The best practices for innovation within news organizations
It’s a word thrown around at lot in journalism today. There are innovation editors, teams, vice presidents, programs, and chairs at journalism schools. The New York Times produced a widely dissected internal innovation report.
At a time of massive disruption and transformation, innovation is an imperative for news organizations. But it’s also a vague notion for many journalists and newsroom leaders.
It is not one thing or product; innovation is about how your organization works and moves forward.”
What does innovation in the context of media companies imply?
Is it innovation to try distributing your content via a new messaging app? Is it innovation to change meeting times and work habits to adapt to user behavior? Is it innovation when you launch a new feature for your community, or any new product?
The answer to all of the above can be yes. Innovation takes many forms. Above all, however, a close look at the literature and practice of innovation reveals it to be a combination of process, structure and culture. It is not one thing or product; innovation is about how your organization works and moves forward.
For the purpose of this study, innovation is defined as the process of bringing new practices, culture and products alive within an organization, to preserve core values but serve them in radically new ways.
This is how people most involved in trying to help companies change think about it. “Innovation is not a person, product or an app,” said Amy Webb, a digital media futurist, whose digital strategy consultancy, Webbmedia Group, advises news organizations and other clients on innovation, near-future trends and business strategy. “A lot of the innovation that needs to happen in newsrooms has nothing to do with an app on an iPhone. A lot has to do with organization and workflow and management.”
Innovation is a process that must become ingrained in all aspects of an organization, according to journalism professors Carrie Brown and Jonathan Groves. They proposed a model of innovation for newsrooms in a 2014 paper, “The Lean Newsroom: A Manifesto for Risk,” which they are expanding into a book.
Their model draws on organizational theory, Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory, the Agile development and lean startup methodologies, and time spent with newsrooms in transition, to identify the key components of an innovative news organization. (“The Lean Startup” is a book by Eric Ries that offers a specific approach to building products and companies; Agile is a project management methodology that emphasizes adaptability and feedback loops for rapid product development.)
The below image represents Brown and Groves’ model of the many factors that come together to create an innovative newsroom. At the center of the overlapping circles are three core elements of the model: Innovation, Strategy and Culture. They are placed on a time continuum to communicate that the components of Innovation can be implemented immediately to help spur change, whereas Culture requires a long-term commitment for it to evolve and change.
In the middle of those two is Strategy, which marries aspects of Innovation (such as audience analysis) with Cultural elements to define things such as the mission and goals for the organization.
The below model also communicates the fact that that Innovation is more connected to the overall Environment in which the newsroom operates, whereas Culture is a byproduct and reflection of the organization itself.
Their model is supported by key insights offered by the 14 people interviewed for this strategy study. They lead product teams, are in charge of legacy newsrooms in transition, fund journalism innovation projects, teach and research innovation, run digitally native newsrooms, and more.
During these discussions, several key areas of innovation rose to the top, and are the focus of this study:
- Leaders must set, enforce but also nurture priorities.
- How to create a culture and structure for innovation.
- How to generate and pursue ideas.
- How to gather feedback, measure and iterate.
This study presents examples and insights in these areas, with the goal of offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward. Some information will be of most use to traditional news organizations in transition. But overall this study should prove valuable to anyone at any type of news organization.
“In the new digital age of communications, anyone can be a media innovator,” wrote Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation in his book, “Searchlights and Sunglasses.” “Fears of the destruction of traditional media can be replaced by the excitement of creating better, more powerful journalism. If we can adopt them as fast as they come, digital tools and techniques will narrow the gap between where journalism has been and where it needs to be.”
This study provides guidance and actionable methods for implementing and inspiring innovation within your organization.
As journalist Hodding Carter III said in “Searchlights and Sunglasses”: “This is the most exciting time ever to be a journalist — if you are not in search of the past.”
Leaders must set clear priorities
For decades the Russ family of Austria has run a successful newspaper and printing company. Their flagship publication was the dominant player in Western Austria, but in the 1990s Eugen Russ, the company’s managing director, saw the digital future coming.
He began visiting Silicon Valley and studying disruptive innovation theory. Russ realized he needed to act, and fast, to secure his company’s future. Small tweaks would not work.
Russ decided the only way for his company to survive was for it to change dramatically. He resolved to disrupt his own business by creating self-contained separate divisions that were free to pursue their own products and strategy, even if they undercut the existing business.
In an interview with the World Editors Forum, Russ said “we believe in the Innovators Dilemma described by Clay Christensen and Clark Gilbert. Even if print is still successful today and in the foreseeable time, we separated digital from print. And have never changed.”
Innovation can’t happen unless the leaders of an organization instigate change and experimentation, and create structures, a culture, and processes that encourage innovation to flourish.”
Today Russ Media operates separate digital businesses in several European countries, along with its stable of magazines and newspapers. In Germany its Quoka.de website competes with eBay and Craigslist for the classifieds market. In Hungary it operates an online classifieds site, a wedding website, a gardening website, and a careers portal. In Romania, it has a women’s health portal, and a classifieds site for buyers and sellers of vehicles. In Austria, it runs a mobile-oriented news offering, along with telephony services. The aforementioned sites and services are just a sample of its properties.
Russ Media frequently launches new products, stops initiatives that aren’t working, and forms teams to attack new opportunities. Quoka.de used to have a print component, but the company ended it two years ago to focus solely on digital.
“The company, now a digital pure play, is growing fast and generating money and expertise for further investments in digital,” Russ said of Quoka.de.
Gerold Riedmann is CEO of Russ Media Digital, one of the independent divisions within the overall Russ Media organization. He said that he and the company’s other so-called mini-CEOs are able to make decisions and develop new businesses and products because the company’s top leader has given them the mandate to do so, and pushed them at every stage.
“The most central point for us over the last two decades has been that if your CEO of the whole company … is at the same time kind of the [chief innovation officer] and is the one pushing ideas, that’s what changes the whole game,” he said.
His point was echoed by everyone interviewed for this study: Innovation can’t happen unless the leaders of an organization instigate change and experimentation, and create structures, a culture, and processes that encourage innovation to flourish.
Michael Maness said this requires transformational leadership. That is a style of leadership which “engages employees by appealing to more intrinsic motivations such as autonomy, fulfillment, mastery, a sense of purpose, and a spirit of camaraderie at work,” according to Don Peppers, an author of management books and the founding partner of Peppers & Rogers Group, a management consulting firm.
Maness, the former vice president of journalism and media innovation for the Knight Foundation, said this form of leadership is in short supply, particularly at traditional news organizations.
“One of the things that I’ve seen in my [media] career, and also see at Knight in both for-profit and nonprofit organizations, is really a need for, and understanding of, transformational leadership,” said Maness. “What I mean by that is leadership that is willing to enable change, to take risks, to learn from failures, to be better at project management, and understanding it takes a lot of iteration before things stabilize.”
One of the most difficult but important elements of change, Maness emphasized, is deciding what things to stop doing. Transformational leaders often set the tone by deciding what not to do, and then enforcing that.
“The reason that’s important is that unless you stop doing those things [that aren’t core to your operation], you don’t have the time and space you need to try out new things and fail and figure out where to go next,” Maness said. “I make the example of when I was working in local newspapers where we would publish eight pages of stocks. It made sense in some ways because there weren’t any real-time things at the time. But as soon there’s real-time stock quotes, it still took us years to stop publishing the stock pages.”
Transformational leadership … is willing to enable change, to take risks, to learn from failures, to be better at project management, and understanding it takes a lot of iteration before things stabilize.”
