The ‘scoop’ mentality in journalism and the allure of the new have the potential to combine in a dead-end cocktail for media houses, if they fail to do their homework and take a rational, business-like approach to the introduction of an innovation.
A killjoy caveat from an old-guard naysayer, or a legacy media dinosaur with Luddite tendencies? Perhaps.
But the 2012 study of a legacy newspaper company’s short-lived foray into video journalism reinforces the assertion that newspaper management tends to a “generally haphazard” approach to the introduction of innovation. It is also a timely reminder that a formal and rational approach to innovation is far more likely to deliver sustainable competitive advantage – or whatever has been agreed as the measurement of an innovation’s success.
The case study showed that threats to success include the novelty of a process, a system or a product, or the promise of boarding a trend bandwagon early on to gain a jump on competitors. They can blind enthusiastic adopters to the need for locally specific research, a measurable goal, clear targets and a shared vision, before they implement something new and alien in their organisation.
We’ve experienced it countless times in our engagement with things digital. A new smartphone is being talked about everywhere; it looks sexy and has new features including a widget that translates from pure Magyar to Urdu in seconds. You buy it. And before you know it you’ve got a phone with a battery life of three nanoseconds, a huge data bill, and you can barely use it for a simple phone call. Swept away by the difference and newness factors you skipped the basics; you failed to interrogate your use of your current phone, your future needs, your bank balance, and the power consumption or maintenance needs of the shiny new gadget.
The study of the introduction of video to the website and print newsroom of The Times newspaper in South Africa – based on interviews with stakeholders, observation and contemporaneous blog postings from inside the newsroom and the digital operation suggests that enthusiasm – from the adopters for the novelty of their selected innovation of video – overcame rational decision-making. It combined with other factors to retard the process of innovation and inhibit the possibility for any real changes in the company’s processes or what it offered the public. The study revealed some critical dos and don’ts that apply to all organisations.
Take-up of online video back in 2007 had varying degrees of success. Today it appears to be coming into its own. For instance, The New York Times is ramping up its video offering; the Wall Street Journal is showing over four hours of live video per day on more than 15 different platforms; the Associated Press meanwhile is unveiling its new online video news service, delivering archive footage and broadcast-quality video news to digital publishers. This should have seen South African online video pioneer http://www.timeslive.co.za perfectly poised to take advantage of this renewed bullish approach to online video.
Just five years before, in its earlier incarnation as www.thetimes.co.za, it had been the South African poster-child for online video, with a nine-member video team creating daily content for the website. But by 2012 its multimedia operation was down to one person who provided mainly third-party soft news, company promotional video content and clips from AFP’s leisure wire service. The website is growing traffic and the linked daily newspaper has grown circulation, so why has the online video team dwindled?
Innovation is defined as “an idea, practice or object that people see as different”. 2 It doesn’t have to be novel, unique or completely new but must be “perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption.”3 It can replace the old but it can also, in the case of media products, complement – as well as compete with – what is offered by competitors 4 and, in the case of print and multimedia, complement other news products offered by the same media company. Most newspaper organisations innovate because they perceive they are being threatened by consumers’ uses of new media technology, reduced advertising spend on print, and minimal growth in the markets they served.5 But The Times had more positive reasons for innovating; it wanted to be first, it wanted to offer more and it wanted to get ahead of the pack.
Researchers drawing on work by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, innovation is also a process that triggers other processes of creative destruction, in which the old repeatedly gives way to something which is unknown at the time of adoption.8 Innovation can be incremental or it can be discontinuous and disruptive. Disruptive technologies are science-based innovations with the potential to create a new industry or transform an old one. 9. The process can result in changes to the product10, or to the ways in which the organisation produces or delivers it. It can create a new position or image for the company or its products and services, or it can be a paradigm innovation, completely changing the company’s thinking or strategy.
In 2007 online video journalism was not a new form of journalism per se, but it was a novel form in Avusa Media, the legacy news company that owned www.timeslive.co.za. Media firms, which are often risk-averse – and Avusa Media was no exception – have received new media technologies with varying degrees of “enthusiasm, resource commitment and success”, because a host of variables, each with its own degree of influence, can impact the rate of adoption and fate of the innovation process.
Chief among these variables, according to the literature on diffusion of innovation, are the characteristics of the innovation itself, as perceived by the adopting entity and the individuals within it. These characteristics may be called attributes, benefits or strategic advantages11 but whatever the terminology researchers use, they concur that the adopters’ perception of the innovation’s potential benefits or problems, is a major determinant of what follows the pre-diffusion phase.
A decision to adopt is only likely to be made if there is a perception that there is a benefit to be gained12 and that it is sufficient to justify expenditure of effort and resources on the adoption process and the uncertainty and risk that accompanies innovation. The perception of the characteristics of the actual thing that is being adopted, and of what the users want or wanted of it13 is also vital, to be able to foresee how the process is likely to progress.
