How to drive innovation inside large news organizations
When Quartz, the fast growing global business website from Atlantic Media, announced that it had created a chart building tool to enable reporters to quickly generate visually appealing charts, some of the writers and editors at its sister publications were a bit jealous.
Kimberly Lau, the vice president and general manager of The Atlantic Digital, said people asked why they didn’t also have an easy chart builder, and if one could be built.
Lau said a frustrated product manager on her team told her, “we built a chart tool a year and half ago and nobody used it.”
So why was the Quartz tool so popular with its writers, and the one built for The Atlantic gathering dust?
Lau said collaboration was the key ingredient in Quartz’s success. The Quartz tool was built as a result of a discussion between its editorial and product teams. In fact, the tool itself was built by Quartz journalist David Yanofsky, who describes himself as “a professional journalist, trained designer, [and] self-taught programmer…”
“We had ugly charts on a beautiful site,” he said.
So he built a tool to address that need.
His colleagues at Atlantic Media, however, didn’t build the tool in the same way.
“Our product team thought it was a great idea but didn’t have the editorial advocate … that was willing to be a part of that conversation,” Lau said.
To her, the Quartz Chart Builder is a true example of innovation.
“It’s not just about [something] new, because new is definitely exciting and nice — but if it’s not adopted, it doesn’t really matter,” she said. “What we’re looking for is adopted innovation.”
Lau and Yanofsky spoke this week at Collab/Space NYC, an event organized by PBS MediaShift. It brought together speakers and projects from several news organizations for a day-long focus on “fostering innovation from within.” It was sponsored by the Reynolds Journalism Institute and hosted by the Ford Foundation. (Disclosure: I’m a former managing editor of PBS MediaShift.)
The event offered a look at several new and innovative projects under development at different organizations, and it featured two insightful talks from leaders who are pushing innovation as part of their agenda. Lau’s talk kicked off the day, and News Corp VP of product Kareem Amin spoke near the end.
In between, projects were presented by The New York Times, Quartz, Facebook, WFMU, Vox, NPR, the New York Daily News, and Ashoka. Participants at Collab/Space later chose which of the projects they wanted to work on to offer suggestions that could help them get to the next phase of growth. For more about that aspect, read this round-up post at PBS MediaShift.
Some of the most interesting takeaways for newsrooms overall came from the case studies offered by Lau and Amin about how to drive innovation inside large news organizations.
Here’s a look at those.
Lau: Barriers to innovation
The first barrier to overcome is not having buy-in from the top for an initiative.”
Lau’s talk focused on barriers to innovation inside organizations.
The first barrier to overcome, she said, is not having buy-in from the top for an initiative.
“It starts with expectations and permission to do things, and that ultimately comes from the top,” she said.
She said that one of her goals in 2013 had been to do more testing and optimization for the Atlantic Digital. Her team kicked off a three-month test period with an optimization platform but only managed to get two tests done, one of which proved inconclusive. They had to abandon the initiative.
Later, an outside consultant was brought in by Atlantic Media owner David Bradley, and this person strongly advocated for optimization and testing. Suddenly Lau’s boss and Bradley were pushing for this to get done.
“We were able to get those things rolling and we’re well on our way,” she said. “A lot of the time you think you can … do things in the dark and you’ll be fine. My team was on board, but we didn’t have the rest of the organization on board and that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Another barrier she addressed was people and organizations thinking they don’t have time to innovate. Their perception is that innovation needs to be separated as its own initiative or team.
“We didn’t have time to silo innovation, and that’s what a lot of companies do,” she said. “In a legacy business what you really need is innovation in your day-to-day workflow in everything that you’re doing. It’s about being smarter about our work and collaborating more.”
For Lau that meant simplifying the workflow for her team by moving from maintaining six CMSs to a single platform. This freed them up to spend time on new ideas and products. They also built a tool to help advertisers create their own custom ad campaigns, rather than force limited development resources to spend time on that task.
She offered two key takeaways for intrapreneurial innovation: “You always have to seek approval for what you’re doing” and “It all works much better when you are in constant communication and constant collaboration, and you can break down walls and bring product people into the organization instead of silo-ing them off to the side.”
Amin: Fund it to the next step
Amin, the head of product at News Corp, shared his experience with one specific project.
“Our users are getting older and our products don’t have as much reach into the younger generation, and we would like to reach them on mobile devices,” he said, describing the problem to solve.
Amin wanted to rethink how news content was delivered on mobile devices, and develop a new mobile news product.
He said his first step was to build a prototype “without asking permission.” The goal was to have something concrete to show the executive team, and to use that to get them to green light next steps.
As shown below, what he prototyped was a very visual way to present news stories using cards and graphics, as opposed to lots of text.
— Andrew Losowsky (@losowsky) July 8, 2014
“It treats data as a first class citizen,” Amin said.
Speaking about why so much of the company’s content is text-driven, he said, “We don’t write text because its the best way to tell a story, we write text because it’s the easiest way to tell a story.”
Amin followed a five-step process for the project:
- Question assumptions
- Build support
- Make technology bets
- Develop iteratively
Once they had a working prototype online, he began testing it by paying for small batches of Facebook and Twitter ads to drive users to view the site on mobile devices (step two). He then used that data to make changes to the product (step five).
Amin made a point of sharing what he was doing with people at different News Corp properties to ensure they knew about the project, and that they also felt involved in the process (step three). He also added people to an email list to keep them informed.
In the end the usage data and feedback were better than expected: 85 percent of people who started a story completed it, and 96 percent percent of users said they liked the visually-driven format.
Now that’s he’s proven people like the prototype, Amin said the next steps are to examine scalability and monetization opportunities.
“The goal at each stage was to get them to fund it until the next step,” he said.
He hasn’t been told no yet.
Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled one of the event participants, NPR as “Nor.” The name of Kareem Amin also was misspelled.