Innovate blur

How to spark innovation in your own thinking (journalism edition)

By Steve Outing

This post is part of the latest Carnival of Journalism group-blogging thought exercise.

The question (posed this month by Donica Mensing, associate professor of journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno): “How do you spark innovation in your own thinking, your newsroom or classroom? What techniques do you recommend?”

Well, I’m game to tackle that one, having spent the last couple decades working within the realm of journalism innovation and reinvention of news for the digital era. Here are some of my tips for creating an innovative mindset. Apply them to yourself, and/or your team.

1. Clear the past from your mind

Yeah, I know: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I don’t suggest that you “forget” the past. Rather, I find it useful to clear away counter-productive and (especially) anachronistic elements of the past as I go forth on an innovation exercise.

Here’s a simple, concrete example: If you’re working on reinventing or reimagining the Washington Post under new owner and founder Jeff Bezos, put out of your mind what your innovation proposals for new products and services might do to the Post’s print edition; assign that zero relevancy. For purposes of innovation proposals for the Bezos team, you should focus solely on what new products consumers want or are likely to respond to in a big way. Perhaps your idea has a print-edition component; then, of course, you’ll be adding print into your equations. Otherwise, forget about print! Forget about outdated, no-longer-functioning business models! Devise something new, that you know will be successful in serving your audience and making money.

It will be up to decision-makers higher up to work with you to decide if your proposal, which has potential to dim print revenues even further, fits into the larger corporate strategy. But to innovate effectively, put the old stuff out of your mind, for it can only damage creative and innovation processes and squelch what may be brilliant ideas and innovations.

2. Be a student of the future, and the experimental now

I like to take a futurist’s perspective when it comes to innovation. If you’ve come up with an innovative new product that has a lifespan of only a year or so, because other technological or social trends will evolve to limit its growth potential, why bother? To be a good innovator, you need to be well informed and up to date on trends, including technological, economic, legal, demographic, and social. You need to keep apprised of new breakthroughs in technology so that you can be ready to take advantage of them, and not have them obliterate a recently deployed strategy or innovation implementation.

To be a good innovator, you need to be a trend watcher and analyst. (Or hire someone to do it for you; being a good trend watcher is time-consuming, even with the wealth of online tools available to help you pull the needles from the digital haystack.) It’s the only way you’ll know if your “innovation” is actually innovative.

Here’s an example: Your news organization’s leaders finally recognize that developing new products for mobile should become a priority. Ummm, you’re way late to that game, and that realization. Nevertheless, you might dream up a mobile augmented-reality app that lets smartphone users point their devices at historic buildings and that pulls up, on the phone, various types of content, such as historical records, recent news stories involving the building, a video tour of the inside, a list of tenants, or if it’s an arts building, a list of upcoming events and the ability to buy a ticket right then and there on your phone. And you’ll have a sponsor.

OK, that sounds nice. Of course, it’s not really “innovative.” Many technology companies and university researchers have created such things already.

To be able to be more, truly innovative, it would help if you know that GPS-based location capabilities in phones have been around for well over a decade — and that what’s being developed in labs and at start-ups now is “indoor GPS.” Actually, that’s a lousy descriptor, but it gets the point across: A number of initiatives by a variety of companies are making it possible to navigate in, say, a large multi-story shopping mall via smartphone, and get informed how long the wait is at the Starbucks at the other end of the mall. (GPS can’t help you with that.) On the flip side, this technology is at the cusp of allowing marketers to track which stores you shop at on a mall visit, how long you spend inside, and where you go after visiting store No. 1 on your mall itinerary. A new, more personalized (and more intrusive) kind of marketing is just beginning to make waves. … Let’s find a more descriptive name for this fast-moving technology: indoor positioning systems.

For me, knowing (as much as anyone can know) what’s coming next is a critical component of being innovative. … So, what will you do with the knowledge that indoor smartphone geo-location will be yours to leverage in the near future?

3. Steal or borrow that innovation from over there

I find that to be most effective at innovation, you have to be an observer of multiple industries, many of which appear to have nothing in common with yours (which in this case is news). By taking off your blinders, you’ll often see that some great innovation in another industry actually could have implications for news and journalism. You can leverage it for your own gain.

Past examples are aplenty: The military pioneered drone or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology, but in recent years UAVs are finding commercial use, such as less-expensive means for farmers to check crop conditions, and power and train companies to examine electrical lines and train tracks, respectively, for damage, and Realtors to get low-cost, spectacular aerial videos of properties. A bit late to the game, now more journalists are experimenting with drones for aerial photography and video.

The classic example is Twitter, which debuted in 2006. Many journalists and media people (including me, for a brief time) initially dismissed this “silly” service which allowed people to communicate with 140-character text messages. Today, of course, Twitter is a critical and large component of the digital news landscape.

