The Great Journalism Innovation Problem

Neal Mann
Neal Mann
Dec 18, 2015 · 6 min read

‘Innovation’ is currently a buzzword in journalism, as probably it should be. Head to any conference on journalism and you can bet your life savings on there being a panel on innovation. In many newsrooms you’ll even now find journalists with innovation in their title, I’ve previously been one of them. This is good for the industry, there is no doubt about that, however there is a major problem with it.

It isn’t really innovation.

If you sit and listen to that panel at a journalism conference, as I did recently at a mobile news summit you’ll see why. The questions will undoubtedly run something like this:

‘How do you change a news room to focus on digital?’

‘How are you creating mobile first content?’

‘How are you encouraging journalists to use multimedia to tell stories differently?’

And the current favorite

‘What are you doing on Snapchat?’

The innovation we talk of in journalism isn’t the kind of innovation designed to radically change the way consumers behave, it’s really just short term reactionary attempts to try and deliver content to platforms the majority of consumers already use. The technology around us is changing at an unbelievable pace and if we take a look outside of our industry it’s easy to see where it is going, by doing so it’s also easy to see how the tech industry has structured itself to get there. Innovation in tech is rarely if ever short term, if you analyze new product launches by Tesla, Apple or Google it’s often easy to see what is coming next — the long term innovation that puts them out in front of the consumer.

When Tesla launched its recent Model X much of the technology was impressive; the self opening Falcon Wing Doors, the auto presenting front door that triangulates your position and opens at the right time, the auto snake charger currently still in development. As Elon Musk stated many of these ‘look cool’ but there is more to it than that. As Gavin Sheridan pointed out in a very smart post, they are steps to Tesla’s real goal:

‘None of these features have anything to do with building conveniences for humans too lazy to open doors with their hands, or indeed for parents squeezing between cars.

They were built for something else — and this is Musk’s sleight of hand.

All of these feature were built for one reason — a self driving future combined with an entire self-driving mobility platform. The Model X was built to be either the ultimate self-driving taxi, or the ultimate human/self-driving rental car — or both. Or as Musk almost laughingly hinted during the presentation — an invisible chauffeur will be doing all the work.’

Sure enough within the same month of the Model X launch, Musk’s Tesla released its first Auto Pilot mode update, which according to Tesla:

‘allows Model S to steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control. Digital control of motors, brakes, and steering helps avoid collisions from the front and sides, as well as preventing the car from wandering off the road. Your car can also scan for a parking space, alert you when one is available, and parallel park on command’

A world of self driving cars and automated consumer technology is inevitable and it’s going to change the way we live. It isn’t coming about because the consumer is there already, the consumer is being taken on a journey to it — a very structured journey by some of the world’s biggest technology companies.

In order to take consumers on this journey tech companies such as Google, have focussed on “10x over ten per cent thinking" as Google X’s Astro Teller explains, this allows organizations to really innovate:

‘There are tests that you can apply to see if you’re thinking big enough. The easiest one, the mantra that we use at Google[x], is ten times rather than ten per cent. When you try to do something ten per cent better, you tend to work from where you are: if I ask you to make a car that goes 50 miles a gallon, you can just retool the engine you already have. But if I tell you it has to run on a gallon of gas for 500 miles, you’re going to have to start over. And that causes you to approach the problem so differently that weirdly, counter-intuitively, it’s often easier to make something ten times better — because perspective-shifting is just that much more powerful than hard work and resources being thrown at problems via traditional, well-tried paths.’

It’s this structured innovation approach to an end goal which is important for the journalism industry to learn from. This isn’t playing catch up, it’s playing a whole new game the rest of the world doesn’t even know the rules to yet.

Google created the perfect incubator space with Google X and now its ready for this new self driving world. It has the mapping technology, streetview, live traffic and pedestrian data, it even knows what many of us look like. It’s easy to envisage how a Google car could pull alongside and only open for the correct person. It’s also easy to see why other technology companies are trying to get there. It’s the next major disruption and it even threatens many seen as current disrupters like Uber, who have now also moved into this space.

This new interconnected world isn’t coming about as a one off ‘eureka!’ moment of inspiration and innovation, it’s being delivered to us through a steady stream of product launches and software updates. We’re being taken on this journey and it has been planned for a long time.

The question the journalism industry has to ask itself is what journey are we taking the consumer on?

There is no reason why journalism can’t survive and thrive as an industry in this new interconnected world — it is an industry based on something these new technologies need: content and context relevant to the consumer. However to get there it needs to be in a place where it is set up to solve that problem for technology companies. I’ve previously written on what building blocks a media business needs to be ready for this. But those building blocks are only effective if a long term goal is in place and structured innovation, like that at Google X, Apple or Tesla, is driving it.

Strategic innovation has been difficult for journalism in the past because, unlike almost any other industry, it has been driven by exceptionally short term goals. The focus has been on daily editorial deadlines driven by the news cycle and advertising sales targets, all of which often designed around historic processes and platforms. This has meant all innovation inevitably had to be short term, to show immediate benefits and was often forced through by individuals in various areas of news organizations who understood the need to reach consumers on new platforms and in new ways. Too often resources have been focused on basic upgrades — wall papering over the cracks, often represented by the industry wide focus on homepage redesign.

As the pace of technological advancement only increases we can no longer continue with this approach. The internet of things and automation will bring with it incredible wide ranging opportunities for publishers to engage with the consumer. Technology companies, such as Facebook and Google with ‘Instant Articles’ and ‘Amp’, have already started to take advantage of this by offering solutions to mobile issues many publishers have neglected. The distribution platforms open to publishers are only going to multiply at ever increasing rate.

The problem newsrooms now have is that the delay in preparing for this new world, coupled with sharp declines in readership of traditional platforms and revenue, has left them in a difficult place. Now more than ever much of the industry is focussed on short term solutions just to stay afloat. Technology companies are currently solving problems for publishers, the publishers who succeed will be able to solve a problem for them — content and context.

This is the great innovation problem we need to solve.

Do we do it together? Do we do it in conjunction with technology companies? Do we go it alone as individual organizations? Do we give our content up and let others innovate for us?

We should probably get a journalism conference innovation panel going on that…

Neal Mann is Honorary Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Sheffield. He is currently on a six month secondment working on advertising content strategy at the Wall Street Journal. Previously he was a journalist for the WSJ and Sky News. These are his personal views on the journalism industry.

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