Recent scholarship on innovation suggests that good ideas are often hatched when people are exposed to many different disciplines and lines of thought.
Newton getting thumped by an apple and Archimedes’s rising bathwater are cute stories but, even if these accounts are true, they don’t represent how innovative thinking usually works, in that they portray innovation as spontaneous fortune that happens in isolation.
“Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts,” writes Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From. “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”
There are very good reasons that aspiring U.S. diplomats may be asked questions about things as diverse as the show Family Guy, the French Revolution, or Ayman Al-Zawahiri when taking the State Department’s Foreign Service examination. This is because people with the most diverse knowledge sets are often the best problem solvers. Swiss army knives can be used to do many things.
What is perhaps more fascinating than a naked scientist’s bathtub epiphany is how innovators commonly come from disciplines other than those they revolutionize. Gutenberg fashioned his printing press because he had been in the wine business and was familiar with the mechanics of grape vises. Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was an Eastern European monk who studied philosophy and physics in college, but later took to experimenting with pea plants in the garden of a monastery. Benjamin Franklin came up with ingenious solutions to so many problems because he knew quite a bit about quite a bit.
These innovators didn’t break ground because they pondered important questions in isolation, but because they learned about topics far and wide, and fit old knowledge for application in new fields.
The way innovation is now understood is good news for supporters of liberal arts education and booksellers, and also for news organizations. “It is impossible to conceive of effective and enlightened solutions to daunting problems without a credible system of journalism,” wrote Robert McChesney and Victor Pickard in the 2011 book Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights.
News organizations, both public and private, have long tugged at the heartstrings of investors, governments, and news consumers, soliciting money and attention by arguing that good journalism is essential for self-governance and a functional society. And of course it is. But underemphasized is the additional truth that good, gripping, and diverse journalism contributes to innovation and problem solving.
Global news outfits, then, like the BBC, The Economist, The Times of India, and Al-Jazeera, which cover a more diverse spectrum of topics, problems, and human interest yarns, may be able to make their future cases for investment and government support on slightly new grounds. If newsmakers can better emphasize the fact that journalism contributes not only to literacy and awareness of current affairs, but also to innovation and problem solving, they might be able to squeeze more funding from governments, school boards, universities, and nonprofit foundations.
Journalism has been referred to as “the first draft of history,” but it can also be future innovators’ first taste of something new. Truman Capote’s groundbreaking work In Cold Blood would have gone unwritten had he not been intrigued by The New York Times’s coverage of a grisly quadruple murder in Holcomb, Kansas.
One of the primary ways people learn about a wide array of topics is by accessing general-interest news publications. Indeed, State Department applicants taking the Foreign Service exam are often told to prepare for the test by doggedly reading newspapers as well as magazines like The Economist. The State Department hires innovators based on global knowledge, and international news outfits should seize on such information when making the case that their work deserves backing.
If innovation is usually the product of widely ranging information consumption, then we should dread even more the possibility of the so-called “echo chamber,” a cage with a self-fulfilling chorus that some digital news consumers choose to lock themselves into. If echo chambers are multiplying, would-be journalism investors, donors, or government sponsors might ask, “why fully support serious, diverse journalism if citizens will simply fashion a news feed that fattens their own beliefs and expertise?”
Yet I remain unconvinced of the severity of digital echo chambers. I was interviewed in July by a reporter at The Bangor Daily News in Maine, and asked to comment on the global reputation of Al-Jazeera. A museum in Maine invited the Washington, D.C. bureau chief of Al-Jazeera to speak at a large annual event, a development that was too much for some Tea Partiers and other conservatives to handle, and the invitation drew loud (and uninformed) animosity. The story was published online on a Wednesday morning, and by mid-afternoon had generated more than 440 reader comments. If you read just a handful of these reactions, you will see that the contributors are not ensconced in any echo chamber. They are being exposed to diverse viewpoints, and many of them are fired up as a result.
The debate over whether harmful echo chambers that shield citizens from diverse viewpoints exist is not finished, but I’m sleeping just fine. And of course, even if government bursars and donors are concerned about the provinciality of echo chambers, they could be persuaded that this justifies even more support for diverse news organizations that capture public attention.
There is growing discussion of greater government support for journalism in academic circles. McChesney et al.’s book forcefully makes this case, arguing that an unchecked government can not function. Their arguments are compelling, and I am not among those who feel threatened by proper government support of journalism. Some of the best global news I devour comes from the BBC, NPR, and Al-Jazeera, which get money from governments.
Adding to McChesney’s case, I believe, is the argument that well-funded, diverse journalism increases innovative thinking. Politicians may not be excited to fund news organizations to check their every move, and petitions for support might be framed by highlighting the possibility of greater technological innovation. Leonard Downie, Jr. and Michael Schudson wrote in a chapter in the McChesney book that “enterprise and accountability journalism, which by definition bring new information to light, can grow into society-changing work not so different from academic research that makes original contributions to knowledge.”
CJR reported in April that the British government cut $55 million from the BBC’s online budget, which could result in the closure of 200 BBC websites and the deletion of 360 jobs by 2013. When BBC executives make their case for restorative funding, they might add the innovation angle. It is true that unchecked governments cannot function, but the BBC and other global news outlets looking for financial backing should add that uninformed publics cannot innovate.