Why Not Innovate?
December 30, 2013
Mike Williams

Why do journalists and those who teach them struggle with innovation? It wasn’t that long ago we all thought pagination was about “five years away” and then before we started teaching about it, we found it was already common in most newsrooms. Citizen journalism, social media, digital-first and so many other trends and terms have become part of the profession we research and prepare students to enter. Yet many schools are still gnashing about how to include these common media events in their curriculum. To remain relevant, we need to embrace innovation as the important part of journalism it has become.

Several semesters ago, I launched our school’s first media innovation course. Beyond exploration of trends in the media, we spent much of the semester looking at how other industries embrace innovative thinking and application of the ideas it creates. Projects through the semester led to capstone-level outcomes blending business, technology and communication strategies. We didn’t invent the next Facebook, but the students walked away with ideas their future employers might implement and knowledge that will make each of them more valuable in whatever environment the media world becomes.

A book I relied on for many ideas throughout the course was “The Innovation Expedition – A Visual Toolkit to Start Innovation,” by Gijs Van Wulfen (BIS Publishers, ISBN 978 90 6369 313 8). A central point of the book identifies reasons we struggle with innovation which are as numerous as the reasons people avoid change. The size and scope of the list can often be reason enough for many to avoid innovation all together.

To move my students (and colleagues) forward, I simplified the information from the book into three important “P’s” – People, Possibilities, Process – each “P” serving as a category of excuses for lack of innovation AND as a group of opportunities for creating a rich environment for innovation.

People – If successful, innovation is seldom a solitary event. We need the support of others as we question our motivations for change, our ability to think creatively and our presentation of a clear vision of where we can go. Despite the presence of very intelligent people, higher education — like professional journalism — is often a change-averse environment where those around us are more comfortable with the status quo or the task of changing operations is too daunting. Too many of our colleagues think clutching the past more tightly will prevent the obvious changes happening around us from directly affecting our personal slice of the profession.

To create a new culture of innovation in the classroom and newsroom, a critical mass of innovation instigators must become the catalyst for a broad exploration of new ideas and opportunities. This usually requires one or two people who are not afraid to operate in that Venn overlap zone between conventional and extraordinary. As this team evolves, inclusion of others’ ideas and insights will be critical to the development of a new tradition of innovative practice.

Possibilities – The greatest joy found by most innovators is in the development of the ideas that can be pursued as realistic possibilities. In some ways this aspect of innovation should be easiest and most attractive to our fellow academics and journalists. We, by nature, are an inquisitive, problem solving group who see the task of organizing thoughts as a creative challenge. We look for problems to solve and the satisfaction we receive from our work is the definition and then solution of a problem.

Education is now facing many of the same digital challenges the media world has worked through during the past decade. Both environments are about sharing information and this similarity provides a fertile space for exploring new possibilities for communication. To expand awareness of the possibilities that exist and allow discovery of new ideas, we often must get rid of the old ideas that clutter our thinking.

The creation of innovative possibilities requires a willingness to break free of old thought patterns and developing new insights. This challenges us to be willing to try new things, to fail and learn, and to establish a nimble process for taking in information, making sense of it and generating new possibilities for success.

Process –
As any innovation concept gathers steam, we will be confronted with the challenge of implementing a process for moving from uncertainty to application of the new scheme. This process demands attention to detail while forfeiting the security of past procedures.

Effective innovation requires more than an idea. We must take the idea, explore the environment it will affect, develop ways to improve it at implementation, assess its success and make modifications moving into the future. Wulfen’s book uses the metaphor of an expedition to outline the innovative process. Acknowledging the importance of preparedness on any successful expedition, his innovation process includes the following steps:

1. Determine a concrete goal. Establish an interdisciplinary team. Purge old ideas. Identify audience needs.
2. Explore trends and technologies available or needed. Where will resistance come from? How will inspiration happen?
3. Brainstorm new ideas. Quantity is as important as quality at this point of the process.
4. Test ideas. Modify ideas, Test again.
5. Bring the process to conclusion with three to five ideas worth pursuing.

Like this overview of an innovation process, this column will provide an environment for idea generation and sharing among colleagues in the media professions who recognize our shared need to look forward before our reliance on the past overtakes us.

Please feel free to share your ideas for “P’s” that will make journalism innovation successful.


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