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A culture-based strategy for creating innovation in news organizations

For journalism it truly is the best of times and the worst of times.

The best, in that never has there been more opportunity for creative storytelling, audience expansion, and crafting or grasping new digital tools for whatever needs arise.

The worst, in that news organizations are often unable to seize the opportunities at their fingertips.

Between 2005 and 2008, the American Press Institute invested in groundbreaking research and designed a program called “Newspaper Next: A blueprint for transformation.” Based on the disruption theories of Clay Christensen, it prescribed how local newspapers could reinvent themselves around “jobs to be done” for their audiences. Though widely praised and noted, news organizations struggled to implement those processes.

Handing publishers a blueprint for transformation, the industry has learned the hard way, is not enough.

The Knight Foundation has invested in dozens of innovative tools and ideas in recent years through the Knight News Challenge. However, it has concluded, there has been limited adoption of these innovative tools in mainstream newsrooms, and the problems facing the information needs of communities continue to grow.

Creating tools and making them available is not enough.

Along with new tools for innovative journalism, and the knowledge of how to use them, news organizations need help with the underlying issues of transformation. This report, based on months of research into the opportunities and obstacles to innovation, explores a new way to do that.

Innovation is a product of culture. … Relatively small changes to an organization’s processes and structure can have magnified effects on its culture, which in turn can enable vital innovation in news organizations.

With the support of a grant from the Knight Foundation, a team from the American Press Institute visited a variety of news organizations and conducted human-centered design research to better understand the human, cultural and institutional factors that either enable or stifle innovation. Separately and simultaneously, API also commissioned an in-depth report examining best practices and ideas from some of the most innovative news organizations and news leaders.

Our findings from both research approaches shed new light on how news organizations (from legacy media backgrounds and not) can foster the adoption of new tools, business models, storytelling and other forms of innovation that better serve their communities and help secure their futures.

The essence of what we found is this: Innovation is a product of culture. And an organization’s culture is a product of its leadership, its structure, and its internal processes. We see evidence that relatively small changes to an organization’s processes and structure can have magnified effects on its culture, which in turn can enable vital innovation in news organizations.

We are also developing a new approach, based on these principles, to help news organizations innovate, one focused on people and culture, and flexible to the needs and capacities of different organizations.

What we did

Our research for this report had two primary thrusts. First, over several months, API dispatched a research team expert in both journalism and human-centered design thinking — led by Laura Cochran and Reggie Murphy — to visit a variety of news organizations and help us study the human and cultural factors that affect innovation.

The goal was to approach the problem of innovation first at the human level. We set out to develop empathy for the needs, behaviors, motivations, and problems of different types of people across the many functions of news organizations and companies.

The team conducted detailed interviews of an hour or more with staff who represented noteworthy extremes in organizations — veteran senior editors, young digital-native designers and developers, advertising and business leaders, among many others. In the discipline of human-centered design research, we then synthesized the findings into personas that represent the experiences of key players. These personas help define the core challenges journalism organizations and their people face in trying to adapt to the revolution in communications.

The second step in this process was to use the personas, as well as the insights from the individual interviews and site visits, to develop a model to help organizations advance more successfully. That model includes identifying what organizational characteristics enable innovators to thrive and organizations to evolve; identifying what cultural, human and systemic obstacles get in the way of that occurring; and identifying solutions to those obstacles.

Most of the personas’ challenges revolved around issues of building collaboration, communication, trust and relationships. The human problems, in short, turned out to be primarily about how people work with the other humans in the organization. These were the single biggest factors in empowering these people to innovate.

To look more deeply at possible solutions to these problems, API separately commissioned journalist Craig Silverman to identify the best practices for creating innovative cultures in news organizations.

Silverman’s report, which offers practical specific guidance, detailed the role that leadership plays, methods for creating a culture and structure that encourages innovation, how to pursue new ideas, and how to gather feedback and iterate on new experiments.

We also applied our own knowledge and other research about fostering innovation in news organizations, which has been a core focus and competency of the American Press Institute since its new start in 2013.

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