Research about organizational change and innovation emphasizes the importance of leaders setting the tone and modeling behavior, according to Carrie Brown, co-author of “The Lean Newsroom.” In addition to researching innovation in newsrooms she has begun to lead a new social journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
“Over and over again what all the literature says, and what you tend to find, is that management plays this super-key role in getting buy-in,” Brown said in an interview.
Change, in other words, cannot successfully be mandated from above. It also must be taught and supported.
As Brown put it:
The most successful leaders are usually ones balancing between pushing people to change but also, through providing training and support, are also managing some of the anxiety that comes up around that.
It’s kind of about threading the needle so that people are stressed out enough they stop doing the things they’ve been doing all the time, but yet not so stressed that they’re so paralyzed they can’t do anything at all.
Another obstacle to change, on the other hand, can be lack of buy-in from above, according to Kimberly Lau, the vice president and general manager of the Atlantic Digital. When that support is missing, it restricts resources and saps energy.
“It starts with expectations and permission to do things, and that ultimately comes from the top,” she said in a presentation about innovation at a Collab/Space event in New York.
Lau gave an example. She said one of her goals in 2013 was to do more testing and optimization of Atlantic Digital products. This for example could mean changing the placement of social media sharing buttons on a mobile article page, and testing whether that altered user behavior. 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.”
Whether the issue is lack of buy-in to make change or the opposite, impatience that change happens sooner, Amy Webb of Webbmedia Group said the “single most difficult challenge to overcome for news organizations is managing that process of innovation at the top.”
For leaders, that means setting priorities and creating a structure that enables those priorities to be executed. That may mean stopping some activities and initiatives, but it also means giving life and license to new processes, initiatives, and structures.
Leaders set and communicate priorities
Knowing what to do and what not to do flows from having a clear mission expressed through key priorities. Leadership must define the core mission of the organization, and identify areas where the business will focus its efforts and resources.
“At the strategic level, leaders and managers identify the overall mission and long-term vision of the organization, evaluate their organization’s competencies, and consider how to position for the future,” wrote Brown and Groves in their paper.
At Russ Media, top managers do a deep dive on priorities and current projects twice a year. During that meeting, they agree on 10 principles that focus their efforts and attention for the next six months.
Riedmann said a current principle is that “mobile traffic will [surpass] the desktop traffic.” They also agreed on what will happen with print revenue and circulation, and on key digital trends that will shape the work they do, and don’t do.
“We have kind of crash barriers on the left and on the right for everyone doing decisions,” he said. “And [so for example] even the groups not so hard hit by some mobile things know the cliff is coming.”
He said the idea is to “empower people to make the decisions that would seem appropriate for board members.”
Trei Brundrett, the chief product officer of Vox Media, said top management at his company set and adapt priorities at a bi-weekly priorities meeting.
“We bring everything into a priorities meeting every other week so that we’re constantly looking at and adjusting it and tweaking it, and making sure we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
Brundrett highlights an element that Brown and Groves emphasize in their paper: things will change, and so management and priorities need to adapt and iterate. The authors caution against “an unwavering and sometimes uncritical commitment to the chosen strategy because of the past investment of time and resources in the visioning process.”
Other sections of this study emphasize the importance of an iterative, adaptive process in developing new ideas and products. However, this approach must also fundamentally become part of the culture and processes of an organization, according to Brown and Groves.
As priorities are set and adjusted, they must be constantly communicated to the entire organization. At Vox, those priorities enable smaller groups and teams to guide their daily work.
“What we’ve done a pretty good job of is having a clearly communicated strategic direction and problems to solve — jobs to do,” Brundrett said. “Then we enable our teams to organize around those ideas and kind of figure out how we’re going to approach those things.”
Brundrett holds a monthly meeting for his product team, which currently has over 60 members. If something new or significant is changing in terms of priorities or the company, he invites CEO Jim Bankoff to take part.
“I make sure my team understands not just what we’re are doing, but why we’re doing it,” he said. “The other thing we do kind of in parallel is we’ll organize demos and presentations of projects happening around a [specific priority]. So everybody has a working knowledge of, ‘Hey this is where we’re headed and here is actually how we’re acting on [priorities].’ So they can get their heads around what it means to act on it.”
Mark Tomasik is ready to list his organization’s priorities a moment’s notice. Tomasik is editor of Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers and TCPalm.com. He said there are four key areas of focus for his and other Scripps newsrooms:
- Real-time reporting
- Social media audience engagement
- “Franchise issues,” which are topics such as local entertainment or smart development
- Investigative reporting
The above priorities were set in part as a result of consumer research commissioned by the company, according to Tomasik.
“We really come in every day saying that’s what we’re focused on,” he said. “Everything else — I mean everything else is secondary and way down the line. Yes things do come up and people can make the case. But it’s a great rudder for us to stay on course.”
He continued: “One of the keys to what we’ve been able to achieve is just relentless prioritization, and that means that everyone in the newsroom understands what we’re trying to achieve, and [it means] having the guts and discipline to stick to it.”
Tomasik said another lesson he’s learned from trying to get his previously print-focused newsroom to think and act digitally is that he has to constantly communicate the priorities.
“The keys to any change environment is to have a clear philosophy and then communicate that philosophy over and over again to the point where you’ve said it so much that you can’t even stand to hear it again,” he said. “It takes that kind of repetition to sink in.”
The other point he emphasized was that setting a strategy and priorities means “you have to give something up.”
This is true for every organization: you must do some things and not do others. Then you have to get everyone moving in the same direction with those priorities in mind.
Leaders model and change behavior
Maness said leaders must do more than talk about change and innovation: they have to model behavior. They can, for example, demonstrate their engagement in the way they run meetings.
“Every morning in the morning meeting whoever is running it says, ‘What did our social look like yesterday? What was hot? What did we do? What did we learn from the audience that we should be paying attention to?’ That makes a huge difference,” Maness said. “I know the unfamiliarity of this stuff makes people uncomfortable, especially with seasoned news operations. You’ve got to be okay with not knowing it and you got to be okay with putting somebody up there that does and giving them space.”
Sherry Chisenhall, the editor and senior vice president of news of the Wichita Eagle, said it’s important for her to learn new skills as a way of demonstrating that it matters.
“I think it would be really bad if I didn’t know how to go in and fix a typo on the website,” she said. “If you don’t have a Twitter account it sends the message [to staff] that it is important for you to do it, but not to me.”
She encourages leaders to step up and admit what they don’t know, and to ask questions even if they feel it will make them look stupid.
“Ask about something because chances are somebody near you doesn’t know how to do it either,” she said.
Chisenhall offered advice for managers in traditional newsrooms for how to work with people at different stages of transformation.
Her experience is that a third of the newsroom will be out front and adapting quickly. The next roughly third of people are those who “are not against you, but are not sure where to go and how to do it.” The final group is hostile to, or at the least very skeptical of, change.
Chisenhall said in the past her tendency was to focus more effort on the bottom group. She now does the opposite.
“The people who are way out front and who have already adapted, you just need to move a hurdle out of the way now and then and give encouragement,” she said. “The turning point was to say: ‘Let’s help these people first.’ Then others see people in the newsroom doing cool things and picking up great stories off social networks.”
“It’s really reversing where you spend the bulk of your time, and about encouraging and investing in that top tier of people — investing in folks that are more than ready to do what they need to do,” she said.
