Innovation Belongs in the Newsroom


Derek Willis


November 6, 2007

There’s quite a bit of useful discussion about the recent big moves in the social networking space and what it means, if anything, for the news industry. Steve Yelvington’s advice is particularly good: “Given the magnitude of the change in Web consumption behavior brought about by social networking sites, newspaper companies need to think about how their content, tools and services might interoperate with these standards.”

But to even start that process, newspaper companies need to think of something more fundamental: how to put their employees into position to think of, sketch out and implement good ideas in the social network space and elsewhere online. As an industry, we suck at that. Not because we’re inherently stupid, but because the newspaper is such a different product - communal in the sense that it’s published for a mass audience, but generic because of the same reason. Niche ideas? Good luck - perhaps an inside section could be the place for a popular niche feature, but any good reading of what’s been going on with papers shows that niche sections have been killed off.

But on the Web, niche is king. It’s what enables papers to go a mile deep on some subjects while mostly ignoring others. It’s what makes college sports fans return to the local newspaper’s site even when they wouldn’t read it for anything else. And it’s the most likely destination for good, new ideas for the news business.

Some folks have suggested that the newspaper industry needs to cooperate on technical processes and innovations that could be used industry-wide. This is a crutch, and poorly-constructed one at that. The problem is that when you take the role of innovation out of the newsroom and put it with some consortium or committee or association, it dilutes the urgency and the applicability of the result. On a more practical level, when has journalism education really been the source of innovation for the industry?

News innovation needs to be in the newsroom, and individual papers have to figure out how to make that happen. For some, it’s giving the keys to a smart and idea-filled staffer, hoping that other employees will follow. For others, it’s hiring people to write the software that makes a news site better and also brings in additional revenue. But the pressure to innovate needs to come from within, not from some consortium that will allow hesitant publishers to keep their distance from whatever recommendations are issued. This is too important to be left to anyone else.

The other fallacy behind the consortium idea is that no other way of collecting and distributing this kind of knowledge exists. If this were true, then the open-source software model would not work, but it does. People who are innovating within the industry are sharing that knowledge already online; it’s not hard to find this information and adapt it to your own needs. No committee, however well-managed, will be able to provide the same kind of speed and flexibility.

In a special report on innovation two weeks ago, The Economist published a section entitled “We are all innovators now.” A key excerpt:

Stewart Brand, an internet pioneer, has famously argued that “information wants to be free.” So surely the knowledge worker, the creator of that information, also needs the same freedom. Companies and governments can find an innovator inside everyone; they just need to liberate them. Moreover, the rising tide of inventions that make one country wealthy benefits others that bring those clever ideas to market or simply make use of those products, processes and services.

News organizations: find your innovators and liberate them inside the newsroom. Steal the best ideas from the other innovators out there. Just don’t punt this to a committee.