentially put strategies into place that might help to mitigate them.

With that in mind, here are five of the most common factors that news and media organizations need to navigate and be cognizant of:

1. Innovation for the sake of it

Media’s obsession with “the next big thing,” or the ‘‘Shiny Things Syndrome’, a term coined by Kim Bui, the Director of Product and Audience Innovation at the Arizona Republic, can be all too real.

Companies need to avoid “quickly jump[ing] on the bandwagon because others are doing it,” cautions Patricia Torres-Burd at MDIF (Media Development Investment Fund). That’s “not a great reason,” for doing something she adds.

2. Organizational preparedness

“Yes you want to be competitive,” Torres-Burd says, but organizations need to ask if specific efforts to innovate fit with your mission, and if your newsrooms — and your audience — are ready for them.

This is a sentiment Rishad Patel, the co-founder of Splice Media in Singapore agrees with.

“I think the biggest obstacle to any sort of strategic change around managing media is our unwillingness to ask our audiences what they need,” he says, advocating that having then listened to their audience, it’s incumbent on outlets to change accordingly.

As it’s stands, Patel clearly feels that many organizations have a long way to go in this regard.

“Far too many of the processes, tools, workflows, and mindsets we have used in traditional media organizations, from newsgathering, creation, processing, and amplification to distribution, sales, and marketing are calcified and codified in structures and hierarchies from decades ago that were created for advertising and a capital-heavy, gatekeeper-controlled marketplace.”

3. Risk aversion

Overcoming traditional working practices can be difficult when many organizations are quite conservative and risk-averse; sentiments that may have only have been exacerbated by the uncertainties of the COVID-era.

“Taking chances and committing to changes in a risk-averse, resource-scarce environment — or even a contracting one like journalism today — can be particularly challenging,” says Thomas Seymat at Euronews.

Together with this, Jane Singer reflects, “the contemporary environment of intense public scrutiny and, in many quarters, radical mistrust of the media,” does not help. “Fear of missteps that might explode disastrously can and does inhibit risk-taking.”

At the same time, although these are legitimate barriers to innovation and doing things differently, the economic reality of our industry — and the competition for eyeballs, attention and revenue — makes innovation a necessity. Standing still is a luxury few (if any) can afford.

For some, like Devadas Rajaram, “the biggest barrier is the old-school mindset in management.” Rajaram sees “fears and reluctance to change things,” coupled with a “refusal to learn, upskill and encourage new ideas,” as endemic among some industry leaders.

“We can overcome these barriers only by persevering and encouraging student journalists and young journalists to explore new methods and open up their minds to new opportunities that are there,” he adds.

4. Resource challenges

Nevertheless, even those with a will — and desire — to change, can still struggle.

“Keeping up with global industry media trends and your local / regional / national competitive market takes time and money,” notes MDIF’s Patricia Torres-Burd, adding how for many outlets “scale is critical for survival,” an economic reality that may influence what your new product offers will be.

At the same time, “when you are struggling to keep the ‘wheels on the bus’ and the bills paid as a leader, finding time to come up with strategic plans is hard to do,” Torres-Burd says.

“An additional challenge for media outlets, of course, is that any change has to happen alongside constant attention to the existing product(s),” Jane Singer reminds us. And, lest we forget, the news industry is “a notoriously voracious and crisis-prone beast that demands full-on time and energy from all involved.”

5. Thinking innovation is all about the tech

A further consideration for organizations is their own definition of innovation and the technological lens through which is all too often viewed.

“Technology isn’t always the big disruptor we think it is,” suggests Rishad Patel, co-founder, Splice Media. “It certainly helps, but the disruption we need for media doesn’t come from a very sexy place at all; it comes from asking people — our users, audiences, and customers — what they need, and translating those needs into actual solutions.”

“Perhaps it’s time we realized that media, or journalism, is a service industry,” Patel advocates.

“If our practice or content is not solving a problem for a community, or at least addressing a real need, it’s probably time to do something else.”

In Part Two of this three-part series, we look at tactics and strategies to help overcome innovation roadblocks. The series concludes with a look at examples of innovation in media and journalism, and some of the key ideas and principles that these case studies imbue.

Download the report here