Creating the right culture and structure
It’s an old line, but David Skok said it bears repeating:
Culture eats strategy for breakfast”
Skok is digital advisor to the editor-in-chief of the Boston Globe, and a former Nieman Fellow. He spent his year at Harvard studying and collaborating with the creator of disruptive innovation theory, Clayton Christensen. They co-authored an article about disruption in the news industry.
Culture is a focal point of any discussion about innovation. In Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory, a culture manifests itself as RPP: resources, processes and priorities. “A culture is made up of all of those things, ” Skok said. “You first have to have the priority set from on high.” He continued:
You have to align the resources consistent with those priorities, and establish the processes, and that’s all very abstract, but the basic idea is: somebody gets to work every morning in the newsroom. They turn on their computer. What are they doing when they turn on the computer? What is going on in their head, what is their objective? And if you actually can’t answer that question in the way that you want to answer it, then your culture is messed up.
The danger, according to Skok, is that leaders simply tell people that the goal is to be innovative, without changing the “structure or the tasks that people do to allow that to happen.”
“Then it’s just shouting empty words,” he said.
“Leaders cannot simply mandate a new culture,” wrote Brown and Groves in their paper. “Organizations must develop new routines that fit in the context of the existing culture and nudge members toward a culture that embraces innovation.”
Research into organizational change has identified an organization’s existing culture as one of the key barriers to making real change, according to their paper.
“Culture is the ultimate source of most of the defensive mechanisms that block organizational change and prevent learning from occurring,” they wrote.
Traditional organizations have been doing things a certain way for a long time, and the way people work and interact are a reflection of this. The authors of The New York Times innovation report — which the Nieman Journalism Lab called “an astonishing look inside the cultural change still needed in the shift to digital” — highlighted the fact that the front page of the paper is still a dominant focus for the organization:
Our internal fixation on it can be unhealthy, disproportionate and ultimately counterproductive. Just think about how many points in our day are still oriented around A1 — from the 10 a.m. meeting to the summaries that reporters file in the early afternoon to the editing time that goes into those summaries to the moment the verdict is rendered at 4:30. In Washington, there’s even an email that goes out to the entire bureau alerting everyone which six stories made it. That doesn’t sound to me like a newsroom that’s thinking enough about the web.
Those elements of process all reinforce a print-first culture. Shifting away from that requires re-examining all aspects of the organization. Groves, a professor at Drury University who co-authored the “Lean Newsroom” paper with Brown, said that culture is “the core of the organization itself; it’s the foundation of how the organization functions and accomplishes its mission.”
He cautioned newsroom leaders against thinking they can simply create a new culture.
“Culture is a shared phenomenon, and although leaders play a key role in shaping it, they rarely create it completely by themselves, especially in a well-established organization whose underlying assumptions are formed through years of tradition and success,” he said.
The starting point, according to Groves, is to have a clear understanding of your existing culture, something he says leaders often lack.
“I bet nine times out of 10 they can’t tell you [what their culture is], or they will say it’s a culture that won’t change,” he said. “That is a cop out.”
The process of defining your existing culture involves things such as understanding the work and actions that are celebrated and rewarded, and which things you do not do well, according to Groves.
“People don’t like to go through that self-reflective process,” he said. “The other issue you run into is that somebody will say, ‘Oh look at what FiveThirtyEight is doing, why can’t we do that?’ Well, you’re not FiveThirtyEight. That’s not going to be your answer. What you have to do, the hard thing about this, is that you have to find your answer. And your answer [comes from] understanding who you are and what you’re capable of doing.”
Their paper advocates that leaders think carefully about the message their actions send, and work to reinforce aspects of the culture they want.
“Leaders seeking to evolve their culture toward greater iteration and learning need to examine carefully what is rewarded and punished, and recognize the critical role they play not only in what they say but in every action they take, no matter how subtle,” they wrote. “Staffers are quick to notice not only the more obvious internal awards or raises but also how attention and simple praise are distributed.”
One key aspect of a culture that nurtures innovation is collaboration: across departments and teams, and up and down the organization. It was mentioned by everyone interviewed for this study.
Vox’s Brundrett said a culture of collaboration flows from mutual trust.
“The big lesson for me is it’s really just a big issue around creating mutual trust and respect between teams,” he said. “If you’re working together it’s really about understanding where they are coming from and their background and where the hard work is, and what’s valuable that they bring to it. And when you do that, instead of getting the editorial team telling the product team what to build, what you have is people making things together, having ownership together and trusting each other. And much better things come out of that.”
Coupled with that sense of collaboration, and mutual trust, must be a commitment to create a culture where people are given ownership and the ability to act.
“I’m a strong believer that performance management fundamentally is about giving people ownership over their own product and what it is that they’re trying to do,” Skok said. “The more you can own that product or feel that you have ownership over your ability to influence it, the more empowered you are to go forward and do things that may be innovative.”
The result, he said, is that innovation as a topic never comes up. It just happens.
“We don’t want to just innovate by creating new products, we want to innovate by creating the culture that will allow for that innovation space to happen,” he said. “So it’s kind of like we’re putting together the pieces of a Rubik’s Cube so that they fit, and then once they fit, then we hope it’s … part of our processes every day, that we’re always innovating without even having to say we are.”
We don’t want to just innovate by creating new products, we want to innovate by creating the culture that will allow for that innovation space to happen.”
Innovate with organizational structure
Vox’s Brundrett confessed that he is currently obsessed with org charts. But his view of this traditional organizational artifact is very different: he sees it as a design document.
Vox is growing rapidly in headcount and in the verticals and offerings it has for readers and advertisers. Amidst this growth, Brundrett and other managers are focused on designing an organizational structure that continues to foster innovation, rather than one that exists to enable administrative efficiency.
“So much of what we spend time thinking about and tweaking and working against is the inertia of [what happens] as you get larger,” he said. “You end up trying to organize yourself in ways that are easier to manage and administer, but that aren’t necessarily the most productive for the way that you create things, and the way you get people to collaborate.”
He said it’s positive that many news organizations are now putting developers in the newsroom. But this initiative can go awry when those developers don’t have access to technology resources that enable them to actually build and deploy things, according to Brundrett. The structure isn’t in place.
“Because they are not in the technology part of the organization. they are stymied by, and have to work around, not being able to plug into the tech resources and platform,” he said. “We’ve been trying this experiment where we have developers and designers that are on the product team and are embedded with the newsroom, and they have full access to the platform. They are sitting every day in meetings, pitching stories and building things and taking bylines, but the idea is that they are plugged into the infrastructure and there is not a kind of an ‘us versus them’ piece.”
Brundrett said one sign of whether groups are integrated is the language used to refer to different parts of the organization. When people talk about the “editorial side” or the “product side,” it’s a giveaway that they are not one unit.
“That vocabulary is super telling because it’s like, ‘What do you mean by side? That side of the room? Or that side of the [field]?'” he said. “The key is to try to get creative and to try some experiments and innovate around some organizational pieces and see what pressure that puts around the culture and communication.”
One sign of whether groups are integrated is the language used to refer to different parts of the organization. When people talk about the ‘editorial side’ or the ‘product side,’ it’s a giveaway that they are not one unit.”
Innovation flows from a willingness to experiment and find the right structure and culture that result in new things being created, according to Brundrett.
“That’s much more innovative to me than just building the most innovative technology, because the first one leads to second one,” he said. “You look at any of these organizations that are doing a good job with innovating in design or media and it usually is the case that their organization and culture is set up in a way that is not the norm.”
