Innovation Soup for The Newsroom’s Soul: A Framework for New Ideas

Gabriel Sama
40 min readApr 8, 2022

For years, news organizations have faced severe challenges, including outdated business models, evolving technology, low pay, workforce turnaround, and a generational transition of their staff and audiences. There is no question that to face these challenges, news organizations need to innovate.

Innovation is not easy. And, in many cases, it doesn’t come naturally to news organizations. For these institutions, success often meant doing the same thing, the same way, over and over again. That model doesn’t work anymore. Audiences now find their information in a wide variety of places, and news organizations need to find ways to reach their readers where they’re at. This entails developing a muscle that these organizations have rarely trained: Being innovative and creative.

Photo credit: Steve Bowbrick (used under Creative Commons).

I developed a framework for innovation in newsrooms for my capstone and final project for the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership 2022 at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Since the start of the program in 2021, I’ve been researching, exploring, and talking about innovation in news organizations with the program’s instructors (special thanks to Anita Zielina and Jeff Jarvis), teachers (Elizabeth Hansen in particular), experts, classmates, mentors (thank you, Isabelle Roughol) and newsroom professionals to create a streamlined process that facilitates new ideas within newsrooms throughout their whole life cycle: from gestation to decommission and beyond. (If you want to learn more about my work or connect, you can find me here.)

To write this “paper,” (I know!) I spoke to current and former professionals in management, innovation, and product-oriented roles at multiple news organizations of different sizes, including The Guardian, The New York Times, Reuters, The Texas Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Arizona Republic, KQED, Muck Rack, and Bay City News. I also spoke to experts in Design Thinking and Media Labs. They all gave me great insights into the innovation efforts within their current and former news organizations. I’m highly grateful for their time, expertise, and knowledge.

Below is the presentation I gave at CUNY in April of 2022 (min. 52):

Eighteen Steps to Innovation in Newsrooms

A framework is “​​a basic conceptional structure (as of ideas).” What follows is a first approximation towards a working, actionable framework for innovation in newsrooms to create a step-by-step process that foments and favors new ideas for news, from their conception to their prioritization and post-mortem analysis and documentation.

An innovation framework needs to be tested. This is not the final version of this framework, but only its first iteration. I doubt there will ever be a final innovation newsroom process because the system is flexible by definition. So let’s call this an approximation.

The ultimate goal is to create a global organizational culture based on different values, principles, standards, and qualities that will support innovation. The ultimate goal is to erect a culture of innovation within these news organizations.

These are some of the steps your organization can take to make its newsroom more innovative and open to new ideas:

1. Define innovation

  • Who, What, When Where, Why and How

Who benefits from it? Value proposition? What can, must, or should be done? When should we do it? Where should it happen? Why do we need to innovate? How to better serve our audiences with new ideas?

2. Design a strategy

  • Set short-term and long-term strategies and goals
  • Set realistic, ambitious, and measurable goals
  • Align innovation to strategic planning

3. Encourage innovation

  • Get buy-in from all corners of the organization
  • Acknowledge your core competencies and journalistic expertise
  • Develop and promote a company-wide mindset for innovation

4. Tackle push-backs and obstacles head-on

  • Acknowledge burnout, innovation fatigue, and lack of focus
  • Don’t chase shiny objects
  • Acknowledge that resources will always be insufficient
  • Avoid siloed-off efforts

5. Identify the organization’s needs

  • Look for audience-centric, user-centric, and data-driven solutions
  • Promote innovation in meetings and other public forums
  • Demand creativity and idea generation

6. Assess the organization’s capabilities

  • Understand the role of tech
  • Assess your teams’ talent, skills, and abilities
  • Adjust hiring for flexibility and expertise
  • Figure out which skills you’ll need to outsource

7. Locate innovation correctly

  • Choose between separated and integrated teams (or something in between)
  • Create suitable physical and virtual spaces for innovation

8. Establish a leadership chain of command

  • Implement a process of decision making
  • User prioritization frameworks (see: Bain’s RAPID)
  • Empower up and down the chain

9. Create new structures and roles

  • Encourage cross-functional working groups
  • Create an interdisciplinary culture
  • Create new, unique, and necessary roles
  • Involve journalists and people from other disciplines
  • Nurture relationships

10. Promote and facilitate the generation of ideas

  • Create spaces and incentives for idea generation, ideation, and creative solutions
  • Open suggestions to everyone via an Idea Portal
  • Use ideation frameworks (see: Design Thinking)
  • Experiment, prototype, test, and assess ideas

11. Create a system to categorize, prioritize and select ideas

  • Categorize and rate types of ideas, products, and projects
  • Use a scoring system for ideas and to set priorities (see: MoSCoW)
  • No ‘Shiny new things’ nor emulating The New York Times
  • Create a ‘Stop-doing list’

12. Assign or transfer ownership

  • Define who is responsible for a project at every stage

13. Allocate resources

  • Assign a specific budget for every new project
  • Assess personnel workloads and make tradeoffs
  • Create a need-based team with diverse talents
  • Look for low hanging fruit, replicability, and quick wins

14. Adopt a system to deploy new products, projects, and ideas

  • Find potential innovation touch-points
  • Insert innovation-thinking into your newsroom
  • Use product thinking workflows and processes (see: Agile Project Management)
  • Overlap product-thinking with editorial processes
  • Understand the role of tech
  • Design a roadmap to implementation
  • Plan and budget for potential scalability

15. Maintain new products and projects

  • Plan and budget for maintenance, sustainability, and updates

16. Train and hire for expertise and flexibility

  • Train constantly
  • Create development budgets
  • Share skills
  • Retrofit your tech to attract talent
  • Adjust hiring practices based on new needs

17. Measure success

  • Progress through learning
  • Create an impact assessment matrix
  • Use data-driven metrics
  • Fail fast, learn quickly
  • Insert risk into the process

18. Build a culture of innovation

  • Communicate your intentions, strategies, ideas, and projects, widely and constantly
  • Document every step of the process, from ideation to decommission
  • Review and asses via post-mortems
  • Celebrate success
  • Iterate and repeat

Why Innovate?

Why create an innovation framework for newsrooms? I’ve spent a lot of my career launching and developing new projects as a consultant and manager. I always come away with a clear insight: Innovation is not easy. For many journalists, it represents more work with little to no strategic clarity of why the organization is trying to innovate.

