Illustrations by Roxanne Palmer
In the last few years, a growing number of media outlets have undergone a critical shift in organizational structure to build innovative products. Rather than focus on retaining customers for platforms that may not be viable, legacy outlets are fostering innovation from within to diversify revenue and stay relevant.
It might, dare I say, be trending. The San Francisco Chronicle launched an incubator in early 2014 to train staff and encourage innovation. And while not an incubator per se, The New York Times has made a number of strategic investments in startups that could reap tangible benefits for the institution. The most recent one, Blendle, is a popular paywall metering tool with a large percentage of users under the age of 35. The New York Times Co. contributed to a $3.8 million investment in the company. In my work as a consultant for media outlets and foundations, I’ve also encountered many organizations adopting this strategy, seeking to bring the startup into the newsroom.
This tactical shift is making a profound difference in how we produce, access, and consume content that informs our lives, making it easier to produce smart data visualizations or more effectively engaging citizens in the creation of news that matters to them.
The result is some savvy content innovations, like “This.,” a platform incubated within the Atlantic and led by the organization’s first entrepreneur-in-residence, Andrew Golis. But tensions between existing workload and constant innovation can be difficult to navigate. Innovation-from-within for media is still a really new concept, and there are some tangles to work out.
One of the most successful experiments in intrapreneurship, or innovation from within, is Curious City, an editorial product that puts the community at the center of content creation. Audience members pose questions to reporters, then vote on stories they’d like to explore. Stories with the most votes are put into production, and the person who submitted the initial question is invited to join the reporting process. Launched in 2012 with WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station, the project has been a resounding success. According to Jennifer Brandel, the founder and senior producer of Curious City, the program is the most “recognizable” weekly series on WBEZ after This American Life and Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!, two nationally syndicated programs.
Curious City is also about to undergo a major evolution. After being replicated at seven other stations with dozens more “waiting in the wings,” Brandel says, she is launching Curious Nation as its own for-profit startup with $110,000 in support from the Association of Independents in Radio’s just-announced New Enterprise Fund, and returning to independent contractor status with WBEZ in January.
In doing so, she will lose some of the benefits of working within an organization like WBEZ. “To get to enter an existing structure in which lots of stuff that isn’t as exciting to spend brain-time on is already in place, like accounting, payroll, infrastructure, IT. It’s a relief,” Brandel says. “And the built-in distribution network of an existing organization means you don’t also need to build your audience from scratch.”
But sometimes, inter-organizational innovation can be bogged in bureaucracy. Determining product ownership is difficult, and quick shifts in strategy can be undercut by top heavy decision-making processes.
While in-house incubators are overall helpful to transforming organizational cultures, there can be setbacks.
Curious Nation’s evolution is a best-case scenario–though Curious City is leaving the nest, Brandel is quick to note that her relationship with WBEZ remains strong, and she says that the station will continue to play a critical role as an anchor partner for Curious Nation, offering monetary and “collegial” support.
Another organization seeking to spark innovation internally is the New York Daily News’ Innovation Lab, which launched just over a year ago. The lab offers select startups seed funding, desk space, and the opportunity to be embedded in the newsroom to develop products with a major client.
David Park, who has the a joint title of director of business development at the New York Daily News and director at the New York Daily News Innovation Lab, says the amount of time he has to dedicate to the Innovation Lab ebbs and flows. “It’s nobody’s full-time thing, so there are also resource constraints.”
“If I have a deadline for my traditional job, that’s where 100 percent of my focus will be. This is something that comes after.” Park describes the structure as being similar to the innovation time that companies like 3M and Google bake into weekly work, though there is no formalized division of time. “Participation varies,” Park says, and “sometimes I’ll spend weekends working on a project.”
Despite the scheduling challenge, Park says the lab has multiple benefits for the organization. It brings great “energy,” and it also helps reframe public perception of the outlet, he says.
“It’s such a breath of fresh air. Truth be told, we’re a company that generates a great deal of traffic, but I don’t know that a lot of people equate us with new media sites that get a ton of buzz,” Park says. “Something like this keeps us definitely relevant in terms of, you know, being a company that does innovative and interesting things.”
An intrapreneur-aligned media company also attracts talent. Park says that the Lab is “a big reason I joined the company. I still get to work a stable job, but at the same time I get to work on these innovative and exciting projects” without the risks of the startup space.
Rather than incubate products from scratch, the Innovation Lab takes a slightly different tack, bringing selected startups inside. Startups must apply and are selected based on needs identified by staff. The first business to join the Innovation Lab, Datavisu.al, was chosen in part because editorial staff were looking for ways to incorporate creative infographics into their regular coverage without having to worry about a steep learning curve.
“It’s an experiment that every publisher should at least consider,” Park says. “I think they’d be surprised with the number of [staff] who would be willing to do it.
Intrapreneurship is an exciting model for other news organizations to implement, one that leading funders and journalism networks are strategically investing in. For funders, investing in innovation within legacy outlets makes a lot of sense. As technologies change, intrapreneurship can help save mission-driven organizations that have broad value to the communities they serve.
Curious City wouldn’t exist without the financial and strategic support of Localore, an initiative of the Association of Independents in Radio that paired dynamic independent producers with public media outlets around the country. Localore sought to bring innovation inside media organizations, and Brandel embodies that spirit. Curious City was also awarded a Knight Prototype grant to make software available to other media organizations. This kind of outside support and guidance is vital to encouraging organizations to innovate while also reducing risks.
Both Park and Brandel are adamant that the innovation-from-within model is critical for legacy media outlets. New generations of consumers will want new means of reading, watching, and loving the media that connects them to the world.
“We all need to be fixing the plane while it’s in mid-flight, all the time, forever and ever or at least until a new kind of equilibrium forms with business, content, and distribution models,” Brandel says. “It’s a good time for those who are comfortable with ambiguity, and imagine it’s torture for those who work better with structure and routine.”
UPDATE: The Daily News Innovation Lab is hosting a series of events focused on the changing new media landscape. The events will feature panels with individuals from the most respected news organizations and the newest disruptive publishers.
The next event will take place on November 19 at 6:00 pm, and will feature senior editors and innovation leaders from the AP, New York Daily News, New York Times, Time, Inc. and Wall Street Journal discussing how new news organizations are shaping the media industry today.
CJR readers can receive 25% off registration (until capacity is reached) by registering here and using the code CJR25. In addition, the first 10 registrants using the code CJRCOMP will receive free admission. This event is expected to sell out, so if you are interested in attending, please register early.Erin Polgreen is the cofounder of Symbolia, a magazine that mixes comic books and journalism. She regularly consults with media outlets and foundations on innovation. Follow her on Twitter @erinpolgreen