Innovation in newspapers: marginal vs radical?

Many big-brand newspapers appear to be adopting a marginal iteration approach to establishing their new identity in the digital space. Softly softly, tip-toe tip-toe, experiment small improvements to their digital products and then test and learn from that data before repeating the process.

That ‘lean thinking’ makes a lot of sense, especially when many of those newspapers still have solid rumps of revenue from traditional sources such as their ‘paper’ subscription readership. You don’t want to upset the apple cart by changing up too much.

But I believe that more executives are itching to be more radical on the editorial floor. And perhaps the barriers to those big steps need to be removed. One school of thought that innovation needs to strike the balance between marginal iteration and radical steps – and I think this should be equally applicable to newspapers.

Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist writer, and one of the speakers at Wired 2012 today (Thursday 25 Oct), narrates a pair of compelling examples of innovation that work either iteratively – for example, the many subtle improvements that helped the British cycling team to seven gold medals at the Olympics – or radically, such as the development of the one-seater Spitfire fighter plane in World War II, which he argues involved much more risk but helped to change the course of history.

He concludes that these small and big steps need to be balanced in modern organisations. We can’t only tip-toe and test our way forward.

That’s easier said than done of course. Newspapers are already very lean (and not in the Toyota/Eric Ries sense) after all the cost-cutting in the face of digital disruption. Perhaps we need to be looking the way of Quartz, the digital-only business media startup begun by Atlantic. This may compete to some extent with the Atlantic’s business coverage, but it is also an example of innovation that busts the ‘silos’ that limit a traditional news publication from radical innovation. That is, the tech or commercial people are sitting next to the words people and are more and more often the same people. And similar integration should be considered from ‘content specialists’ to ‘marketing’ and ‘media’. Knowing where, how and to whom to sell the content is increasingly a competency that requires an innate understanding of content. What’s the point of being an SEO specialist if you don’t know what you’re putting up or trying to Googlejuice up?

At the most basic level though, a process of education needs to begin to teach executives at the top of their silos/old world departments to think more laterally. To bust the genres a bit and mix up the departments so that some recontextualised learning can take place. The amount of unused talent on the editorial floor is astonishing, as is the editorial insight that could be gained from better communication with newspapers’ commercial/marketing/product people. The newspapers that can take the leap and harness this unrealised value on their doorstep in their ‘digital-first’ strategy are likely to emerge victorious.

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