Interviews with stakeholders indicated that the company tended to rush into adopting an innovative idea with little scoping of factors that could impact on the process – especially with regard to readers or consumers – and without a clear business purpose, other than to be a first mover. The stakeholders in this case study were categorised and labelled according to their roles in the company; Suits, Techies and Creatives. These labels are derived from Oscar Westlund who, in an attempt to expand the focus of media research from predominantly journalists’ experiences, made a point of recording the experiences of people outside of newsrooms who are enabling journalists to do new things, such as sales and marketing, and IT.14
Suits were those tasked with running the business and ensuring revenue. Techies were those with digital or IT responsibilities. Creatives were involved with creating and producing the content for news consumers.
A Suit and a Techie who were interviewed in the www.timeslive.co.za case study both referred to the company as having a ‘build it and they will come’ approach to innovation – a reference derived from a quote in the 1989 baseball movie, ‘Field of Dreams’. In Innovation Theory an innovation can be implemented and move on to being ‘routinised’ and confirmed – commonly perceived as denoting success – or its diffusion can be resisted, discontinued and equated with failure.
An innovation can also be reinvented and become, do, or achieve something quite removed from what was originally intended. The classic example is The 3M Company’s ‘Post-it’ notes exemplar so loved by business schools; work to formulate a high-strength adhesive spawned a pressure-sensitive, low-tack variant for which no obvious use existed, until a few years later when it was married with squares of paper to create the ubiquitous, repositionable, yellow aide-memoires.
In some instances the innovation is simply suspended in anticipation of a ‘better time’. In the case of www.timeslive.co.za, the study concluded that online video appeared to have been simply grafted on to a host body, effecting few if any lasting changes to the mother system and adding little or no discernible value apart from a brief upturn in the brand’s reputation. In the dual-market media industry, the groups of adopters are diverse. There’s the organisation and its employees, including journalists in an often internally autonomous editorial environment; the advertising industry with its agencies and their media planners and buyers; investors; and the target market of potential users – all of whom are likely to have different perceptions of the innovation.15
An organisation makes the decision to adopt based largely on its perception or knowledge of the innovation’s characteristics, much as individuals do. But one of the differences in the process of adoption between organisations and individuals is that an organisation can impose the decision to adopt on the individuals within it – its employees. The success of an innovation, according to the theory, is more likely if the staff share the perceptions of ‘the authority’ imposing the adoption.
But making the adoption mandatory doesn’t necessarily mean the individuals charged with implementation will share the organisation’s view of the innovation or understand its purpose. Especially if the first line of adopters includes journalists, whose traditional autonomy on the other side of the “business” wall makes them less inclined to obey corporate commands and likely to have their own perception of the innovation’s characteristics.16
If the perceptions of the people tasked with implementation or who are expected to adopt the innovation are too varied, or at odds with each other, so the theory goes, the approach to implementation will be dispersed, focus will be lost and dissipated, and energy squandered. All this will predispose the innovation to a slow rate of diffusion. Online video at www.timeslive.co.za was an editorial initiative and, according to one of the Suit respondents, this meant it was not really expected or required to conform to any rigorous business or project disciplines, or to require set goals or measurable targets. In any case this would have been difficult because of the lack of a shared understanding as to the innovation’s purpose.
The traditional autonomy of newsrooms, and the status of the editor in the organisation, saw to it that the editor and the digital instigators of the innovation working with him were able to forge ahead with little consultation or engagement with the actors from other divisions, even if those divisions were needed for implementation of the innovation. There was also very little information-gathering in the important knowledge-seeking initiation phase, with regard to what consumers or, in fact, advertisers, wanted or needed, from the point of view of content and access. Neither was there any effort to get input from the sources inside the company that had relevant experience either in online video, audio-visual production or broadcasting.
This failure to adequately research and consider the local variables that could influence the innovation process may, to a large extent, have been the result of a lowered perception of risk due to the fact that the innovation had already been implemented by leaders in the media industry in other countries and tried out in a limited way locally.
But locally relevant knowledge is particularly important if the innovation bandwagon is crossing borders, whether geographic or industry sectors. When respondents were asked to identify themselves as either Suit, Creative or Techie, several pointed out that they believed they were hybrids of these labels, but had been confined to making input only in their official area of expertise.
Although there was some chafing at the failure to create a cohesive and holistic project team for this innovation, and at the retention of the silos between creative and techies, or editorial and digital, or digital and IT, there were also indicators that some of these silos were becoming porous.17
In this specific case the failure to engage all stakeholders, particularly the advertisers and the users, in the adoption decision-making process and the perception, in a traditional news media company – that online is inferior to the old “print” medium – also contributed to the failure to engage. This unequal status, in the view of another of the Suit interviewees, is inevitable where one medium is the dominant and established revenue earner.
