Thinking of innovation this way also broadens the conversation about web news. For example, I’ve encountered several thriving local news startups that have print products, but they’re not at all backward in their thinking. This Land Press, perhaps Oklahoma’s first new-media company, produces beautiful video journalism and an equally stunning broadsheet that turns print from stale to exclusive. The website is free, the paper is not, and ads are sold across both mediums. Weld, a new site in Birmingham, Alabama, breaks city politics stories on Twitter that evolve into blog posts before becoming context-filled news articles for their alt-weekly-style print product. These startups innovated by coming up with the right blend of old and new for their respective markets.

Defining innovation as a reaction to the present might also help some of the troubled startups I mentioned above kick their bad habits. Lastly, and this is crucial, thinking of innovation in this way allows us to talk more realistically about failure. One thing I’m bemused and saddened by in the online news world is the excitement that heralds every new launch or trend, and the scorn that follows every failure. Could this be because we’re obsessed with an unrealistic conception of innovation, one which dictates that everything unprecedented is good and everything unsuccessful is un-innovative?

The news innovators most worthy of attention aren’t those who have reached some platonic ideal of web journalism, but rather are the ones who have spent a good year, or a good decade, working every day to produce journalism and sustain it. This engagement with the present doesn’t guarantee success, but it will provide some useful lessons to those of us who pay attention. And at least those that don’t survive will have died with their boots on, having taken a few more intermediary steps. 

 

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer.