News publishers redefine innovation through investments in people, culture


Animation of colorful gear parts with titles such as Products, Innovation, Programmers, Processes
Animation of colorful gear parts with titles such as Products, Innovation, Programmers, Processes

In recent weeks, I have borne witness to the seeds of innovation being planted throughout the news industry. They come in all sorts of varieties. They involve people, programmes, processes, products.

For Singapore Press Holdings, it is the hire of its first data scientist to lead the company through the Big Data revolution as executives predict – after careful study of counterparts in Europe and North America – their market is on the verge of making the print-to-digital shift.

For Australian rivals Fairfax Media and News Corp., faced with the fresh structural shifts in print advertising, there is a rush to change the cultural foundations.

Fairfax Media has Google-fied its Sydney offices to encourage teamwork and camaraderie:

  • Nobody has an office anymore.

  • Nobody has an assigned desk.

  • There are 130 seats for 180 sales reps, the not-so-subtle message being you should be out selling and not in the office.

  • There are coffee nooks and rooms for remote Google video hangouts.

  • Not even The Suits, including the CEO, has a desk, prompting bemusement among employees surprised to have a conversation with someone whom cultural traditions suggest they’re not supposed to have easy access to.

I’m told the twentysomethings love it, which is the likely intended target, as media companies need to get younger – fast – to attract the young platform-agile employees who are keys to our industry’s success. (Google Australia is about to move into the same building as Fairfax Media.)

Across town at the newly rechristened News Corp. Australia, a first-ever hackathon among 19 teams of technologists, journalists, marketing, and advertising executives produces a mind-bending slew of ideas to create digital products that grow audience, revenue, and brand.

Given 54 hours to come up with a presentable idea, the young teams pour their hearts out to peers and judges faced with the task of a Top 5. The room is filled with lessons:

  • Technologists are the emerging superstars at legacy news publishers.

  • New products, services, and ideas don’t need to cost a lot of money nor take a lot of time to ramp up.

  • The best ideas need to be pitched succinctly. For the News Corp. hackathon, each team was given four minutes. Some great ideas under-performed because they couldn’t be communicated in a timely manner, a lesson for all of us.

  • The old guys at news companies need to understand things like speed, innovation, and communication, too. Even if they aren’t producing products in 54 hours, they need to manage and encourage the new generations, and the graying judges (me included!) got a bird’s eye view of unleashed (young) innovation.

The hackathon was met with smiles all around from the News Corp. director of transformation, the director of innovation, and the director of people (my, how HR has evolved!) – job titles that capture the urgency of changing corporate cultures to adapt to the Digital Age.

Halfway across the world in an Amsterdam suburb, the CEO of Wegener brings to our meeting her top executives with the relatively new innovation department, tasked with harvesting internal innovations from a workforce unsure of its future as the company goes through a reorganisation and a likely sale by corporate parent Mecom.

Meanwhile, executives at De Persgroep hole up in an out-of-the-way suburban Brussels hotel to plot the company’s transformation: what they can affect, what they can’t affect, and what they’re not sure they can affect. They know that digital is a tsunami on their business model, and the question keeps coming back to culture, culture, and more culture.

“Culture” and “innovation” circle each other like wary dance partners in today’s news industry. I see it at every stop on my constant journey in search of global best practices.

Technically, we needed a nurturing culture to produce innovation in the old newspaper business. The truth is the old macho newspaper culture didn’t encourage deviant thinking, and it sure didn’t encourage failure.

At its core, the newspaper of 1990 wasn’t radically different than the newspaper of 1890. The newspaper culture produced incrementalism on a global scale.

I still see that culture in news companies that still have no in-your-face recession or structural revenue bomb to encourage change. It is part of our industry’s DNA not to change unless fear is a motivator.

Yet to see the companies facing the market shift to digital, they can’t change their cultures or their organisational charts fast enough. I see some evidence of severe change fatigue among employees as change that could have been managed gradually in the good times is, instead, being crammed into the space of one to two years in the bad times.

That change fatigue reminds me that, while we can clearly identify what Multi-Media Nirvana looks like, a cultural minefield stands between where we are today and that perfect world. Three steps forward and two steps back is still progress. Yet make no mistake: There will be casualties in these cultural and business model transitions.

It’s a lesson to news companies in the back of the print-to-digital funnel. A digital culture based on speed, agility, and innovation will work in a company still dominated by print revenues. Don’t wait for the market to turn toward digital to implement a digital culture.

Cutting through so many conversations with publishers in India, Singapore, Australia, Chile, Peru, the United States, The Netherlands, and Belgium the past five weeks, I am struck by the commonalities in innovation:

  • Innovation is mostly a function of attracting platform-agile people for the new multi-media era.

  • “Human resources” needs to be a proactive, strategic extension of the CEO’s vision to populate the company with dynamic people who build on the new hybrid print + digital brands.

  • Because “innovation” doesn’t come organically at most news companies, it has to be pushed through programmes. If that means an innovation department or a transformation department, so be it. If that means a hackathon or a committee structure, so be it. Do what you can manage – but do something structured.

  • Management must allow employees the creative room to contribute ideas and thoughts beyond the parameters of the job for which they were hired.

  • Because Millennials have this irritatingly marvelous work/life balance, you have to create a workplace environment that is a magnet for new talent and a magnet to retain talent.

Meanwhile, I am less convinced about new organisational structures as crucial to promoting innovation. Organisational structures come and go as the wind changes direction and are more about the CEO’s tastes and preferences to promote efficiency and effectiveness than innovation. There are many ways to organise yourself to success.

What I did not see on my global tour were programmes to fast-track young innovators to leadership posts. In an innovation culture, we must find leaders, as I heard at a Schibsted management conference a few years ago, who walk between groups and cliques of like-minded people and sew them together.

I am not an optimist at heart. I can find the dark side of the sunniest of days.

Yet I am encouraged by the cultural seeds that are being planted by media companies. Maybe they produce the next revenue innovation or the Next Big Digital Thing. Or maybe those cultural seeds produce the next great leader or manager that can help guide the news industry toward paths we can scarcely imagine today.

How much are you investing in people, culture, and innovation?

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