If you’ve managed to get your mind into a truly innovative state, then you’ll pay attention to non-news-sector major developments. When Silicon Valley comes out with the latest hyper-growth web service or mobile app, like Secret, or a ground-breaking new piece of hardware, like a GPS life-blogging camera, I put on my journalism glasses and try to imagine how it might be beneficial to journalism and the news industry. I like to do the same when I see innovative new business models that haven’t been tried in news or media.

If you can come up with a brilliant innovation all on your own, without “borrowing” from others, more power to you! But that’s not usually possible. Innovation will come easier if you avail yourself of the wisdom of the larger “hive mind.”

4. Think creatively toward what the future holds

A technique to innovate and spark creativity that I like is to take a known concept, say one that’s no longer working or relevant in today’s world, and envision an alternative model that sets the old one on its head. Since this article is about journalism, let’s use as our example the routine act of a reporter assigned to cover a news event; say, a major wildfire in Colorado. For alternatives, some of the ideas I suggest below are not yet possible but will be in the not-too-distant future.

News coverage of wildfire: From now to not-far-off

Traditional techniques Alternative techniques (innovation)
Reporter drives to scene, interviews fire officials, homeowners, etc. Editor coordinates multi-point coverage from his/her desk. Rather than have a staff reporter drive to the scene, the editor will assign in-newsroom information-gathering tasks and utilize remote technology to report without putting a human reporter in danger. Freelancers in the area of the fire, who have a relationship with the news organization, are tapped for on-the-scene reporting, which saves money.
Accompanying photojournalist shoots images of fire, from behind official fire lines; transmits photos to newsroom. Reporter orders camera-drone flight over fire area (still photos, video live-stream), in coordination with fire authorities.
Reporter files narrative text news article written in the field, or returns to office to write once information gathered and interviews completed. May post tidbits to Twitter from the scene. Coordinating editor scans and searches social media posts from fire region, finds eyewitnesses within fire boundary who are posting text reports, photos, and/or video to Twitter, Instagram, other social media sites. Journalists in office try to reach those people, seeking interviews, requesting them to send in their fire images. Sometimes journalists in the newsroom are able to conduct video interviews with eyewitnesses via smartphones, and post the video online and/or to mobile news apps or sites.
Graphic artist renders map of fire area based on sketchy official details and information from reporter at the scene. Camera drone has recorded images of the entire fire zone during its flight. Visual journalist in newsroom uses software to piece together GPS-tracked images for single visual of entire fire area, then overlays map elements (road, rivers, neighborhood labels, prominent buildings, etc.).
Newsroom staff seek information and data from official sources (press releases from fire departments, wildlife agencies, land-management agencies, local hospitals, coroner’s office, etc.). Newsroom staff do time- and geo-targeted analysis of social-media data, as both the public and fire responders add information, images, personal experiences, etc. to the social stream. This data analysis identifies trends (e.g., animals are being left behind as residents flee), and finds stories that reporters and visual journalists might pursue (e.g., a homeowner who rode out the fire in her home, which was only partially damaged).

Journalists in the newsroom also tap into public sensor networks, since sensors are growing quickly in numbers throughout our environment. Our hypothetical wildfire area may have only a few government video cameras positioned to regularly watch for fires, but other sensors that can track smoke particulate rates in the air, or traffic-flow speed and quantity of vehicles, can provide data to news media as well as public officials.

This is an exercise in which you can challenge your assumptions. In my “crazy-future” scenario in the right column, I’ve envisioned a different kind of fire news coverage where most of the staff journalists are staying in the newsroom and using remote technologies and social media to gather more information and data than was possible in the old way. No staff reporter goes to the fire scene, but on-location freelancers pitch in, and newsroom staff collect and verify eyewitness reports and visuals, and analyze incoming data.

Sure, the idea of not sending a staff reporter to cover a major wildfire might not be something that goes away. A camera drone might be sufficient to replace the photojournalist on the ground; or perhaps you’ll use both in your coverage.

If I can sum up the lesson of this technique, it’s use it to challenge your assumptions about how it’s been done in the past. Innovations that seem “crazy” today may become commonplace in the near future. Innovation comes hard if you’re not willing to challenge your longest-held assumptions.

5. Make time for innovation (schedule it!)

This topic of how journalists and news executives (and journalism educators, too) can be more innovative deserves more than a quick column; but I’m not able to write a book for this Carnival of Journalism exercise!

So I’ll end with one last tip: Set aside time in your schedule for innovation work. Being more innovative requires more than good intentions; it requires committing at least part of your regular work schedule to regular “innovation time.” A weekly team meeting on Innovation Initiatives and Ideas for your news organization would be a good start.

And, of course, you’ll want to get everyone in your team involved. Innovation in the news industry is not a luxury, and it can cover a lot of ground. (I focused here on editorial work, but you’ll want to make sure that other departments are in innovation mode, too: marketing, advertising, technology, partnerships, etc.) Small pieces of the larger innovation initiative can be doled out to individuals based on their interests.

So, go forth and be more innovative! And if I have not provided enough inspiration and ideas, check out the other submissions in this month’s Carnival of Journalism. (Look in the Comments section of that page.)

Top photo by Steve Outing

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!