The innovation race

I had breakfast this morning with the leadership of TimesOnline.co.uk talking about innovation and the subject was the same yesterday morning at breakfast with the Project Red Stripe team at the Economist: six people — from editorial, classified, marketing, data sales, technology — who have been given six months, $200,000, and the freedom to use any content from any Economist property to come up with something new for the magapaper. They made it onto the team by applying and sharing their ideas. Their only instructions: to make it innovative and put it on the web. They say they will know they have succeeded when they present their big idea and get someone saying, “I don’t get this at all.”

I am hearing the smart people in media — those who do get it — talking urgently about innovation. It’s almost to the point where that is the thing the most value, that is the commodity over which they are competing (but, thank goodness, there is no scarcity at work here). I don’t hear them talking as much about getting another new print subscriber — so much for that — as I hear them racing for innovation ahead of the other guys.

The Project Red Stripe team and I started off with a debate about blogging. The Economist is blogging but, in Economist tradition, they are doing so anonymously. I said this is a clash of orthodoxies. Blogs are conversations with people. The irony is that the other side of this debate came from the guy who got on this team by pushing blogging and who acts as the team blogger, Tom Shelley. He defends the Economist voice as a human voice of its own. Fun discussion. We talked about community and they raised provocative, Economistian questions about the fragility of communities and the value. And more.

Afterwards, I questioned Alan Rusbridger and Carolyn McCall of the Guardian in front of the Online Publishers Association about the pace and culture of change. I asked Alan whether he is more worried about changing too much or too little. No doubt, he said, he worried about changing too little. But read his principles again; he is not changing to throw out the value of journalism but to preserve and advance it. At this morning’s OPA, I got into the predictable, well-rehearsed conference tussle with Martin Nisenholtz of The Times — we should take the show on the road — about blogs and MSM, but what it really was about was centralized architecture (the value of coming to The Times, what I now call the Yahoo model) vs. decentralized, distributed structure (going to where the people are; the Google model). The question is how the fundamental model, the architecture of media and information is changing. It’s important to keep in mind that change should not be sought for change’s sake. Nor innovation. But the only way to change successfully as the world changes around us is to innovate. Thus the race.

What makes a week in London so damned exciting for me — professionally and intellectually invigorating — is the competitive race for innovation I see all around here. It has been a great week.

: LATER: Demonstrating the point, Shane Richmond of the Telegraph — with whom I breakfasted three days ago (video when I get near good bandwidth) — notes Rusbridger’s speech about shifting the Guardian to 27/7 preeminent-web journalism and argues that they got there first:

The Guardian will be following us into integration. . . . Alan Rusbridger’s statement to staff yesterday contained the ‘draft principles of 24/7 working’. Almost all of them are already in practice here, where we work on a ‘web first’ basis.

It amused me. These guys are all rushing to innovate first. That is healthy for newspapering, for no matter who brags about starting it, good ideas are good ideas and if someone does it first others will quickly follow. And as I said above, innovation is not a scarce resource. So have at it. If we’re smart in America, we’ll watch and copy, too.

: LATER STILL: Just got a link from the Economist Red Stripe team to their invitation to submit ideas to them. That openness is smart. The pity is that the damned lawyers got to them with dreaded terms & conditions, which makes it quite unappetizing to submit things to them on their form, giving up rights and your first born. I’d suggest that a better way to share is openly on your own blog, which they are free to read and to use as inspiration and should still — as they will with their form — give credit where it is due. Indeed, if the idea is open, so will the discussion be and any good idea can get even better. If you want to innovate, follow Shakespeare’s advice: Kill the lawyers first.

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  • shawnpetriw

    “…Rusbridger’s speech about shifting the Guardian to 27/7 preeminent-web journalism…”

    Wow – 27/7 news – now THAT’s innovation!

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  • http://www.fedoralreserve.wordpress.com Tom Shelley

    Thanks for that Jeff, now I’m being called the old man of The Economist ;-). Right, next week its going to be nothing but microformat data mashups and extreme behavoural aggregation. I’ll only use nouns that begin with hyper and do on the fly abbreviation (OTFA), then I’ll PMSMC (prove my social media credentials).

  • Tansley

    The really interesting part of this, to me, was your dance with Nisenholtz regarding centralized architecture vs. distributed structure…probably because of the political implications. The Yahoo model (portal) makes it easy to ‘gather all the loose ends’ into one venue – a convenience tool for those wishing to put forth an agenda to a fixed demographic. The Google model allows for rapid dissemination of data over a demographic spread – putting the word out quickly to anybody and everybody who might stumble across it. It would be difficult for me to pick which one was preferable, when I can advantages and disadvantages to either…

  • http://deleted Tansley

    opsit: when I can SEE adv. & disadv. to either…

  • http://www.innovationjournalism.org/blog David N

    I was very happy to see this story, it is well written. Here is a thought: Innovation is the greatest story within journalism today – that’s what the news industry people ponder upon and discuss between themselves. But it is the same for all people in all other industries! So why are innovation processes not better covered in news stories? A theory: innovation processes crosses traditional newsbeats, it is a mix of technology, business, politics, legal issues etc. It can be tricky to sort such a story into a news category, and the question is which section editor should handle it. If the story in this blog was to be printed in a newspaper, which editor would be responsible for it, which page would it be published on? Are the news rooms organized to cover innovation issues?

    Innovation and journalism is something we are addressing in the innovation journalism program: http://www.innovationjournalism.org

  • http://www.hammer2006.blogspot.com Alex Hammer

    Investment without sound principles is a waste. Actually, it is only an investment if there is a positive ROI. Otherwise it is only an expenditure.

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  • http://ronshewchuk.blogs.com/ Ron Shewchuk

    It’s interesting that print journalism is going through this now, while in the corporate world so many organizations completely abandoned print years ago, only to find that online channels just don’t reach employees as effectively as print publications.

    If there’s anything to learn from the corporate experience is you shouldn’t ever completely abandon one medium for another. I hope these publications don’t starve their print arms to death while they divert all their energy to enhancing their online activities. The thing that will ultimately kill a publication is not a competing technology, but that the content becomes irrelevant and boring.

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  • http://aqualung.typepad.com/aqualung Ric

    “I’d suggest that a better way to share is openly on your own blog, which they are free to read and to use as inspiration and should still” … how about a “redstripe” tag for del.icio.us etc.? – make it easier for them …

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  • http://kempton.ideasRevolution.com Kempton

    I was initially happy to see PRS up and running until I read the March 14th posting “Ideas from the ether” by Stewart Robinson. I have yet seen a crowdsourcing project trying hard to laugh at the crowd. True, some of the comments/suggestions/ideas were abusive and not constructive but why focus of the bad stuff and not share the good stuff.

    I have a longer post here for those that are interested. I hope my comments are not offensive enough to be deleted from here (like it seemed to have happen at PRS blog site).

    Thanks for your indulgence. Here is my more detailed critique on the PRS posting “Ideas from the ether”,

    http://kempton.wordpress.com/2007/03/17/the-economists-project-red-stripe-what-were-they-thinking/

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