Why the advice to ‘stop listening to newspaper people’ rings true for me

This quote leapt out at me from a GigaOm post by Mathew Ingram last week:

Stop listening to newspaper people. We have had nearly 15 years to figure out the Web and as an industry we newspaper people are no good at it. No good at it at all. Want to get good at it? Then stop listening to the newspaper people and start listening to the rest of the world. And, I would point out, as we have done at JRC – put the Digital people in charge – of everything.

It’s from John Paton, CEO of the Journal Register group of newspapers in the US, who is re-engineering his news company to focus not on paywalls but “on expanding the relationship his newspapers have with both readers and advertisers in their local communities, and taking that online.”

It’s an interesting post and worth a read.

I think Paton has a point. I think it’s incredibly difficult for established newspaper companies to re-think their business from the ground up and to innovate for a digital future. For a whole host of reasons, not least:

  • It’s hard to innovate when you can’t take risks, and it’s hard to take risks when you have a legacy business that’s still bringing in bucks – you can’t afford radical reshuffles that might alienate readers and/or advertisers wholesale. Your shareholders would chew you up and spit you out.
  • The future might look like it’s made up of smaller, nimbler newsrooms and larger distributed reporting networks, but we’re not in the future yet and in the meantime your legacy operation needs big newsrooms stuffed with paid staff.
  • Newspapers are what newspaper people know. Many have had an entire career in newspapers over several decades during which there have been very few changes in processes and output. Change is hard, and it can be genuinely difficult for people to get their heads around how profound a change the internet is making to the world.
  • People on the editorial floor are wholly occupied with meeting their daily deadlines and seldom have enough spark left after that to spend any time idly browsing, experimenting and daydreaming online – which is often where the inspiration for innovation comes from.
  • Senior managers are required to spend large amounts of time in meetings, answering emails and writing and reading impenetrable reports and strategy documents destined for the dark recesses of filing cabinets. Things like tinkering about with code, sharing links and reading dozens of blogposts uninterrupted are beyond their reach.
  • It’s hard to direct innovation. Adding ‘Be innovative!’ to my task list and assigning an hour and an half for it on Tuesdays is unlikely to get the creative juices flowing. Even if I did get into a groove on an idea, I’d have to pack up before I was finished to get to my next meeting or hit a deadline. Creative flow over. (A theme elaborated on in the 37 Signals book Rework and in Jason Fried’s BigThink talk).

The challenges of driving innovation were the focus of a recent NZCS Innovation Day in Auckland. In discussion sessions all sorts of barriers to innovation were raised. They included the assertion that New Zealanders aren’t very good at collaborating across companies, there’s a lack of talented managers who can take companies from a garage to the globe, and smaller companies are too squeezed to free up time for staff to muck around and innovate.

Dominic Stow of Designertech made some interesting points about barriers to innovation within large companies, including a few practicalities such as the importance of asking for suggestions from staff – and then making time to actually respond to them (rather than letting them pile up in a dusty corner of the intranet).

Thinking about it afterwards, I realised that as much as I learned about online news when I was working with Will Lewis et al to integrate web and print in The Daily Telegraph newsroom, I learned at least as much again in the six months afterwards when I was travelling and settling back into New Zealand.

First came three months on the road winding down: seeing friends get married in France, drinking green wine in Prague, and visiting glorious Kashmir during an uncharacteristic period of calm.

Once I was back in New Zealand with time on my hands and an internet connection, I spent several months quite literally mucking around online. I read thousands of blogs, signed up with all manner of web services to try them out, and got into Twitter and other then-newish social networks.

I started this blog, learned some basic HTML and got Delicious, an RSS reader and a bunch of other tools working. I discovered and started following interesting people online and going to conferences like NDF and Webstock. I kicked a whole lot of ideas around about the future of news, distributed reporting and the role of journalists in society. And I conceived the idea for allaboutthestory.com, which eventually came into being three years later.

To this day I find I do my best thinking ‘after hours’ – on weekends, holidays, while driving, at conferences, when I follow my nose online for a couple of idle hours in the evening. Then days and weeks or months slip by in a blur of tasklists and meetings and deadlines before I get to breathe – and dream – again.

Here’s my advice to news companies wanting to innovate in New Zealand.

  • Get out more. Kick staff out of the office as often as you can to go to conferences and work on their own digital projects. They’ll come back a bit rested and fired up with ideas.
  • Bring outsiders into your business to talk to you and your staff and work on projects. It’ll minimise stagnation and groupthink and let you cross-fertilise ideas and pick up tips on useful tools, reading, concepts.
  • Look at what news companies are doing overseas by all means, but also look at designers and web developers and engineers and architects and aviation and food and biotech companies to see what they’re doing and whether any of their ideas are transferable.
  • Remember that you have to go online to know online. So stay home for a day every now and then and play with the internet.
  • Open up the daily news conference and news diary. Think about more than the front page. Think about how readers are going to experience your stories and what else they’re going to want to know. Bring a programmer and photographer and web editor and videographer and designer to your news conferences and see what they have to add.
  • While you’re working at getting reporters to take photos and shoot video for the web, find out who among them wants to learn code and help them do so. Find someone with a maths degree or who understands statistics and get them into data analysis and have them teach their less numerate colleagues about number-crunching.
  • Don’t think you can fix everything with a top-down management strategy. (I’m speaking from experience here, having got this wrong before). Very often people on the newsroom floor have great ideas, all they really want is for you to share their enthusiasm and get out of their way.