Still, no one argues that news organizations are in desperate need of innovation. Their business models and revenue streams are in peril and the competition has only become more intense, even coming from outside the industry via influencers and social-media-empowered individuals.

But, to innovate, news organizations need to state a clear intention and take specific steps to make that intention a reality. They need a strategic framework.

Heidi Hattendorf, Director of Innovation Development at Motorola Solutions, defines an innovation framework as “a global, scalable platform created to harness the creative talents of your employees while staying in alignment with your corporate strategy.” Without a framework, says Hattendorf, you would just have a collection of ideas. The goals for an innovation framework, she says, are to positively impact your organizational culture; to increase employee engagement in the innovation process; and, to generate a constant stream of ideas that have measurable business impact.

There are several current trends in news organizations that actively promote innovation, among them a focus on product-thinking processes, the creation of new roles, and an ongoing effort to find the right place or location for innovation within the current organizational structures. On the other hand, news organizations struggle to select the right ideas, assign ownership, and allocate enough resources to scale and maintain their projects, among other things.

I will address all these, among other issues and realities. The key, for me, is to find the opportunities where news organizations can both address their need for innovation while leveraging its journalistic muscle. I feel that in many instances, organizations are using product development processes without enough input or involvement from the newsrooms. This has to change.

News organizations must actively look for opportunities to bring innovation into the newsroom, and newsrooms must develop an innovation mindset. Every news organization’s goal should be to situate their innovation efforts under the editorial and journalistic umbrella because their priority as a company should be to serve current and new audiences — even if they push non-journalistic efforts like games and recipes; these must also be audience-centric.

Julie Posetti, Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, explains that: “While it is still accepted that journalism innovation remains essential, there is evidence of increased understanding that it requires a multi-faceted, strategic and integrated approach that includes:

  • Experimentation with storytelling formats (reassessing what constitutes a story)
  • Innovations in ‘people and culture’ (skills development and training)
  • Innovations in technology (newsroom-borne tools and solutions)
  • Innovations in management and leadership (support from the top that permits innovation to flourish)
  • Innovations in audience engagement (moving beyond clicks and shares to audience participation in journalism)
  • Structural innovations (workflows, reporting lines, and interdepartmental collaboration)
  • And, innovations in revenue development.”

A Lack of Clarity

One of the main issues related to innovation initiatives in news organizations is that many journalists associate the word innovation with negative connotations, like extra work, lack of vision, or wasted resources.

Obstacles to innovation in news organizations:

  • Unclear definition of what innovation is
  • The inexistence of a culture of innovation
  • Staff burn out
  • Innovation fatigue
  • Lack of focus (jumping from idea to idea)
  • Lack of direction
  • Innovation theater
  • Expectation for every idea to work
  • ROI obsession

“Journalists have been burned a lot of times,” says Michael Morisy, co-founder of MuckRock.com, an investigative news site. “Learning something new takes away from what they’re supposed to be doing. Journalists have seen that rug pulled from under them when it comes to innovation initiatives. Addressing that is fundamental.”

“People in newsrooms are very busy. News is breaking all day. People are busy doing all of the same things they’ve been doing for a long time. It can be difficult to interrupt that flow,” says Louise Story, the Wall Street Journal’s former Chief News Strategist (one of the top three masthead editors running coverage with the editor in chief), and also the former Chief Product and Technology Officer for the Journal’s full business. “Innovation comes more from the culture than from an idea.” Story is also co-author of “The Innovation Report” at The New York Times.

For instance, Frank Mungeam, Knight Professor of Practice in TV News Innovation at ASU Cronkite School of Journalism, suggests that news organizations keep a ‘Stop Doing’ list to create capacity for innovation. “Adding new activities without eliminating other tasks is a surefire way to sabotage a promising innovation. It’s also intellectually dishonest. When push comes to shove, the new and extra lose out to the demands of the day and the urgency of the now,” he writes.

Creating that space (both physical and temporal) for innovation, or at least acknowledging its need, is the first step to implementing a culture of innovation within news organizations. Every new project demands that the assigned staff’s workload shifts elsewhere. That is the trade-off and the only way to create a positive environment towards the idea of innovation. And every new idea or project also needs its own set of resources.

A Definition of Innovation

According to several of the people I spoke to for this paper, one of the main obstacles for innovation in a newsroom is a lack of a clear definition of what innovation is (why it’s necessary, who it benefits, what it means for the organization, how it looks like, what it is trying to accomplish, how it should be done and by whom, among other things).

For Nick Petrie, Deputy Digital News Director at Reuters, “the main obstacle [to innovation in a newsroom] tends to be a lack of clarity of what you’re trying to achieve,” and when the organization “hasn’t agreed on what the problem is.”

Innovation within a news organization should focus (most of the time) on new ways to serve (inform, engage, reach, talk to, monetize, find, expand, etc.) our audiences.

The lack of a clear definition can also push organizations towards developing things that are not necessary or useful.

“Innovation five years ago used to be defined almost exclusively around new tech and new platform features,” says Chris Moran, Head of Editorial Innovation at Guardian News & Media. But, “we’re starting to move robustly beyond that.”

When talking about innovation, we’re talking about creating new ideas. These ideas might be products, apps, tools, processes, workflows, formats, publications, sections, columns, or any new approach and way we find to serve our audiences. I like the definition of innovation as the “exploration of the adjacent possible,” which I understand as looking for ways of advancing ideas and not necessarily creating them from scratch or out of the blue. Also, its inherent novelty means that new ideas are not proven and thus carry a significant potential for failure — something organizations must factor in because there are many learnings attached to “failing well.” (Failing well is when the stakeholders understand why something didn’t work. When news organizations don’t recognize that failure is part of the innovation process, they doom many ideas from the start.)

Damian Radcliffe writes that the “myriad of areas and activities that can be captured under an innovation umbrella” in a news organization include “innovation in the way journalism is gathered (routines, methodologies, workflows, and processes), the way it is packaged (workflow, products, and formats), as well as distributed and monetized (platforms, services, and products once more).”

The 5Ws and H of news innovation

Journalism organizations must use their inquisitive capabilities to define what innovation is, finding answers to basic journalistic questions like Why, What, Who, When, Where, and How in regards to innovation.