Medium, the publishing platform co-founded by Twitter’s Evan Williams, adheres to a unique organizational approach called Holocracy. It’s often referred to as management without managers. (The online retailer Zappos.com has also implemented Holocracy.)
Holocracy.org, the website of the organization that administers the Holocracy trademark and training offerings, describes Holocracy this way:
Unlike conventional top-down or progressive bottom-up approaches, it integrates the benefits of both without relying on parental heroic leaders. Everyone becomes a leader of their roles and a follower of others’, processing tensions with real authority and real responsibility, through dynamic governance and transparent operations.
Kate Lee, a senior editor at Medium, said “Holocracy is very much a culture of autonomy with accountability.”
“It’s not a consensus-based culture — it is biased toward action but also being accountable for what you do, and understanding the results of whatever you do,” she said.
Lee said Williams, Medium’s CEO, implemented Holocracy because it empowers individuals and teams inside the organizations.
“It’s really about distributing authority to different people who then have the autonomy to lead and to do their jobs,” she said. “There’s no question that Ev is our co-founder and CEO, but part of the reason we have this corporate structure is he doesn’t feel like he has to be the heroic CEO who can solve everyone’s problems. We all feel empowered to solve our own problems.”
Evaluate and reengineer processes
Two years ago, Chisenhall saw she needed to change the way her team at the Wichita Eagle worked. Otherwise, they would never begin to adapt to the digital future. In the hope of sparking change and innovation, she tore up the old model for working hours and jobs.
The old workflow saw the vast majority of content delivered late in the afternoon. That was the print mentality. Instead, reporters now work to have content published starting early in the morning, and throughout the day. The organization implemented a new schedule for copy editors to ensure they were staggered during day, rather than having them all on duty in the afternoon and evening.
“We examined our process and how we were doing things and challenged our thinking,” she said. “It involved everything from our processes to the way you think to the vocabulary you use.”
Tomasik underwent the same process at his Florida news organization: they changed the work schedules and meeting times, and pushed people to change the work they did, when they did it, and how they did it.
An example of the need for traditional media organizations to restructure their processes and workflows was captured in The New York Times innovation report:
Stories are typically filed late in the day. Our mobile apps are organized by print sections. Desks meticulously lay out their sections but spend little time thinking about social strategies. Traditional reporting skills are the top priority in hiring and promotion. The habits and traditions built over a century and a half of putting out the paper are a powerful, conservative force as we transition to digital — none more so than the gravitational pull of Page One. Some of our traditional competitors have aggressively reorganized around a digital-first rather than a print-first schedule. The health and profitability of our print paper means we don’t yet need to follow them down this path.
It’s essential to create new processes for meetings and information-sharing as a way to spark collaboration and reinforce new roles and practices, according to nearly everyone interviewed for this study.
At TIME, one new process is a bi-weekly meeting that brings together all key stakeholders. It is aligned with their implementation of the Agile development methodology, which sees the product team engage in code sprints to launch and iterate new and existing products. (A code sprint is a set time during which the development team works to evolve a product based on specific requirements.)
“That’s where we have tech, product, editorial, all stakeholders represented, talking through the various products and what’s coming in the pipeline,” said Callie Schweitzer, the editorial director of audience strategy for TIME and Time Inc.
Breaking down silos and creating processes that bring people together is a key to fostering innovation, according to Schweitzer. (This aspect is examined in more detail in the next section.)
“I think that in the past, a lot of organizations have functioned where one department would be working on one thing and another department would be working on something else in parallel and we just don’t even let that happen here,” Schweitzer said. “We now have every key stakeholder at the table talking about things and figuring out what a project will entail and what it will mean for every side of the business.”
Tom Meagher is another person thinking about redesigning newsroom workflow and processes. Meagher was the head of the interactive team for Digital First Media’s now-defunct Thunderdome newsroom, which was a centralized desk serving newspapers all over the United States.
At the SRCCON conference, he led a session entitled “Before we can fix the news, we need to redesign the newsroom.” The goal was to “talk about how we can redesign the newsroom itself to upend our clunky workflows pegged to Sunday’s newspaper instead of today’s news online.”
In his recap of the session, Meagher outlined the reality of the siloed newsroom experience that still keeps developers and product people separate from editorial and IT:
Until this spring, I worked for a major U.S. newspaper chain that operated 75 papers in 17 states. The company had zero developers in its newsrooms working on editorial projects. At my paper before that, we had zero developers in our newsroom, and no one in the company overtly doing news development. The status quo in both of those companies was that my team had to wage a guerrilla war on the IT departments and the product and CMS divisions to do the kind of journalism we know is important and to get our jobs done.
Participants in his session came up with new structures for news organizations, and imagined the related workflow. One model was for a single-subject news website. The below image shows the staffing structure of the site. Rather than present the team in a typical org chart, they use concentric circles to show that each group is connected. For example, reporters and editors are in the same rung as developers and photographers because they will collaborate on projects:
Here’s how they envisioned the collaborative workflow for this organization (which was called “The Score”):
At daily meetings, all department heads and project managers would pitch stories and coordinate staffing. For each project, ad-hoc teams with specialists in each medium would be spun up, and they would co-locate for the duration of the project. They’d hope this could make journalists more tech savvy while forcing coders to be more editorially minded. For the developers, the bar would be set very high for documentation and reusability. The idea is for all of the parts of the newsroom to function as an orchestra, making beautiful music together with the project manager as the conductor (thus “The Score”).
The Score was imagined as a newsroom where projects start and are then continued or curtailed based on set goals. Some projects would conceivably fulfill their original vision, while others might evolve in different ways, or need to be shut down due to a lack of traction. Then those involved would apply their lessons to the next project.
This aligns with Brown’s and Groves’s finding that organizations “must … engage in a continuous process of problem solving, in which failure is recognized as valuable information.” Even if a project doesn’t meet its goals, it can still provides valuable information and lessons to the organization.
The message, again, is that iteration and constant refinement are not just for product development — they must become ingrained in the organization’s overall culture and processes.
“Importantly, iterative processes aren’t just relevant to creating new products like an app or vertical,” write Brown and Groves in their paper. “These processes can be used to allocate resources more efficiently in newsrooms with smaller-than-desired staff sizes on stories and projects.”
Create multidisciplinary teams that collaborate
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 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.”
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…”
Yanofsky saw the need for the tool on several levels, including the site’s visual identity.
“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 their tool 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.”
Chart Builder also succeeded, Lau believes, because the collaborative process that included the right mix of people. The developer understood and empathized with the needs of his target user. Indeed, he was the target user.
If it’s not adopted, it doesn’t really matter. What we’re looking for is adopted innovation.”
The same principle of interdisciplinary teams applies to products built for wider audiences.
In 2007, Bill Adair was the Washington bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). After covering the White House in 2003 and 2004, he felt guilty about the lack of fact checking being done about politicians’ claims.
“I covered the Bush campaign and felt like after that campaign I had not done any fact checking, and that I should have,” he said.
Adair told Times Editor Neil Brown he wanted to launch a fact-checking website in time for the 2008 campaign. Brown agreed to let him look into the idea. After he created a prototype, Brown signed off on building the fact-checking site. Adair then pulled together a team of people with diverse backgrounds to build it and write the first fact-checks.
“How can you do something like this at a legacy news organization? I think you have to create small teams and sort of break away from the mothership,” he said. “And that’s what we did.”
Adair was joined by Angie Holan, who at the time was working in the newspaper’s library.
