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Digital disruption, declines in traditional revenue streams, and multi-front competition: the news media are struggling to survive and, instead of tending to the causes of the disease, many are shouting for a miracle cure or someone to save them from this valley-of-death. The truth is: it will not happen and inactivity will undoubtedly lead to extinction. Annette Novak shares what she’s learned from an innovation engine with world-renowned success...

Three and a half years ago, I left news media for a position as CEO of a Swedish research institute, focused on ICT and design. My first impression was amazement: 50 researchers and developers had managed to create a world that spawned renowned innovations which frequently featured on Time Magazine’s “World’s Best Inventions” list.

Coming from an industry struggling with innovation, I have now spent years trying to understand what the ingredients of an innovative organisation are. I’ve asked myself: what does the research institute do that news media don’t do? So, what are my findings? My conclusion, as a practitioner, of how innovative organisations differ from non-innovative ones, are the following:

1. Leadership: the commander’s transformational intent

The commander’s transformational intent... a publisher once told me: “I cannot ask staff to wade out in the water and start swimming when I do not know if there is land on the other side.” With this leadership style, who is surprised everyone is still on the beach? I believe it is urgent to leave this hesitant approach, to adopt an inspiring leadership style, built on the certitude that if we deliver amazing experiences to the users, they will flock.

“Commander’s intent” is a term originating from military leadership theory: a way for superiors to guide their troops through uncertainty, without losing track of the goal. In brief, you paint a picture of success so strong that each soldier at any given occasion will be able to decide on a course of action that supports the desired development.

The new media world is faster, interactive and immersive – your intent as a digital transformation leader must be to get everyone to explore these opportunities and get everyone to swim.

2. Organisation: Structure creativity

Gone are the days when the newsroom editors had a notion of what the audience wants. To accelerate innovation, there is a need for a solid structure. Ideas do not only come from in-house brainstorming sessions (where the bosses pick which ideas should fly). The right idea might come from the wrong people – you need to invite as many as possible into the processes.

However, that is not enough. For the idea to become innovation you need ideation platforms and implementation processes; analytical methods to evaluate opportunity and risk, and a project organisation capable of developing the idea all the way to implementation.

3. Strategies: Focus your efforts

The other day a middle-manager at a medium-sized regional media group told me: there is no other business where the people who make the tables also must invent the pricing and the business model. She put her finger on the next wound.

Multitasking has a limit – and the news media are way beyond it. Reporters cannot produce quality journalism under the current pressures, which often includes taking on responsibilities to share and promote content online too. When the day-to-day demands are overwhelming, there is no energy left for innovation. If you want certain staff to focus on the future – give them a chance to succeed by indicating what of all their tasks is of lower priority.

4. Culture: The importance of the three F’s – fun, fail & feedback

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a wisdom often attributed to the late management guru Peter Drucker. The latest world news media innovation study results back that up: there is a significant relationship between a company’s innovation culture and the company’s bottom line. No matter what your innovation strategy contains, it will not move beyond a theoretical model without a culture to nurture creativity, without staff who feel empowered and free (“I can experiment”).

News media has for many decades been run by experts. Experts on journalism, experts on running the daily production of newspaper or broadcasts. Hierarchical cultures where you follow line of command. It is more than reasonable: When deadline is close, you just don’t experiment. You need military precision for the production machinery to deliver on time. To succeed with transformation, media managers need to foster a company culture characterised by three F’s:

• Fun: The fuel for creativity is humour and laughter, a great remedy for a negative work environment.

• Fail: You test – and when you realise things don’t work, you iterate until it works; learning from your failures is part of an innovative organisation’s DNA.

• Feedback: The young generation is raised on computer games with instant feedback in the shape of sounds, colours, points and levels for every move they make; they crave knowing if they are doing all right. So, are you telling them – and everyone else?

5. Vision: Something to believe in

Attracting the right competences is top management’s main priority during a transformation era such as the one we are experiencing right now. The fact legacy media might not seem the coolest place to work in is a major threat to senior management’s capacity to deliver on innovation ambitions.

So, how do you attract the talent you need to innovate? Well, surely not by communicating you are a dying business. Instead, there is a tremendous opportunity for legacy media to carry crucial responsibility in democracies globally; without serious, investigative journalism there is mismanagement and corruption. Independent, in-depth coverage of national and international developments are built on verified facts, a population victimized by disinformation – losing trust not only in media but also in the state, its institutions and in each other.

In the post-truth era, there is momentum for legacy media to step up. Be clear on what you deliver. The value proposition is not: more information in attention deficit times. It is: a better world that we build together. Who could not want to work together with you on that?

Anette Novak is a former senior newspaper executive and now CEO of Rise Interactive. As a passionate apostle of transparency, co-creation and the mind-boggling possibilities of open innovation, she has a demonstrated history of leading transformation processes, strategic and operative management, business development, marketing and branding.

This article is an extract from the World News Publishers Outlook 2017 report, published by WAN-IFRA. Read a summary of the report here.

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