  • WHY: Why innovate? Why now? Why not?
  • WHAT: What do we have to do? What are the possibilities? What are the best ideas? What are our goals? What do we want to accomplish?
  • WHO: Who will innovate within our organization? Who needs this innovation? Who benefits? Who does it? Who enjoys it?
  • WHEN: When does this innovation need to happen? How much time do we have for innovation?
  • WHERE: Where should we locate innovation within our organization? Where should we release it?
  • HOW: How do we do it? What’s the best process to do what we want to do? How do we prioritize? How do we define it?

Start Creating a Culture of Innovation

There is only one way to create a culture of innovation within a news organization: Having a clear intention to innovate and communicating this intention far and wide. The key to developing a mindset of creativity and new ideas is to clearly and constantly communicate what these ideas are for, what the organization is trying to achieve with them, and who benefits from this innovation, among other things (by answering the 5Ws and H).

“Since innovation is a complex, company-wide endeavor, it requires a set of crosscutting practices and processes to structure, organize, and encourage it,” write Marc de Jong, Nathan Marston, and Erik Roth in “The eight essentials of innovation” for McKinsey Quarterly. “The best companies find ways to embed innovation into the fibers of their culture, from the core to the periphery.”

Process defines the way companies do things and offers a roadmap that can take an idea from gestation to implementation and beyond. And there needs not to be only one process; processes and workflows can also change. If there’s one truth to innovation, it is that it has to be iterative, very much based on trial and error, constantly searching for what works to achieve specific and diverse outcomes.

“One of the biggest clashes is where a process is applied as if the process were what is important,” says Moran of the Guardian. First, he adds, you have to “ask what the process is supposed to achieve.”

News cycles and innovation cycles have similarities

  • Both are iterative
  • Both are (mostly) streamlined
  • Both are novelty-oriented (looking for what’s ‘new’)
  • Both are audience-centric and user-centric
  • Both are done by teams
  • Both require different types of expertise
  • Both have a final deliverable

“We’re fixed in a specific narrative, focused on following strict rules and guidance we follow very strictly. [We need to] leave our mind out of these boxes,” says Ana Cecília Bisso Nunes, a Brazilian researcher that has studied Media Labs closely. “I have this feeling that journalism is more than content or more than daily routine. We need to broaden our understanding of what it is to work as a journalist. That will help us be more creative,” she says.

Newsrooms adopt product management processes because they’re full-fledged and streamlined. These processes have clear steps, distinctive roles, a workflow, specific rules, and a corresponding lingo. Newsrooms have processes too, but these are not as clearly identified or assimilated. Also, they are not as systematically and intentionally implemented. Editorial processes tend to be in the background and are rarely revisited. Many times, these workflows are invisible to the people that use them.

In order to innovate, editorial workflows have to come to the forefront. Editors need to look for opportunities where these processes might allow for the generation, development, and implementation of new ideas. These workflows must be combined to run alongside product-driven processes, which is something easier said than done.

“The big block has to do with culture and existing processes. You have people who are trying to do things differently and then people who are more comfortable doing things the way they learned to do things,” says Tran Ha, a Design Thinking expert that works with media organizations.

“For brand new teams, the Agile process is supposed to provide a standard. Conceptually, you’re supposed to throw away what you don’t need and get rid of all the unnecessary processes. Run with as little process as you need to be effective,” says Petrie from Reuters. “If you got teams set up with clear jobs, they should develop new processes, and it should be a combination of product, development, and newsrooms concepts.”

For P. Kim Bui, Director of Product and Audience Innovation at The Arizona Republic, it is essential to hire for expertise and flexibility based on the concept of iteration. Innovation is “a work in progress,” she says.

Favor flexible and actionable processes

  • Map out your editorial process
  • Familiarize the newsroom with the product thinking process
  • Familiarize product and engineering teams with the editorial process
  • Have editors present in product meetings and vice versa
  • Look for touch points where you can bring editorial and product teams together
  • Use editorial meetings as a touchpoint for innovation
  • Use product-thinking and product-oriented methods when necessary
  • Hire for flexibility
  • Iterate, evolve, and change your processes and workflows
  • Be open to change

For example, one opportunity to bring innovation into a newsroom — to begin creating a culture for innovation — is the editorial meeting. This meeting is a typical occurrence in most news organizations around the world, and it tends not to favor creativity, allow for innovation or push for new ideas. That could easily change.

Umbreen Bhatti, former director of KQED Lab, asks: “What if you design a theory of an editorial meeting that produces innovative news and storytelling and includes, among other things, questions that might help you lead the meeting in a different way? Interjecting in a routine is a great place to try something new,” she adds.

Looking for Audience-centric And User-centric Solutions

While product development is associated with technology, it is important to know that not all solutions have to be tech-based or tech-oriented, and not every challenge needs a product or project-thinking solution. Simple, non-tech solutions are as valid and should be encouraged. For example, testing headlines, using bullet points to summarize the news, and updating stories do not require the development of a new tool or product. It is all about engraining an innovative mindset and promoting idea-generation within the newsroom.

The main thing is to have a clear idea of why we innovate. For Bui of The Arizona Republic, it is about “understanding who we have and who we don’t have. Who our readers and subscribers are and who they aren’t.” Organizations must ask if their ideas will serve a new audience, who those new audiences are, and how to find them. It should also ask if an idea “is going to help our existing audience,” says Bui.

“Generally speaking, newsrooms need to be focusing on their readers, users and looking at the data so that they understand how their product is being received. [They] need workflows and cadences that they iterate with that in mind,” says Story, former Chief News Strategist and Chief Product and Technology Officer at The Wall Street Journal.

Moran, from Guardian News & Media, considers that his job is “to try to solve that problem of lack of editorial voice” by “talking to lots of people to collect the main strategic needs of what they’re trying to do” and “find ways in the process to try to balance the editorial expertise […] to make sure that the editorial expertise is represented,” he says. “We need editorial expertise recognized more quickly” but, also, “editorial has to adopt some of the good habits you get from product development.”

