Creating a plan for newsroom innovation starts with these 6 steps

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


Newsroom innovation is widely discussed, but what it means — and how well it is executed — continue to be points of debate in newsrooms around the world.

After a long career in journalism that has included work with CNET and The Wall Street Journal, Gabriel Sama is now a California-based media consultant who works with newsrooms on topics including management, content, strategy, and workflow. He brought his insights on innovation to Wednesday’s INMA Meet-Up, A roadmap for newsroom innovation that might actually work.

The Webinar, presented as part of the INMA Newsroom Initiative, allowed Sama to share lessons he has learned as he helped newsrooms learn to innovate. Some of the first things required are for newsrooms to become aware of what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and whether it’s working:

“Newsrooms in general not very good at being mindful of processes and workflows,” Sama said. “They don’t tend to have them top of mind. So we’re landing in this place of asking how you do things to get a good idea of where pain points lie.”

He offered his 18 steps to innovation but quickly assured the audience that they didn’t need to take all 18 steps.

Gabriel Sama introduced his 18 steps to innovation and zeroed in on the six that are most relevant to newsrooms.
Gabriel Sama introduced his 18 steps to innovation and zeroed in on the six that are most relevant to newsrooms.

“These are more my collection of insights,” he said, and then zeroed in on what he considers the six most relevant insights from his list.

1. Define innovation

This might seem simple, but Sama said it comes up in every conversation he has with media organisations. The starting point is to make sure that everyone has the same idea of what innovation means: “Even when making an intentional effort to innovate, many newsrooms don’t have clear definition of what it meant. Innovation can mean many things to many people. So, it’s important for each organisation to come up with their own definition of what innovation is.”

Every company must define what innovation means to them.
Every company must define what innovation means to them.

2. Decide where to locate the innovation 

Where will the centre of innovation live? He said most commonly, innovation is housed either in a media lab or is a fully integrated team that is working hand-in-hand with the newsroom. Media labs allow for greater innovation, but trying to integrate and scale those efforts is more difficult.

An integrated group working with the newsroom allows organisations to be faster and more agile in adopting innovation, but day-to-day operations tend to win out over new initiatives. “Innovation needs a specific place within your organisation,” he said. “Decide where that will be and look at the pros and cons of both.”

3. Create a system to manage your ideas

News organisations are creative by nature, and the problem is rarely, if ever, a shortage of ideas. “If anything, the problem comes from how to prioritise those ideas,” Sama said. “Ideas are the nuclear element of innovation. It’s what we do with them that makes the difference.”

When managing ideas, he cautioned against chasing after “shiny new things” or trying to emulate what other, larger organisations have done: “Don’t pursue the ‘idea of the moment.’ Each organisation has specific needs. Identify your needs beyond what the rest of the industry is doing; don’t chase ideas from other organisations.”

4. Allocate the resources needed to execute innovation 

This one is particularly important,  Sama said, because newsrooms are typically filled with people who are burned out from trying too many new things and taking on initiatives that didn’t work out.

Leaders who want to inspire newsrooms to innovate need to acknowledge that it can’t be done “in addition to” current work, but is going to be done instead of another project or initiative. “When we present these ideas, we need to offer tradeoffs,” he said. “It needs to be, ‘I’m aware that you’re at 100% of your capabilities and this idea means that you are going to do something new, but you are going to stop doing something else.’”

He suggested creating a “stop doing list” to allow people to offload certain tasks when asking them to pursue new ideas.

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

Newsrooms need to be more mindful of the process being used to innovate, Sama said. Too often, news media organisations try to borrow from what other industries have done instead of looking at the unique needs and processes of newsrooms.

“Why haven’t we developed our own processes and workflows when it comes to innovation instead of taking from other industries? We need to take advantage of what we do best,” he said. “In the moment we try to innovate, we need to be top of mind with our own processes and find where we can push and find opportunities to assimilate our own type of innovation.”

6. Build a culture of innovation

This last step could be the most important. Creating a culture in which people are looking for opportunities for innovation and providing a portal in which people can introduce their ideas will have a lasting effect on how a company moves forward.

Companies should communicate their new ideas and document not just what they’ve tried, Sama said, but how they’ve gone about attempting to innovate, how far they got, and what roadblocks kept that innovation from working.

“Maybe they got ahead of themselves or maybe there wasn’t enough money,” he said. Understanding what didn’t work — and why it didn’t work — is as important and knowing what did work and why.

Building a culture of innovation means bringing more people to the table to discuss ideas and actions.
Building a culture of innovation means bringing more people to the table to discuss ideas and actions.

Building a culture of innovation means bringing more people to the table, he said: “Open the space up to everyone. We want to hear not just from the newsroom but from marketing, from product, and from business intelligence.”

To build a culture of innovation, it’s important to create an open space where everyone is invited to contribute, he said.

Dmitry Shishkin, an independent digital media consultant, joined in the discussion and said that for newsrooms to innovate, they must first look at innovating internally and changing their processes.

“The internal innovation in the newsroom is equally important as the external audience-facing innovation,” he said. “It’s about instilling a culture of innovation, to shift things faster, to iterate, to learn rather than jumping to conclusions.”

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About Paula Felps

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