“She was a librarian with great research skills, but she was also a very talented writer,” Adair said. “She had a lot of digital skills and so she was ideal as we evolved because she could do a little bit of everything.”
Holan is today the editor of PolitiFact.
Matt Waite, another early team member, was a special projects reporter who had recently transitioned into more of a technical role. He suggested that PolitiFact apply the emerging concept of structured journalism, which Adrian Holovaty had blogged about in 2006. That’s why today’s PolitiFact enables you to see all of the Truth-O-Meter ratings for a given politician. It was built from day one to be a database of fact checks, rather than just a collection of articles.
Adair said this interdisciplinary team was key to the creation and ultimate success of PolitiFact, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
How can you do something like this at a legacy news organization? I think you have to create small teams and sort of break away from the mothership.”
The next element of team design most-cited by experts relates to their size. Over and over again, people interviewed for this study came back to the same rule: the team should be able to share a meal with nothing more than two pizzas.
The two-pizza rule is attributed to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Bezos “wanted a decentralized, even disorganized company where independent ideas would prevail over groupthink,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
The result was a lot of smaller task forces with five to seven people, who tackled a challenge together.
At Russ Media, they create small teams from different disciplines, and they are rigorous about giving teams autonomy.
“One of the most basic principles is that we don’t try to grow our teams too much,” Riedmann said. “We tend to organize everything in very small teams and a very federal structure, and they are asked to work together, but they can make their decisions in a very decentralized way.”
At Vox Media, teams are formed and disbanded to meet specific projects that align with priorities. Brundrett’s product team has just over 60 people, but they will join up with others from editorial, sales and other departments to get the right mix for a given project.
At the time we spoke, Brundrett’s product group had 10 active initiatives running with various sizes of teams. These initiatives included the ongoing evolution of the recently-launched Vox.com site, and the creation of a custom ad platform.
“We organize into small, cross-functional multidisciplinary teams that are organized around products and users, not around our own organizational structure,” he said. “They are organized often times around initiatives and they scale up and down depending on how ambitious the thing is we’re taking up.”
This approach is the opposite of how media organizations were structured in the past.
“Our policies are children of the industrial age, not the digital age,” Eric Newton wrote in “Searchlights and Sunglasses.” “They often block innovation and the creation of new journalism.”
The old model created silos. There was, as Brundrett said, the “editorial side” and “the business side.”
“As a result of that you had an organization that has metastasized all these different siloed pieces of the organization,” said Skok of the Boston Globe. “And in many ways, you know, they all had competing priorities … it generally had to be up to the publisher or some senior leader to get the head of engineering, and the head of editorial, the editor, in a room and say, ‘Well, this is what we’re doing.’ ”
Today, organizations that are effecting change and pursuing innovation are smashing silos and creating smaller, more nimble teams. These teams are able to pursue initiatives without encountering constant barriers.
Schweitzer’s role at TIME straddles the newsroom, consumer marketing, product and other departments. Increasingly, she said, the entire TIME organization is working as interdisciplinary units.
“On my team, we work and sit in editorial, but we work with IT, with consumer marketing, audience development, with business development — I mean everyone you can think of,” she said.
Today, organizations that are effecting change and pursuing innovation are smashing silos and creating smaller, more nimble teams. These teams are able to pursue initiatives without encountering constant barriers.”
Teams must also be built in such a way that no single person becomes a bottleneck, or the sole entity able to push things forward, according to Amy Webb.
She told a cautionary story about a whiteboard she saw at ABC News years ago.
“ABC had the most immense whiteboard I’d eve seen in my life,” she said. “That whiteboard was completely full from ceiling to the floor with regular handwriting- sized letters. It was full. There were a thousand ideas on that whiteboard.”
The problem was the ideas never went anywhere, and it was because of the way they had structured their product team at the time. (Webb said her company is not currently advising ABC, and therefore can’t speak to its current process.)
“There had been a product manager who was responsible for collecting and prioritizing those ideas, however that person quit,” she said. “The new hire didn’t have that same organizational skillset. So the foundation fell apart.”
Another approach to teams is to create dedicated innovation units or labs.
E.W. Scripps has a small group of digital leaders that were brought in from outside of the news organization. They are called the Digital Solutions Group, and are charged with “aggressively developing new business lines in this increasingly digital time.” They work closely with the existing leadership team and units within the company
So far, this group has helped launch products including a paid weather app that draws on Scripps’ local expertise, and a portal for youth sports aimed at mothers, according to a report by NetNewsCheck.
However, experts and newsroom leaders contacted for this study cautioned against creating an innovation silo, or giving one person the responsibility for innovation. They emphasized the need to create a culture and structure that make innovation part of the daily operations of the organization. It’s everyone’s job.
“This is not about creating a title or an innovation team, because all that is doing is throwing existing staff and existing mindsets at tough challenges that need to be solved,” Webb said. “The solution to that problem is modeling the entire process in a very different way that is sometimes antithetical to how news is created. All the places that hired chief innovation officers or directors have created an additional layer of problems because what they have done is create yet another silo.”
Skok said an organization needs to ask itself why it’s considering a lab or dedicated innovation team.
“I would posit that if you are creating a lab, you’re probably doing it in the hopes that it will inform the rest of your business,” he said. “My suspicion is, if you’re creating that lab to be able to then inform and change the culture of the existing operation, it will be swallowed up by the existing operation every time.”
Another concern, he said, is a lab ends up being a sandbox where people try things that never really become integrated into the entire organization.
“Now, if you are looking to create a space where you can actually create a new business with its own priorities, processes and resources, that could then in a way disrupt the existing business, then you’re on to something,” he said, identifying the approach taken by Russ Media.
The Boston Globe in fact had a dedicated innovation lab. But the team was disbanded in 2014.
“One of the most difficult elements of innovation is making the hard decisions on good ideas that no longer make sense,” Skok said. “The Lab was a terrific concept but it was no longer part of our core operations, and we felt that we needed to make that our singular focus.”
Instead, the Globe decided to focus on establishing an organization-wide approach to innovation, according to Skok.
How to generate and pursue innovative ideas
The Boston Globe recently launched a new website focused on Catholic news and information, a coffee blog, a site covering technology and startups in the Boston area, a redesign of Boston.com, and a new political site, among other initiatives.
But David Skok, digital advisor to the editor-in-chief, says people should not focus on all of the new digital products they’ve launched.
“I think what the public sees are the launching of new products,” he said. “What they don’t see is that we’re actually trying to be incredibly judicious and patient in creating things from scratch right now.”
So, how do you decide which ideas to pursue, and which ones to abandon?
This is where it’s key to do the groundwork of establishing the culture, structure and processes that enable innovation. Put those in place, and people from all areas of the organization will feel empowered to share ideas, and there will be a structure in place to enable them to move forward.
Many of the people contacted for this study said in their experience newsrooms don’t struggle with generating ideas. The challenge is enabling them to be properly evaluated, and to pursue the ones that make the most sense.
“I think there is a general sense, especially from executives and management, that newsrooms and people in them are bereft of good ideas,” said Webb. “It’s been my experience that that’s actually not the case. We work with a lot of news organizations and I would say every time I’ve gone into a strategy meeting I’ve heard this sort of font of great ideas.”
Newsrooms don’t struggle with generating ideas. The challenge is enabling them to be properly evaluated, and to pursue the ones that make the most sense.”
Webb emphasized that ideas need to “pressure tested” before they move ahead.