For starters, news organizations need to answer specific questions about their audience needs. The BBC, for example, spent two years asking its users what they want from news, why they consume news, and what the news means to them. Based on their answers, the organization came up with six categories of needs and wants, including wanting to know what’s happening in their community, country, and the world ( which they call “Update me”); keeping up with trends and discussions (“Keep me on trend”); helping them form their point of views on controversial topics (“Give me perspective”); help them understand and learn about specific topics (“Educate me”); entertaining and amusing the reader (“Divert me”); and moving them emotionally via human stories (“Inspire me”).

Thanks to the focus on delivering products based on audience needs, the BBC made changes to product development and increased both the number of users and their engagement. “There’s a mismatch between what the audience wants from digital (information, yes, but also understanding, inspiration, usefulness, diversion) and what the media delivers,” Dimitry Shiskin writes. The user needs model orients newsrooms to produce content with a different focus.

Among other examples I found of audience-centric approaches to innovation are The Atlantic’s study of their readers’ and listeners’ needs; this Nieman Lab article with examples of journalism innovations in 54 newsrooms, 9 countries, and 9 core ideas; and The Guardian’s article on why and how they made the age of their journalism clearer. But there are many others examples.

The Importance of Having The Buy-in

One of the most common and constant refrains from the people I interviewed for this paper is that innovation requires “buy-in,” defined as the “acceptance of and willingness to actively support and participate in something.”

Change management expert John Kotter calls it “building a guiding coalition.”

“Part of it is gathering a coalition of the willing, and not only for a particular project. You got to find the change agents in your organization. The ones that other people listen to,” says Bui from The Arizona Republic.

Buy-in means that everyone in the organization understands the need for innovation, and what it will entail to set it in motion. These actors also need to understand the role they play — if any — and the benefits of doing it, regardless of any direct impact it might have on their work.

Several of the managers I spoke to consider that getting that buy-in is an essential aspect of their jobs. “It was shockingly important to have people meet other people in the organization,” says Bhatti, former director of KQED Lab. In addition, there was a need to produce and procure “lots of cross-functional work,” she adds.

For Moran, at Guardian News & Media, the newsroom buy-in means “getting the editors involved in the room […] to educate the team about how much the journalists are asked to do.”

The other essential aspect of getting the buy-in is understanding that projects need representation from many corners of an organization. Among the challenges to innovation for news organizations that Petrie, from Reuters, lists are siloed teams and power struggles that keep the processes under wraps as “if we were doing magic.” He says that news organizations need new roles, structures, and cross-functional teams to promote and procure more innovation.

“I generally try to work with the top leadership,” says Ha, the Design Thinking expert. “It’s difficult to do without buy-in from the top.”

A culture of collaboration and communication

  • Get buy-in
  • Create a culture of extreme, open communication
  • Promote cross-functional work
  • Establish a leadership structure
  • Assign ownership to each project
  • Streamline the decision making
  • Infuse the whole organization with an innovation mindset
  • Document the process

‘Locating’ Innovation

It matters where you situate innovation within an organization. The two models in each extreme are from a completely separate team that tackles ambitious innovation challenges from scratch (often called a Media Lab) to integrated teams that execute new ideas daily fully embedded with the newsroom.

“Where does the Lab reside is a very important question to know which projects become operational, for example,” says Bhatti, former director of KQED Lab. She says there needs to be a strategic alignment that answers questions like “What are the expectations for the Lab? What is it supposed to be producing?” to make these Labs more functional and impactful.

Each has its pros and cons:

Media Labs

  • (+) Better to develop entirely new ideas (spaces, platforms, formats); suitable for ideating, testing, prototyping, and experimentation.
  • (-) Their separation makes it difficult to implement, transfer ownership, and scale a project.

Integrated newsrooms

  • (+) Better for quick reactions, developing culture, repetition, and creating a process and workflow. Encourages cross-functional work.
  • (-) Not ideal for pure, original innovation because the daily and urgent needs get in the way.

For Morisy, co-founder of MuckRock.com, the question is: “How do you set up teams with enough autonomy for them to succeed, but when they succeed, how do you bring them back to the rest of the organization?”

“In some places, people set up innovation groups, but then you would have talented people outside thinking they won’t innovate. These groups can make other people feel excluded,” says Story, former Chief News Strategist and Chief Product and Technology Officer at The Wall Street Journal. “If a company wants to innovate a new product that has no ties to anything people are doing, you can separate. But if you’re doing something that relies on your current talent and current projects, you have to depend on or partner with those groups of people.”

Tendayi Viki lists several reasons why Media Labs are not effective in his opinion. Among them is what he calls “innovation theatre,” which he describes as doing only things that ‘look’ like innovation — like using Post-it notes, creating playful workspaces, or dressing a certain way. “There is an innovation method and practice. The visible things we see are just expressions of this practice. The job of innovation managers is not to imitate the visible but to understand and implement innovation practices.” He also points at the lack of strategic alignment and focus as some of the reasons Media Labs are sometimes closed by their parent organizations.

In order to chose each model, or both, news organizations need to understand their differences: While the Media Lab model offers more extreme innovation, it is also more difficult to implement and scale those ideas; they also could be interpreted as siloed-off efforts, which hurt cross-functional collaboration. And integrated innovation allows to build a pan-organizational culture of innovation, but the ideas might not be as complex or ambitious.

“It is very difficult to bring back into the newsroom” the ideas generated in the Media Labs, says Petrie, from Reuters, who says he leans heavily towards cross-functioning teams. Newsrooms “have done a good job of locking themselves out of the business. They need to be much more integrated,” he adds. “Innovation fails because you don’t truly understand the problem.”

At The Texas Tribune, they have a “model that’s pretty integrated,” says Liam Andrew, the Chief Product Officer there. “We don’t have a separate group trying to do the innovation side of things.” But there is a group called Revenue Lab launched last year intended to be more of an experimental and academic unit. “They’re looking more at the innovation and focused on the revenue and development side rather than the newsroom [with some overlap],” he explains.

Tiff Fehr, Staff Engineer and Project Lead with the Interactive News team at The New York Times, explains that her team is fully integrated into the newsroom. For one, that means they don’t need to fight for resources because they’re already on the payroll, and the team’s job is to do precisely the kind of innovative work that makes The Times the standard in news innovation. Also, an advantage of being embedded with the newsroom, says Fehr, is that her team is “bound by newsroom ethics because we’re behold to deadlines and touch the journalism [via the CMS].”

