Newsrooms and tech start-ups have much in common. Both are fast-paced, have intellectually curious staff, and strive to stay ahead of the latest developments.
But newsrooms also have long-standing routines that govern their day-to-day work and hierarchical management structures that are out-of-step with typical start-up culture. Injecting a bit of start-up ethos into the newsroom has emerged as a recent trend among news organizations interested in digital innovation.
There is an allure to bringing start-ups into the newsroom. Their DIY attitude, tradition of quick development and deployment, and innovative spirit have the potential to invigorate a news organization’s digital presence.
For this very reason, several newsrooms have created internal start-ups, a process known as intrapreneurship. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Seattle Times all have experimented with the idea.
The intrapreneurial unit often struggles to infuse creative ideas back into the core news organization.
How intrapreneurship works in practice is the topic of a new research article by Jan Lauren Boyles, an assistant professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. Her in-depth interviews show that the promise of intrapreneurship does not always jive with the reality.
As separate entities embedded within news organizations, intrapreneurial units face multiple challenges. Within the broader news organization, intrapreneurial managers have to temper unrealistic expectations from newsroom executives and advocate for the relevance of their unit. One newsroom innovator told Boyes that intrapreneurial managers need to be “willing to talk up the totem pole for change.” Another mentioned living in the “era of the elevator pitch.”
Work emerging from intrapreneurial units can meet with resistance and fail to gain traction. One explanation for the trend is that traditional news staff are focused on doing their best to just cover the news each day. Adding digital innovation into an overbooked schedule is not top of the list. On this point, Boyles is frank, “the intrapreneurial unit often struggles to infuse creative ideas back into the core news organization.”
This is not to say that intrapreneurial units are wholly unsuccessful. It does appear that intrapreneurship-driven newsroom units successfully develop a start-up culture. Within the units, management structures are typically flatter than in newsrooms. Team members are freer to disagree with one another and to pitch and pursue independent projects.
Further, the unit rewards quick decision making, risk-taking, and pivoting to new ideas when projects are unsuccessful. Innovation comes from “entrepreneurial startups with raw energy that are willing to take risks,” one interviewee shared with Boyles. Although this distinct culture sparks innovation, it also can conflict with a more bureaucratic and hierarchical newsroom culture.
Drawing from her interviews, Boyles offers several tips and suggestions for better navigating cultural divides. Regular communication between the intrapreneurial unit and the broader newsroom seems to ease tensions and can promote greater understanding of how various units can complement each other. Several of Boyles’ interviewees also recommended having rotating positions within the intrapreneurial unit and newsroom so that staff from both sides could better appreciate the work of the other.
To gain these insights, Boyles conducted 20 in-depth interviews to understand the opportunities and limitations of newsroom intrapreneurship efforts between November 2012 and February 2013. She spoke with consultants and senior newsroom staff in 20 different newsrooms and consultancies in order to gather both insider and outsider perspectives on this emerging trend. The interviewees were from digital-only and digital-print organizations in the United States and Canada.
Differences between start-up and traditional newsroom culture, Boyles learned, can handicap the success of internal innovation hubs within broader news organizations. Although her findings signal the difficulties, Boyles’ suggestions for better integrating intrapreneurial units within newsrooms provide a way forward for those interested in using internal start-ups to jump start innovation.
Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to analyze:
- What other strategies for introducing innovation into the newsroom have been used, and how successful are they?
- Do differences in newsroom strategies for encouraging innovation result in different digital presentations of the news?
- What are best practices for newsroom intrapreneurs to create change within a broader organization?
- Which sorts of organizations are most likely to create intrapreneurial units and why?
Jan Lauren Boyles. (2015). The Isolation of Innovation: Restructuring the Digital Newsroom through Intrapreneurship. Digital Journalism. doi: 10.1080/21670811.2015.1022193
Research Review is a monthly series highlighting useful news-related findings from scholarly research papers. It is written by Natalie Jomini Stroud, associate professor of communication studies, assistant director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, and director of the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin. We hope this series will bring new insights to working journalists, as well as spark ideas among academics with an interest in researching the news.