“There are news organizations who come up with ideas, but they are the wrong ideas,” she said. “They don’t get pressure tested and then executives or management decide to push ahead.”
Those interviewed for this study who work on new products say that at the earliest stage an idea is worth pursuing if it meets two criteria:
- It is aligned with your organization’s priorities.
- It solves a problem or fulfills a real need.
Brundrett of Vox said the first point is where many ideas and initiatives are doomed even before they start.
“I see a lot of friends in big organizations trying to do innovative stuff,” he said. “They may disagree with the strategy of the company and be running at a different angle. So when their projects get stuck sometimes it’s just because they’re trying tweak the overall strategy.”
Webb emphasized the need to solve a problem.
“That’s really where the best innovations are born,” she said. “They are workarounds to obstacles, because that’s where you get the most utility. That makes them sticky.”
“You have understand what the need is and to build from that,” said Maness of the Knight Foundation. “So what we saw a lot of — and we continue to, and we’re trying to shift this — is that people build solutions that are looking for problems that might not exist.”
He outlined the steps of going from identifying a problem to solve, to building something sustainable:
[It’s about] saying, ‘This is a real problem that exists. Is there a way we could solve that problem? And if we can, can we build a brand around it? And if we can build a brand, is the community there? If there’s a community there, can we monetize it?’ That’s a different process opposed to, ‘I’ve got an idea. Let’s spend $500,000 on it.’
In their Harvard Business Review article, “Act Like an Entrepreneur Inside Your Organization,” authors Len Schlesinger and Charlie Kiefer offer a four-step process for executing innovation inside an organization.
Here’s a summary of the four steps:
- Assess your level of desire for the project or idea. Your level of passion and drive are a key factor in determining success. “Curiosity is sufficient but if it’s ‘just a good idea’ that you don’t personally care about, stop wasting your time and those around you by considering it any further,” wrote the authors.
- Ask yourself, “What am I willing to invest to take the first step?” The authors note that for people inside an organization, it’s less about investing money and more about “their social standing and relationship capital within the organization.”
- Think about who you can bring along. Internal innovators need “employee partners and supportive bosses (or at least passive ones) as they build a marketplace and political support for their evolving idea.” You can’t do it alone.
- Do Something. The authors emphasize the “Act-Learn-Build” cycle they outlined in their book, “Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future.” They warn against over-planning and over-thinking, and instead encourage you to embrace “low-cost, low-risk steps using the means you and your network have readily at hand.” Then adapt as you go.
The “Act-Learn-Build” process is based on research from Saras D. Sarasvathy of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Her research found these three steps are how successful serial entrepreneurs develop their ideas into tangible products and projects.
As outlined in “Just Start,” these people:
- Take a small, smart step forward.
- Pause to see what they learned by doing so.
- Build that learning into what they do next.
Schlesinger and Kiefer define a “smart step” as an “action you take based on the resources you have at hand and never involves more than you can afford to lose.”
This approach includes the same element of rapid iteration and learning that is built into development methodologies such as Agile. But for many news organizations, particularly those that began in legacy media, it runs counter to the way they have worked.
“On one level we’re incredibly innovative because every day we put out a product that didn’t exist 24 hours ago or three hours ago or five minutes ago,” Maness said. “But we’re organized for doing that and we try to make that thing as perfect as we can in that limited time period. So many other things that are really great in that process are not great for innovation.”
Another challenge to overcome is the paralysis of indecision. Step four for Schlesinger and Kiefer is to “do something.” Ideas are nothing without action.
“We had a client two years ago that had really talented people on staff with a serious problem that needed addressing,” Webb said. “They had sort of a short list of a handful of really good solutions and we came in and refined those and planned to make those actionable. Then management couldn’t pull the trigger because they were absolutely paralyzed by indecision. I know for a fact they had a year’s worth of meetings because nobody was really wiling to make that decision.”
She said a place where news organizations often fall down is taking an idea that seems promising and moving it to execution.
“My experience is there is a hype cycle of internal innovation, and it starts with one or two people with a great idea and then there is a ramp up time with an initial meeting and the peak is by meeting two when everybody is jazzed about the idea,” Webb said.
It’s often downhill from there, Webb said.
Why? Because the organization has not established a framework for innovation to take place. One way to avoid that, as previously mentioned, is to have a culture that encourages experimentation, and a structure that includes the ability to create collaborative teams that work together to move things forward. Another way to move forward, and to test and refine as you go, is the aforementioned Act-Learn-Build process.
Another approach that helps emphasize demos over memos is to organize, or participate in, hack days or hackathons. These events bring together developers, designers, writers, producers and others to form small teams and build prototypes of new products, or to advance existing ones.
Hack weeks are part of the culture at Vox Media. Brundrett said they’re a way to inspire new ideas by creating new collaborations.
“We do hack weeks and when we go into those they know what the problems are [that we’re trying to solve as a business], but they don’t have to work on anything related to our business,” he said. “Sometimes they do, sometime they don’t.”
And sometimes, as was the case with The Verge’s hack week, they use the event as an opportunity to explore aspects of the Vox Media technology platform that teams have not yet utilized.
Sam Kirkland explained the goals of The Verge’s hack week in a post for Poynter:
… to give reporters an opportunity to experiment with Vox Media’s expanding toolbox of digital storytelling techniques, and to have people on the product side become more than just faces the editorial side sees in the elevator. The point wasn’t to reinvent the site — although a responsive redesign is on the way — but to change how everyone on staff collaborates.
The Verge’s editor-in-chief, Nilay Patel, said the hack week was a way to get staff to try things — to act, then learn.
“We have a bunch of tools we want to use and we’re overthinking, because we want everything we launch on The Verge to be perfect,” Patel told the Nieman Journalism Lab.
Nicole Zhu, a member of the Vox Media product team, wrote about her experience and emphasized the lesson that it was important to try, fail, and learn from that:
With this kind of atmosphere that afforded experimentation and innovation, it was my initial goal to pitch and launch something independently. I quickly learned that part of experimenting out in the open was preparing for equal parts success and failure — and ultimately learning from those experiences.
A key to Vox’s hack weeks is that the company has a technology platform that’s built to enable people to build on top of it, and use it new ways. Technology will always play a role in innovation, and that’s why organizations at the forefront of innovation have invested in platforms that empower experimentation.
Create a platform that enables experimentation
Brundrett said a lot of people misunderstand what he means when he talks about the Vox Media platform.
“A lot of times people in media interpret it as our CMS,” he said.
The Vox content management system, named Chorus, was cited by Ezra Klein as one of the reasons why he and his co-founders decided to join the company in order to launch what became Vox.com. But the total platform is more than that, Brundrett said.
“We have been approaching media as a technology company,” he said. “And by that I mean we’re definitely a media company, but our culture has always been one of a company founded by bloggers, so from the start it gives us a different perspective. Coming from that place it gives us an understanding of how technology was valuable in disrupting the media ecosystem by giving a voice to people who didn’t have it.”
Brundrett said their platform is a collection of technologies that allows them to “rapidly develop new ideas.”
“There is a very low barrier to being able to put something new together and get it up and out,” he said. “It’s means we’re not creating things from scratch every time.”
So when people talk about the vaunted Vox Media CMS, Brundrett said they’re really talking about “a piece of that platform that looks like a CMS but is really an architecture that’s allowing our team to rapidly iterate.”
A platform is also not just about the technology. Vox Media has put effort into ensuring designers and developers have the support they need from IT and operations to do things without red tape or complication.