Bisso Nunes, the researcher of Media Labs, says that it is essential to have journalists and people from other disciplines involved in the innovation process. “Sometimes it is not the innovation itself, but the process of innovating.” News organizations, she says, need to “facilitate people to be creative and understand they’re learning to be creative” and “look into the learnings.” Bisso Nunes considers Media Labs a stepping stone to an innovation culture. They “are one step towards developing an organizational and innovational culture to take the lead to change scenarios,” she says.

Long-term Planning, Roadmaps, And Strategy

A strategy is “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.” Again, it is not in the scope of this essay to explain how to design a strategy for a news organization but to emphasize the need for every organization to develop one.

That plan will inform the decisions the organization makes concerning innovation.

For example, non-for-profit news organizations seem to have taken advantage of the need for longer-term planning (after all, they use their roadmap and long-term strategies to fundraise) to better plan their product expansion needs. This longer-term strategy approach also seems to help non-for-profits allocate their resources better and prioritize more efficiently.

Kat Rowlands and Laura Cucullu, the owner and Strategic Operations Director, respectively, at Bay City News, say that when choosing which ideas to do, one criterion is looking at how these ideas align with their three-year strategic plan. “If it fits, we might say yes.”

“There’s a limit in what we can allow ourselves to experiment with,” they say. For them, “content needs to drive innovation.” The organization tends to iterate with what they have because “creating new products doesn’t happen often, at least internally,”

“Getting editorial buy-in early is really important,” say Rowlands and Cucullu. “When people feel that they have a voice in what will happen, they’re much more involved.”

Andrew of the Texas Tribune explains they “have a product matrix — a list of everything we can define as a product — with 200 to 300. So that’s the place where we start. We started using the RACI matrix [and aim to] have a department that is responsible for every project, product or goal,” he says. (“The RACI matrix is a responsibility assignment chart that maps out every task, milestone, or key decision involved in completing a project and assigns which roles are Responsible for each action item, which personnel is Accountable, and, where appropriate, who needs to be Consulted or Informed,” as Bob Kantor explains on CIO.)

“We have a roadmap that is where we start, looking at quarter to quarter and have a size rating M-L-XL. Then, we look at what we have done in a given quarter and see how many points we accomplished,” Andrew explains.

Chris Moran from Guardian News & Media says: “We didn’t have an editorial product strategy before.” Now they are “putting together a strategy and passing that to Product because these things [must] align with the general strategy. So we canvas big things that we can all agree on to get our house in order in terms of thinking of the big projects.”

But, there’s nothing wrong with creating flexible roadmaps. Strategies can also change, specially related to innovation and new ideas. “We sketch a roadmap, but they’re [only] bullet points. The roadmap is for deadlines, not clarity,” says Fehr from The New York Times. “We thrive in ambiguity.”

Managing Ideas

I spoke about news innovation with more than a dozen professionals for this piece, and none of them complained about a lack of ideas in their organization. Ideas come a dime a dozen. Instead, they pointed out to a need to make the idea generation process and collection much more open, democratic, and streamlined, and an urgent need to effectively organize, categorize, prioritize, and select these ideas.

Still, that doesn’t mean that generating, finding, and creating the right ideas is unimportant. It is. This process should go hand in hand with a clear definition of how the organization defines innovation (the 5Ws of H of news innovation, if you may). And there are good and proven processes for creative and effective idea generation the newsroom can tap into, like Design Thinking.

The five stages of Design Thinking

  • Stage 1: Empathize — Research your users’ needs.
  • Stage 2: Define — State your users’ needs and problems.
  • Stage 3: Ideate — Challenge assumptions and create ideas.
  • Stage 4: Prototype — Start to create solutions.
  • Stage 5: Test — Try your solutions out.

Source: 5 Steps of Design Thinking.

A first step is to create the right environment to ingest and accept idea contributions from the whole organization.

“What are the environments where you can share ideas, and doesn’t mean the work is going to come back to you?” says Bhatti, former director of KQED Lab. “People have to feel they’re driving the project.” Allow them to “share half-baked ideas, and “make it easy for people to view suggestions,” she adds.

Story, former Chief News Strategist and Chief Product and Technology Officer at The Wall Street Journal, calls for an “idea portal for people to submit ideas and to have transparency about what is chosen.”

Ideas: A full life-cycle

  • Generating and ideating
  • Collecting and storing
  • Assigning ownership and decision-making power
  • Classifying and prioritizing
  • Selecting
  • Prototyping and testing
  • Allocating resources
  • Developing and producing
  • Releasing and implementing
  • Scaling
  • Measuring
  • Reviewing and documenting
  • Communicating and sharing
  • Iterating

The next step is selecting the right ideas, which is fundamental to the potential success of a project. That selection can begin by eliminating ideas based on their complexity, potential impact and, also, in the capabilities of the teams developing them. Think of this as a pre-condition for the selection of the right ideas.

Many news organizations are shying away from what experts call “the shiny new thing” syndrome, or what others called “the Snowfall effect” in reference to a 2012 multimedia project by The New York Times that caused a lot of reactions both for its sophistication and its apparent lack of impact. In contrast, some organizations focus on ideas that can be used more than once by templetazing them and guaranteeing their replicability. Also, resource scarcity has made many newsrooms favor “low hanging fruit” and quick wins types of opportunities, which I define as the most straightforward ideas to execute (fastest and cheapest) which have some potential for an immediate, positive impact.

“We start with the things that are easier — 80% done with 20% of the work. Is it making future projects easier to do?” says Andrew from the Texas Tribune. “We’re doing fewer and fewer of those ambitious one-off projects. [We’re doing more] projects we can insert in our CMS and are easier to publish and integrate with the lowest common denominator,” he adds. But, Andrew says that although “over the past two years, we have [also] done a hugely ambitious one-off project: our COVID tracker […] we have leaned more and more on [CMS-based projects] as our time and capacity for other one-offs has been limited,” he explains.

Bui, from The Arizona Republic, talks about ideas you can piggyback onto other projects or looking for trojan horses you can use to prove a hypothesis and test secondary ideas. Bui says she first “assess the list of ideas and how many of these can I roll into one initiative and which one do I have the most chance of getting through.”

