Who is responsible for media innovation?

By Bente Zerrahn

Axel Springer

Berlin, Germany


There are many ways to define innovation. However, I’ve read definitions aren’t considered an engaging way to start a text, so I’ll spare you.

What I do feel is necessary to stress, though, is this summary:

Innovation can be described as an invention (something old newly repurposed or entirely new) that creates economic value.

Given that no word gets thrown around as carelessly as “innovation,” I feel this is relevant because it’s so easy to dismiss it as this one magic solution to all our woes. Because, “if we just innovated enough, we wouldn’t have our problems” — fake news, reader retention, willingness to pay, social media platforms, bots … do I need to go on?

Innovation is not contained within any single department.
Innovation is not contained within any single department.

But this is easier said than done. So, I’d like to take a step back and figure out where innovation even fits in our daily business.

It’s hard to innovate in newsrooms. We all know this. Long hours, the headless running around when you need to be the first channel to publish a crazy news break, and articles being measured meticulously by their conversion, reach, and whatever other short-termed KPI you can think of …

Where do you have the time and space to take a step back and challenge your own business model? Or research new technologies that could improve existing processes and free up journalists’ brain space (AI journalism for dull news tickers, anyone)? Additionally, it’s easy for the newsroom to should just focus on “doing what they do best”: researching, contextualising, and publishing the best stories.

In line with this, one could argue it’s either the tech department’s job to come up with innovative ideas or the business department’s responsibility to think of the future business models. However, there’s a big downside to any of these three departments being solely responsible:

  • Business and tech lack the grasp for the essence of the product.
  • Journalism and tech lack the pragmaticism and foresight of business people.
  • Business and journalism lack the understanding for future technologies.

It’s an iron triangle situation. To make significant changes, you need a thorough understanding of all three.

But, how do you do this? These three shareholders tend to live in their own bubbles and usually end up talking about each other more than with each other. Here are a few ideas:


Surprise! As with any big change, communication is key. All employees need to understand what exactly this “innovation” concretely means, and why it’s their job as well. Of course, you can keep your core the way it is and have a lab/intrapreneurship programme, but this also means you’re actively making the choice to abandon your main ship at some point. This is completely legitimate, but make sure this is an active choice as opposed to a surprise.

If you decide your legacy brands should still continue to matter in the future, make everyone understand they’re a crucial part of building that successful future and should speak up and proactively think about fixing challenges they see.

Good communication also enables the following strategies.

Define processes

People understand innovation is relevant, and it’s part of their job. Now, you need to give people space and time to come up with amazing things! This could mean hackathons where everyone working in the three noted departments must partake. Make sure they collaborate in diverse teams to create solutions that actually reach the readers, make money, and are technologically sustainable.

Another idea is to proactively start campaigns where, again, people come together to solve an existing issue (e.g., junior journalists having to summarise press agency news when AI has been able to do this for ages, thus freeing up relevant resources). It forces your staff to understand habitual problems and get excited about solving them.

Collaboration from day one

Try to have the three departments interact with each other as early as possible. The sooner they understand they’re more than the sum of their parts and willingly listen to the other stakeholders, the sooner they will be able to collaborate and create truly valuable solutions.

At Axel Springer, we created the FreeTech Academy, where we train journalism and tech students side by side. So far, they’ve worked on amazing collaborative projects, and I personally can’t wait for this new generation to take the newsrooms by storm.

Upskill your staff

Now, not every publisher will be able to train dozens of students like Axel Springer, however you can upskill your staff. Proactively train your journalists, techies, and business staff to actually understand employees in other areas of the company. This doesn’t mean journalists have to learn coding and your business developers need to do investigative research — although, how cool would that be?!

However, what you can do is train them to understand each other. “Data science for journalists” helps with investigative research. “How to build a business plan” helps in convincing management of investment-worthy ideas. “Storytelling 101” helps understanding customer priorities.

Get creative with this and involve your employees in figuring out an innovation process that works for you. When they have skin in the game, it will surely bring them closer and get more excited to work together, creating a magnificent future for your brand in the process.

About Bente Zerrahn

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