“We have a really strong tech ops team that makes it easy for developers and designers to spin up new ideas and push them out,” he said. “Nothing is standing in our way, aside from us getting our shit together and getting it done.”
Brundrett said a platform for rapidly developing new ideas must enable three things:
- Making teams eager to hack on top of the platform.
- Giving them the permissions required to do this work.
- Making it possible for them to push things to production on a regular basis, easily.
Russ Media of Austria takes the same approach of having one shared platform that all of its various digital divisions use and build on top of. In their case, it’s a WordPress cluster.
“If we start a news portal in East Hungary, it’s on the same WordPress cluster for our work here online in Western Austria,” Riderman said.
He said that anything built by one group is immediately available to others. Teams in different countries that focus on the same service — classifieds, for example — collaborate and benefit from each other’s work.
“One person inside the group is owning a project, and they go to the other product people in the other countries to understand what they need, which features they need,” he said. “And so in product development we really get feedback from every part of the company that is operating in the same, or in a similar, niche.”
And it all lives on the same, shared platform.
“All real estate people are trying to have the best real estate platform, and those platforms have grown into such strategic assets [as a result of this],” he said.
At traditional organizations, according to PolitiFact founder Bill Adair, CMSs are not built for iteration and testing new ideas. That’s why they decided to build their own CMS for PolitiFact.
“We talked about building it on the existing CMS and realized that would just be too hard and awkward,” he said. “That was hard for the IT department to accept, but ultimately we persuaded the editor of the paper that it made sense, and he persuaded the IT department that that’s how we were going to do it.”
Adair said that when there isn’t a platform in place, the answer is to “break away from the mother ship, have a small team and build something separate the way we did” for PolitiFact.
Whether breaking away or building on an existing platform, it’s essential to set clear goals and to determine how you will measure and evaluate the work being done.
How to gather feedback, measure, and iterate
The final step in successful innovation involves gathering feedback, measuring it, and using that to direct how you change and evolve your approach and/or product. This process ensures that projects, products and initiatives proceed based on data and user behavior and feedback.
Kareem Amin, the head of product at News Corp, is working on a set of new storytelling tools to help News Corp journalists easily create content that appeals to an increasingly mobile audience.
“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 at the Collab/Space event in New York. In a subsequent interview, he said it’s not just about young users: people of nearly all ages are consuming more and more content on mobile devices.
Amin wanted to rethink how news content was delivered on mobile, and to test ways content could be repackaged to fit different use cases and user needs.
To achieve that goal, he broke the project down into smaller steps. Amin gathered support, data and feedback at each step to help him move to the next one. This iterative approach ensured he and his team were able to test and validate their assumptions and work before investing additional time and capital.
“The first thing is we started to brainstorm what is a good approach to telling stories on mobile devices, and we then start building custom web pages that would test [some of our ideas],” he said.
At this early stage, he didn’t have formal approval or budget. Amin recruited a designer to work with him based on the idea that the project would secure formal approval once they had something to show. With prototypes in hand, he bought Facebook ads to test how people interacted with the stories.
As shown below, one of the things 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.
They then examined the data to see how users were interacting with the content. For example, did they swipe through all the way to the end of the story?
“Completion of story was to me the most interesting [metric],” he said, noting that 85 percent of people who started a story completed it.
With a basic prototype and encouraging feedback, Amin took the next step of bringing it to the News Corp executive to secure funding. He also structured his request in a way to reinforce the iterative process: Each tranche of budget would be released when a specific set of goals was achieved.
“I wanted to make [the executive] comfortable, but I also wanted to impose responsibility onto ourselves to make sure we are being diligent about what we are trying to achieve,” he said. “The checkpoints were as much for the team as they were for the executive.”
Amin followed a five-step process for the project:
- Question assumptions. He said one assumption news organizations make is that it’s better to create content once and have it flow to different platforms, such as mobile and tablet. Related to that, he said in his experience newsrooms believe the extra effort to create platform-specific content does not pay off in terms of additional engagement. Amin wanted to test those assumptions.
- Bootstrap. “I asked a friend who was a designer to design a few concepts based on things I was thinking about,” he said. “That wasn’t approved yet, and then we came back and built a case around that.” Amin also referred to this early unfunded stage as getting started “without asking permission.” Without any committed resources, he bootstrapped to get something created.
- Build support. Amin made a point of sharing what he was doing with people at different News Corp properties. This ensured they knew about the project, and that they felt involved in the process. Most important was spending time with people face-to-face. “A big portion of my time was spent to socialize the project and taking time with each person who is involved to do demos,” he said. “That introduces [the product] to a lot more people who are thinking about how they can use this.”
- Place technology bets. The Word Wide Web Consortium standards body has been working on something called web components. Amin knew this functionality will soon be rolled out in major web browsers, meaning it will be standardized. He decided to develop the tools using web components. “With that tech bet we have been able to do things in an easier way than it otherwise would have been,” he said. It will also give them a leg up on the competition, according to him.
- Develop iteratively. Amin said the milestone-oriented budget structure was one of the key manifestations of this approach. The use of Facebook ads also ensured they tested everything they built, and created new versions based on feedback. For example, Amin said data from the ads caused them to make significant changes to story navigation. Ultimately, the data gathering and budget structure made sure that “we proved a set of things before we moved on,” he said.
Now that he’s proven people like the prototype, Amin said the next steps are to examine scalability and monetization opportunities.
The above approach avoids what Michael Maness said is one of the biggest mistakes he sees people make in news innovation. They “get an idea and going straight to building a brand,” he said.
“We see that a lot,” he continued. “It’s like we have this idea and let’s put money behind it and let’s not launch it until it’s perfect.”
But that’s the opposite of the iterative approach that must be at the core of innovation, according to Maness. He described what an iterative process looks like:
As an organization, what that means is you’re going to be a lot more raw about this stuff. You going to lower the barriers and let people look through your windows. And you have to do that especially when you’re building new products because if you build something in a vacuum, I almost guarantee you it will fail. And then the other thing is you look at the iteration research around this, [it has found that] most things need four versions of themselves before they stabilize…. We see this a lot where people are like, “Well, we built this and it cost us $500,000 and now we know what we’re doing.”
And so then we get asked for another $500,000. We’re like, “No, you should have built this for $5,000 — the first one. And then you would have learned the same things.’ So that staging and the iteration and the versioning of that, it’s still something we don’t see enough of.
Amy Webb agrees that news organizations struggle with adjusting their ideas and projects once they are underway. They don’t start with a plan to iterate, and so when they get results that are different than expected, they don’t know how to react.
“The problem is that there was no plan to recalibrate it,” she said. “That is really, really important.”
Gather and act on feedback
One key to being able to iterate — and to know when you need to rethink things — is to prioritize generating quality feedback from your target users. Whether those are journalists in your newsroom, or a specific group of consumers, you need to get what you’re doing in front of them, and listen.
An example of this is how NPR gathered feedback for its new NPR One app. The app is a major launch from NPR, and promises to use user behavior and algorithms to deliver “a stream of public radio news and stories curated for you.”
“The big idea of NPR One is to go after the millions of casual public radio listeners — and not the other millions already keenly habituated to public radio listening,” wrote Ken Doctor for the Nieman Journalism Lab.
So how did they get feedback from target users in order to guide development and iteration of the app? By letting visitors to NPR’s news headquarters play with the app at the end of their tours.
“With costs of user testing potentially very high, we realized early on that we had a built-in supply of free beta testers coming to us on a weekly basis,” said Joel Sucherman, the senior director of digital products at NPR.