Some findings from The Journalism Innovation Project

A study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism aimed to identify key indicators for what they call ‘sustainable’ journalism innovation. It ran from 2018 to 2019 and included multiple international organizations. These are some of its insights:

  • A desire to pull back from the high-speed pursuit of ‘bright, shiny things’ and to refocus on foundational concepts of journalism innovation, audience needs, and core elements of practice, especially within legacy news media contexts.
  • A need is to develop research-informed, longer-term strategies to foster sustainable innovation.
  • There is evidence of significant change fatigue and burnout.
  • A clear journalistic mission helps focus innovation. It is possible to do meaningful, innovative journalism for a large audience even with limited resources with a clear mission.
  • Audiences can be part of journalism innovation.
  • Innovation requires investment in new skills, tools, techniques, and training.
  • Technology still has a vital role in audience engagement innovations, but that role should be editorial-led.

Source: Journalism Innovation Project

Classifying, Categorizing, And Prioritizing Ideas

News organizations must manage their pool of ideas with three things in mind: a) Define and classify the types of ideas generated within the organization; b) Know what type of ideas each team is capable of developing and executing; and c) Have a system of idea prioritization based on the organization’s strategic priorities. (There are methods like MoSCoW designed to help with prioritization, although the critical insight is that priorities must be aligned with the organization’s strategic goals vis a vis its audience needs.)

In “Seven Steps to Creating a Successful Innovation Framework,” Heidi Hattendorf calls it ‘targeted innovation’: “By focusing ideation activities where there is a business need, the probability of a concept being adopted is much greater.” If you change the word “business” for “audience,” this is also true for news organizations. Hattendorf adds that “an idea management system comprises a critical part of the innovation framework” to make it easy to participate, track ideas, bring transparency to the process, and establish a history.

The organization must create a knowledge-based system that classifies ideas by type, based on what they have done in the past and what they recognize in the competition as efforts they could emulate, even when many smaller news organizations are moving away from copying their competitors. “I am trying to encourage us to think more carefully about competitive analysis because I think newsroom stuff is becoming homogenous,” says Moran from Guardian News & Media. Instead, he asks his team to think in terms of what is “The Guardian thing that we should do” when choosing projects and ideas.

Bui, from The Arizona Republic, is also very mindful of the reputational and personal risk attached to pursuing specific ideas. She prioritizes ideas with “a reasonable degree of success” because there’s a “good faith currency” that she tries not to waste. She explains that sometimes she will “sit on ideas for a while until finding the right opportunity and time” to develop them. “I don’t assess anything that The New York Times has done. I want to do the opposite that The New York Times has done,” she adds.

This doesn’t mean, in any way, that a news organization shouldn’t be ambitious and aim high. Innovation intrinsically means that we don’t know what the outcomes are going to look like. But having a sense of one’s capabilities and limitations allows innovators to outline their possibilities and opportunities better, which saves a lot of effort, time and money.

After classifying ideas by type, the most important thing news organizations can do is prioritize these ideas. They must decide which idea to execute first or which ideas must move to the top of the list. The criterion is the perceived impact on the organization’s strategic goals. For example, if the main goal is to increase the number of subscribers and an innovation promises to improve the user experience of subscription-only newsletters, that idea should move up the list. But if the main priority is growth, any idea that helps improve the organization’s SEO must be a priority.

How to set priorities — establishing a specific method for it — is not in the scope of this paper. Instead, I want to emphasize the importance of prioritizing ideas effectively, efficiently, and consistently based on whatever system the organization chooses. This system has to accept input from every department involved and should always have a newsroom representative.

SORT, a change management framework, calls for looking into the Scope, Origin, Rollout and Timing of projects as four “critical elements of change design and implementation.” Scope, or the intended impact, can go from incremental to radical; the origin of ideas go from bottom-up, coming from the rank and file, to top-down, or coming from the leadership. The different combinations of scope and origin call for four types of change: Tactical, Evolutionary, Revolutionary and Transformational.

Rollout and timing are about the implementation of the change (or the new ideas). The rollout goes from localized to systemwide, while the timing goes from slow to fast; each has an specific impact on how resources are allocated. (The SORT framework comes from “Leading Organizational Change” by Ryan L. Raffaelli.)

In summary, the best ideas are the ones that will better help the organization accomplish its strategic goals. Those should be prioritized.

Assessing Talent, Capabilities, And New Roles

Also, the categorization of projects must go hand in hand with a constant and precise assessment of the teams and individuals’ specific technical and operational capabilities: What can they do, how can they do it, how much times does it take them, and how much it costs to do?

“Inventing something is very different from keeping things running. There are quite a few traps in the process of transforming an innovation project into daily business. The biggest challenge is to put the right team together,” writes Alexandra Borchardt, Director of Leadership Programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

News organizations need “a checklist to be able to see if the conditions are good for potential [to] be preemptive,” says Ha, the Design Thinking expert. “Questions around what kind of resources and training would be needed.”

Understanding an organization’s limitations might be an obstacle to new ideas, but “it is easier to push yourself when you embrace those constraints,” says Morisy, co-founder of MuckRock.com.

Assess your teams’ abilities

  • What expertise do you need for what you want to do
  • What expertise do you have in-house
  • What is your team capable of doing
  • How fast can they do it
  • What expertise do you need to outsource
  • What level of expertise do you have at the individual level
  • What new knowledge will you need in the near future
  • Hire specific talent for specific needs
  • Hire for flexibility and expertise
  • Create a development plan
  • Train, train, and train some more

I will not detail the types of roles and capabilities needed to innovate because each product, project, and idea will require different abilities and talents — and, thus, these teams should be put together with that in mind. The key is to make that assessment alongside the ideation process: If we want to do X, we need X types of abilities and talents, which is part of allocating resources. But, again, I won’t go into much detail beyond emphatically stating that news organizations need to assess the capabilities of each of their teams to be able to execute their plans and ideas.

One of the critical roles becoming increasingly important and common in news organizations is the Head of Product or Product Lead. In “The State of the News Product Community 2020,” Cindy Royal, Director of the Media Innovation Lab School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University, explains: “The professionals in these roles are charged with moving their organizations forward by managing innovative digital products while they are negotiating their roles, routines, processes, and places. The results outline a field in need of structure but reliant on the flexibility and agility required to embrace the opportunities that innovation presents. It is a function seeking vision, direction and support, more so than standardization and compartmentalization.”

