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How to generate and pursue innovative ideas

Do something

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:

  1. It is aligned with your organization’s priorities.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. Take a small, smart step forward.
  2. Pause to see what they learned by doing so.
  3. 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:

  1. Making teams eager to hack on top of the platform.
  2. Giving them the permissions required to do this work.
  3. 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.

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