There was, however, one drawback to this group: they were big enough fans of NPR to want to tour its new headquarters. That’s not a typical user group.
“But oftentimes we ended up with spouses who were being dragged along on those tours, so as it turns out we did have a pretty good mix of NPR fans and those who were kind of lukewarm on us,” Sucherman said.
With a group of testers identified, they developed a process for gathering feedback, and keeping connected to their testers.
Jeremy Pennycook, product manager for NPR One, explained the process:
We would recruit folks from the tours and ask them if they wanted to test out our new app. The folks that volunteered would then sit down one-on-one with our User Experience specialist, Vince Farquharson, and be given a series of tests. The specific test would depend on what hypothesis we were attempting to learn about at the time. But these sessions could last up to an hour. For people who showed an interest in exploring further, we would then give them the link to join a beta group we had set up and allow them to be able to download the Beta app and test it on their own. These testers would post in a Facebook group or email us in more feedback as we continued to change the experience.
From there, Farquharson compiled the findings and presented them to the development team, and also often showed them to management.
“These recommendations would then inform future sprint [development] cycles based on the outcome of the testing,” Pennycook said. “Sometimes, we would be satisfied with an interaction or feature and be able to move on to other items with confidence. Other times, the feedback would indicate we needed to go back to the drawing board to come up with a better solution.”
All of this effort was done to ensure the app was meeting the needs of users.
Fred Dust, a principal with design firm IDEO, is quoted in the paper by Brown and Groves about the importance of empathy, and of taking the time to listen and understand the needs of the intended user:
There’s real value to spending real time with the people you’re designing for, in context. Don’t let your judgment or pre-knowledge override the people you’re designing for. Empathy gets to better solutions.
Brown and Groves emphasized the importance of incorporating data and feedback from key stakeholders:
The key takeaway here for newsrooms and their managers is to create standard processes that involve audience feedback well before a final product is launched or project is published, an abrupt departure from the typical situation in which most audience participation is restricted to post-publication comments.
Measure your results
In March 2014, TIME relaunched its website. As part of this effort, the team also decided to take something of a risk with their successful email newsletters.
At the time the publication had 10 email newsletters focused on topics such as technology, business and politics. There were close to 1 million subscribers spread between the newsletters.
“The open rates were in the 20s [percentage-wise] on average, and the industry standard for media and publishing is about a 23 percent open rate,” said Schweitzer.
But those newsletters reflected the old TIME digital strategy. The new site was built with the idea of merging the magazine’s roots as the first weekly aggregator of news from all over the world with the new real-time era of information. The new homepage featured one lead story, with 11 underneath it to give the visitor a quick briefing of what they need to know right now.
“It’s the idea of doing for the minute what TIME had done for the week,” Schweitzer said.
Ten vertical email newsletters didn’t fit with the concept of giving a quick, essential briefing.
“They were all algorithmically derived, with no editorial curation, and they were focused on a vertical,” Schweitzer said.
So even with close to 1 million subscribers and industry-average open rates, the TIME team blew up its newsletters and started over.
Ultimately, Schweitzer said, they decided, “Okay, so we have 10 things that are doing decently well. Why not try and make one thing that’s fantastic?”
Ten newsletters become one, The Brief. Schweitzer and the team decided that their primary measurement would be to see if they were increasing open rates.
“We have seen, since March, our open rates are now at over 40 percent which is just huge — I mean just really a fantastic amount of growth,” Schweitzer said.
A big driver of the growth is the constant iteration and optimization of the newsletter. Schweitzer outlined some of the ways they test and adapt The Brief, and how they measure the results:
We saw that we could do so much experimentation with optimization of the newsletter itself … We designed it for mobile so that people could read it on their phone during their commute, and we added an audio integration with SpokenLayer so people could have The Brief read to them as a podcast. We have been testing everything from different subject lines to sending it earlier to see how that affects open rates.
She said tracking key metrics and sharing them with the team has helped reinforce success.
“Everything that we’re doing, the good news is we’ve really had the data to back it up to say, ‘This is successful,'” she said. “[We can tell people], ‘Look, you did A and then B happened.’ And I think that something that has also been really great is that everybody has really gotten behind this idea of the importance of metrics and data and transparency in the newsroom.”
Decisions about how to evolve — or whether to continue with — an initiative must be guided by feedback from the intended users, as well as by data. Mixing qualitative with the quantitative is key. So too is picking which metrics you intend to measure.
A few good, relevant metrics that everyone can agree on and understand is better than a raft of numbers that don’t provide actionable information. Those contacted for this study cautioned against picking too many metrics, or key performance indicators (KPIs).
At Medium they have two key metrics that guides work across teams, according to Lee, the senior editor.
“As a company we optimize for engagement, which is time spent reading on the platform, and have developed our own metrics for that,” she said. “That’s a goal that everyone is following.”
Since anyone can write on Medium, the team also tracks an engagement metric that tracks the number of users who return to Medium three days within the trailing seven days. (This is applied both to readers and writers on Medium.)
Teams look at other metrics, but Lee said the engagement metrics are what guide their optimization efforts.
“We certainly follow traffic, but not all of our efforts are to increase traffic,” she said.
Vox Media helps communicate which metrics are important by building analytics dashboards that product teams can use to gather data about what they’re building. Brundrett said the choice of which dashboards to build communicates which metrics matter. It then also makes it easy for everyone to use these metrics.
He gave an example of Vox building a dashboard to measure website performance on mobile.
“We put together a dashboard called Tempo that tracks all of our load times and performance metrics, and every team can easily hook into that and load that up,” he said. “So now people understand: mobile performance is important.”
Once you have the data, you then have to evaluate it. This is one of the trickiest parts. Some metrics will be clear: open rates have increased by X percent, and that’s a good thing.
But in other cases, one metric may seem to be tanking, while another is returning unexpected results. They key is to gather all of the data and discuss it as a team. Work to understand the story the data is telling you.
“The hard part is to understand what the trajectory of the data is,” Brundrett said. “So if you’re launching something new that is experimental [it’s important that you] understand what success means. If you’re iterating off that data you have to know when to jump and when not to jump and to be patient. You have to have a bigger vision for that. You can’t run the whole thing off the data.”
Maness encourages teams to focus on where there seems to be some momentum or encouraging trend lines. Work to understand what is happening, and why. He gave an example of a mobile app where one key metric of success might be the number of downloads.
“You could have a lot of people download it, but no one uses it,” he said. “Or you can have very few people download it, but the people who do use it twice as much as other apps.”
In the latter scenario, results are dragging on one metric, but overachieving with another. It’s essential to understand why that’s happening, and to talk to your users to gain a better understanding, Maness said.
One final piece of advice from Amy Webb is to avoid setting unfair or unrealistic metrics early on. This, for example, could mean leaning too much on metrics that are focused on ROI or revenue. Pick something reasonable to measure as a start and then evolve as the project progresses. Act, then learn. It applies to metrics as well.
“You can’t immediately predict what ROI will be because too many variables are out of the control of the news organization,” she said. “If you at least have a clear plan for how you will measure, that is sometimes enough to appease people who will otherwise quash the project.”
It’s also important to be reasonable about setting expectations for what can be achieved in the short term, according to Drury’s Jonathan Groves.
“Pixar took a decade to develop fully; news organizations shouldn’t expect their big ideas to explode in six months, especially in today’s crowded media landscape,” he said.