Currently, news organizations are also adding new types of positions referred to as “bridge roles”: Jobs that, in their most simplistic definition, are there to help the product and engineering groups communicate better with the journalists.

According to Moran from the Guardian, these are “operational roles you put up to build something and take them off,” he says. So it is essential to assess, says Moran, “which bits of the scaffolding are you going to take away and which bits are the foundations.”

“The point [of bridge roles] is to close a gap,” says Petrie from Reuters. But, he adds, “they need to fade away.” Petrie says that some of these roles need to turn into permanent positions that recognize the need for planning and domain expertise. Those positions, which organizations like the Washington Post and The New York Times have created in recent years, are focused on the operational needs of the newsroom concerning engineering and product development, as well as a focus on workflows, processes, training, and tool adoption.

When you want to do new things, you need to add knowledge and expertise to your organization. It might come from inside your current structure, or you might need to add it or outsource it. But, to think that the same people can do inherently different and new things is naive. To innovate, news organizations must add the necessary new expertise.

Assigning Ownership

For many of the people I spoke to, one of the reasons new ideas fail is a lack of ownership. New projects and products need to have owners: A specific person responsible for the idea’s success during its entire lifetime — from conception to post-mortem — even when that person didn’t have the original idea.

“Really important with any project [is that] it needs somebody to push it forward inside the organization,” says Ha, the Design Thinking expert. “It’s usually better to not have it be just one person. It is helpful to have it be a team or a group.”

“Companies need a well-connected manager to take charge of a project and be responsible for the budget, time to market, and key specifications,” write Marc de Jong, Nathan Marston, and Erik Roth in “The eight essentials of innovation” in McKinsey Quarterly.

Another problem is the constant turnover. “Constant leadership and management change can end a project,” says Bhatti, former director of KQED Lab. “That’s why you want to build cultures more than processes and centers of innovation.”

“Lots of ideas die when people leave,” says Morisy, co-founder of MuckRock.com, something that needs to be recognized.

Likewise, the organization needs to have a streamlined decision-making process, particularly when approving, green lighting, and killing an idea.

“Because we’re working with groups in a cycle, we have the option of waiting and resurfacing the idea later,” says Fehr, from the Interactive News team at The New York Times. “Sometimes, we use the masthead hammer. Our involvement is only valuable if we can get someone else involved.”

Among the known frameworks for decision-making there is the RAPID decision accountability framework by the Bain & Company consulting firm.

Clues to better leadership and decision-making

  • Someone needs to be responsible for the idea, product, or project
  • Projects should be able to outlast their creators
  • Organizations need streamlined decision-making processes
  • Everyone needs to know who approves, green-lights, or kills ideas and projects
  • There needs to be a specific and justified reason to approve, green-light and kill a project
  • Ideas should have an allocation of necessary resources for their whole life-cycle, including scaling and maintaining

Allocating Resources, Scaling and Maintaining

The key insight when it comes to allocating resources for projects is that every new idea, project, and product must come with its own, specific set of resources. New ideas need new resources.

Surprisingly, none of the experts and professionals I spoke to complained about a lack of resources, something common in the news industry. It is a given that there are never enough resources and that news organizations tend to have fewer than necessary. Also, news organizations don’t traditionally have an excess budget for R&D or innovation, like Silicon Valley companies do. Instead of complaining of their current resources, the experts called for an appropriate allocation, including freeing time and space to do the work. Organizations “need more [resources] to do more things or stop doing some things to free more resources. People can’t think that without a new allocation — or re-allocation — of resources you can do new things,” says Story, former Chief News Strategist and Chief Product and Technology Officer at The Wall Street Journal.

For some, “scarcity of resources can be incredibly useful to focus your mind,” says Moran, Head of Editorial Innovation at Guardian News & Media. But, he says: “What we haven’t managed to do yet is how much time do we put aside to build interesting things.”

Based on my conversations with these industry professionals, there is also an evident tension between who’s in charge of generating and launching an idea and who’s in charge of maintaining and sustaining it. This has to do both with a lack of clarity of who owns the project and, also, with a lack of planning. Projects need to be maintained, and somebody has to do it.

Maintenance is a matter, primarily, of resource expenditures: Who is in charge of keeping these projects alive, and how much time and money are needed to do so?

And then, there’s the need for scaling these ideas.

“Where I have seen the biggest challenge is when something goes from a project into something that’s bigger than a project. If you have a team of six to twelve people and work on a cross-functional project, and it’s successful, and it’s launched, that can be done,” says Ha, the Design Thinking expert. “The roadblocks come when you try to scale that way of working into other parts of the newsroom, or you try to do that work outside of the initial group of people.”

“A lot of innovation efforts get hung up in scaling beyond the initial group of people who are trying to seed the innovation. The more you try to scale, the more it requires people’s jobs to potentially change,” adds Ha. “When you’re scaling, you’re scaling that way of working itself, not just the project itself.”

Again, my goal is not to tell news organizations how to scale their projects but that they have to include this option for every project and idea in their portfolio. Acknowledging this potential — and its inherent difficulty — is a first step towards doing it correctly.

Also, not all projects are meant to scale. Bui, from The Arizona Republic, asks of all projects, “Is this meant to scale? It’s fine if the answer is no,” she says.

To scale or not to scale

  • Not all products are meant to scale
  • Not all projects need to live forever
  • Projects need resources from birth to death — and even after death
  • Maintaining projects takes time, money, and personnel; these resources need to be factored in from the start
  • Scaling requires buy-in from all the parties involved
  • The potential for scaling needs to be assessed from the get-go, with a clear sense of what that entails
  • Bigger means more of everything: time, people, and money
  • Documenting projects helps replicate success or avoid future failures

Assessing And Quantifying

With so much data coming out of news operations these days, it’d be ridiculous not to use them to make decisions and measure the success of new projects and ideas. Organizations must first choose the right metrics to follow (based on their strategic goals) and then develop a system or tool to effectively measure the success, impact or failure of their new projects, products, and ideas. Whatever the organization chooses to measure, that’s the metric that will indicate if a project should continue, die, or even repeat in the future.