Another indicator of the junior or inferior status of online was the various stakeholders’ references to ‘play’ and ‘fun’, when referring to online video. This was not helped by the fact that the set-up and operational costs of online video, before broadband costs were factored in, were relatively minor when compared to the major cost and risk of launching, printing and distributing a new daily newspaper in an already fairly well covered market. All this may have contributed to the sense that this online video innovation didn’t really need to be managed to the same standards of business discipline as other projects.
There were early indicators that the company was protecting itself against any major risk of disruptive change even as it set about innovating inside its newsroom. The bolt-on nature of the innovation process in this case study was fairly obvious. Discrete, separate production flows (and separate content management systems), the creation of a separate, younger (and therefore less journalistically experienced) group of video producers and digital innovators – primarily from outside the company – the allocation of different hardware and equipment, and the conceptualisation of the video content as largely stand-alone and independent of the print journalism product, signaled that, despite its public talk of convergence and new ways of working, the company was determined to protect itself from the risk of disruptive change inherent in the process of innovation.
Despite the fact that online and multimedia sat in the same space and attended a couple of meetings together, the skills of the videographers were not picked up or acquired by the journalists and the print journalists mostly failed to contribute to the video content production to any substantial degree. The only person who truly bridged the print and digital divide was the editor, and his main remit clearly was to make a success of a new daily paper.
According to many of the respondents in this study, online video did succeed in enhancing the brand’s image in the early stages of its implementation, but it is their perception that it never managed to achieve the quality, both technically and in content, that they had intended would differentiate it from competitors in the long term. In the event, their competitors caught up with them before they could capitalise on their first-mover advantage.
The study also supports the view that organisations need to have a clear and common purpose behind their introduction of an innovation. The ability to think on the fly, to take action quickly, may be the hallmarks of a good journalist working on a rapidly changing or breaking story, but these attributes do not necessarily stand a company in good stead when it comes to implementing innovation.
Media houses are dealing with the fall-out from an explosion in the number of sources of information available to individuals. These individuals, because they are spending their own money, will use a number of filters – ease of access, credibility of the provider, their need for the information, uniqueness, and relevance – to make their consumption selection. It follows that a media business hoping to make money from an innovation should have its own filtering process, rooted in business principles and focused on the consumer, to enable it to select the innovation it will run with.
Profit levels associated with the heyday of newspapers remain elusive and media houses cannot afford to indulge in vanity projects or mere brand-building exercises. Nor can they experiment for too long. As Robert Picard has pointed out, any contemplated innovation in the news media world needs to be analysed at the start for its potential to add value for its diverse constituency of stakeholders.
Ultimately an innovation has to deliver efficiency or cost saving, or revenue that is considered sufficient, or an uptick in consumption. Or all of these. The building blocks of business discipline and sound project management have to be in place and something of value has to be delivered to the consumer. Too long a lag between innovation and delivery and it’s highly likely the plug will be pulled by the Suits who have to deliver on the bottom line, as happened in this case.
Organisations considering innovation also need to acknowledge that there may be a long lead-time between implementation and reward. South Africa, for instance, is still waiting on the ‘super-fast, super-cheap’ broadband that was said to be on its way in 2007. Without the added value of quality this online video innovation remained primarily an alternative news product, on offer on a different platform that not everyone could access, in a news market that already offered several alternatives.
The tension between the creation of good journalism that serves society’s needs, and the generation of revenue has, hitherto, kept editorial apart and sometimes quite aloof from the business side.18 But there are signs that technological change, decline in circulation and profitability in many markets and the pressure to find a way to support the new digital channels to market, have forced old-media practitioners to improve co-operation.
This development bodes well for successful innovation, because innovation needs collaborative, cross-functional teams with a shared vision. It also needs a systematic approach and management19 if it is to create or add value for the multiple stakeholders in the media business20 – journalists, investors, advertisers and the ultimate consumers – the users, audiences, or readers.
Paddi Clay (@paddiclay) is head of the Journalism Training Programme at the Times Media Group in South Africa and is involved in a variety of digital and development projects in the company.
This post was first published in the Journalism Leadership INSIGHT report edited by Francois Nel, director of the Journalism Leaders Programme at the School of Journalism and Digital Communication, University of Central Lancashire. It is republished here with the permission of Nel and the author.
The University of Lancashire’s School of Journalism and Digital Communication has published the groundbreaking World Newsmedia Innovation Study for the past four years. This year’s Journalism Leadership INSIGHT report draws on research conducted by the authors while completing the Master of Arts in Journalism Leadership at the University.
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