At the Texas Tribune, the top priority is to expand membership levels, explains Andrew, the Product Chief. “E-mail has been the best converter that we can measure,” he adds. “We used to put a lot more attention on page views and site traffic per month and year, but it’s not the only metric that should define where our audience is.” They measure “engagement time and how it tracks into donations. The longer people spend on your site, the more possibilities they become donors. We haven’t focused on that enough: Which stories generate more loyalty and engagement? How many donors are coming from a story? It is not simple to measure.”

Moran, from Guardian News & Media, warns: “Beware of the “perverse incentive to build something you don’t need because you’re reading the wrong metrics.”

Metrics of success: Things to measure

  • Data
  • Analytics
  • Insights
  • Engagement
  • Interactions
  • Subscriptions
  • Registrations
  • Relationships
  • Traffic
  • Growth
  • Conversions
  • Sales

Organizations like the Financial Times have found better ways to measure their audiences by bringing more data into the newsroom.

Learning, Training, And Documenting

Kakorrhaphiophobia is the fear of failure. It is not a stretch to say that media and news organizations are kakorrhaphiophobic. It’s easy to dismiss the “fail fast” mantra as another of Silicon Valley’s vapid ideas, but there’s some truth to it. In its more benign interpretation, failing fast means that an organization is learning from its mistakes, as quickly as possible, to avoid repeating them and to move faster towards success. It also means that the organization is drawing lessons from its innovation efforts.

“Media companies are not good at the word failure [even when they’re] so much more at risk now than ever,” says Bui from The Arizona Republic, who recommends inserting reviews and post-mortems into the innovation process.

One way to measure success — and failure — is to document it. Newsrooms must remember what they’ve done in the past and how they did it. These memories would help prevent the pushback of “feeling” that something or other didn’t work or has been done without success. By documenting the steps behind the development of their ideas, news organizations can have a recollection of what they’ve tried (by registering the ideas), how they tried it (by describing the process), and what they accomplished — or didn’t — with each effort (by recording the results). This will help the organization avoid repeating mistakes and prevent them from running away from good ideas because the company did not correctly implement something similar in the past.

Extreme Communicating And Sharing

The only way to achieve the buy-in we discussed initially is to communicate and share the intentions, strategies, projects, ideas, and efforts related to innovation far and wide within the organization. This is also the only way to create a culture of innovation within a company.

These communication efforts might include a weekly newsletter, demo sessions, open idea portals, brainstorming sessions available to everyone, monthly talks with in-house experts, and innovation-themed town halls where the organization’s leadership can answer questions about the projects and the company’s strategic goals.

And many of the experts I spoke to talked about the importance of celebrating successes, big and small, widely, to get the whole organization excited about innovation.

Training And Development

Constant training and personnel development are also key to expanding the culture of innovation in a news organization. If we’re going to ask people to do new things and think differently, we need to train them. Innovation requires constant learning, including updating people’s skills to tackle new and future challenges and opportunities.

Among the things some of the managers I interviewed are doing are weekly teaching sessions, inviting monthly speakers and newsroom subject matter experts to speak to their teams, create personal development budgets, and retention and mobility pilots where they move people to other departments for some time to expose them to new types of work.

Consolidating a Culture of Innovation

Creating a culture of any kind within a small or large organization takes time and a concerted effort. But, first, it must begin with a clear intention and a clear idea of what the organization wants to accomplish through the development and implementation of new ideas.

To develop a culture of innovation in a news organization we talked about the need to define what innovation is, creating new roles, locating these efforts within the organization and clarifying and prioritizing ideas better, among many other things.

The iteration and repetition of these efforts and steps will consolidate and root the culture of innovation in the organization.

Everyone I spoke to and everything I read on the topic supports the notion that the news industry needs new ideas to tackle enormous challenges to its business model, credibility, and survival. The stakes are incredibly high.

As I already said, several people I spoke to mentioned the lack of clarity and definition of what innovation means inside these companies. This problem makes creating streamlined and effective processes and workflows difficult. Also, this lack of clarity makes it difficult to communicate the need for innovation. It sometimes generates an adverse reaction towards new ideas, something I’ve personally seen in many news organizations worldwide, both as a manager and a consultant.

Most of the pain points and obstacles the professionals I talked to mentioned during our conversations are specific and, from my perspective, solvable.

There is no silver bullet for innovation: It requires work, change and doing new things. It requires enormous amounts of communication (ironically, something that news organizations are not great at internally). But, there are many things a news organization can do to either adopt or expand its innovation efforts. These include but are not limited to:

  • The need for a clear definition of innovation and the fostering of a culture of innovation
  • The importance of getting an organization-wide buy-in
  • Constant communication of intentions, strategies, ideas and results
  • Innovation has to be strategically aligned with the organization’s goals
  • It has to be audience-centric and user-centric
  • Not all innovation has to be content or journalism-driven, but most should
  • Accepting that innovation is done in iterative cycles which bring progressive learnings and advancement
  • News organizations should take advantage of the skills and expertise within their newsroom but also be open to bringing skills from outside sources
  • Innovation requires the creation of new roles and structures. It must be a cross-functional, organization-wide effort
  • Organizations must find the touch points where ideation, product development, and news creation overlap, like during news meetings
  • Organizations must create spaces for innovation and locate these efforts appropriately within the organization
  • News organizations must acknowledge that implementing new ideas has trade-offs: New work means that we have to stop doing some old tasks
  • New ideas (projects, products) require their own resources
  • Not all ideas have to scale or find tech-driven solutions
  • It’s necessary to create a system to classify, categorize and prioritize ideas based on specific audience-centric needs
  • Ideas are easy to come, but selecting the right ones to develop requires a system
  • Launch an innovation portal where everyone can contribute their ideas
  • Ideas and projects have lifecycles, and not all have to scale or live forever; on the other hand, ideas needs resources throughout their whole lifecycle
  • Each new idea needs an owner for its full lifecycle
  • Organizations need to assess their digital literacy and have a clear sense of what their different teams (especially engineering and product groups) are capable of doing and creating
  • Innovation requires a straightforward decision-making process
  • It’s important to invest in training and development; it’s important to share skills among teams and individuals
  • Documenting the process is key to future success and to avoid failure
  • Organizations must hire both for flexibility and expertise.

If you’d like to discuss this research further, you can find me here.

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Gabriel Sama

Media guy || Editorial & Comms. Consultant || Journalism innovator & Silicon Valley observer || Stanford Knight Fellow 2010 & Columbia J'School 2000.