Finding time to innovate

Just about every newspaper in North America has experienced staff cuts, buyouts or a hiring freeze. Editorial staff has been cut to extreme levels in some cases, reducing morale as well as (in many cases) hurting the quality of the product.

So it’s going to sound crazy if I suggest that newsroom staffers be given 10 percent of their paid time to work on their own projects.

The BBC has done this. The idea comes from Google (and maybe other technology companies; I don’t know), which gives its engineers 20 percent time to work on projects that are not part of their assigned job duties.

Switching teams at Google is a very fluid process. An engineer can be 40% on one project, 40% on something completely different and 20% on his or her own thing. That mix can be adjusted as project requirements change. Switching groups should also not have an affect on your annual review score because of arbitrary team politics. Joining a new group is more about find a good mutual fit then going through HR and a formal interview loop. When there is an important project that needs to be staffed the groups and execs will evangelize that need and someone who is interested is bound to step up.

Google Mail resulted from one engineer’s “20 percent time” work. A 2005 Business 2.0 article said: “Virtually everything new [at Google] seems to come from the 20 percent of their time engineers here are expected to spend on side projects. They certainly don’t come out of the management team.”

I admit, I have a hard time imagining that this would work in any newsroom I’ve ever seen or heard about.

But what a great idea, eh? I can easily imagine how the results could be wonderful for the end product.

24 Comments on “Finding time to innovate

  1. Sounds great, the advantage of having a bloated taxpayer-funded budget to pay staff I suppose. Unlikely to happen in the private sector – if they could afford to lose 10 per cent of their staff work time, they would probably already have axed 10 per cent of their staff.

  2. Google isn’t a bloated taxpayer-funded company. And look what it’s done for them.

  3. I think the efforts made by The Economist last year to make Innovation in project Red Stripe are interesting in this context. They found innovation was not easily invented, less still manufactured. I think the theory of Mindy’s idea is good. Far-sighted managers will implement it, the trouble is in finding the far-sighted manager who will allow you to innovate*.

    *This involves making mistakes

  4. It wouldn’t work, mainly because newspapers have hired the wrong people and pushed the wrong philosophies for decades. They’ve relied on intimidation rather than intelligence, and you don’t get innovation from people who are intimidated into silence. (Or from the 98 percent of the journalists who cower under their desks while reading SND manuals or thinking they’re the next Royko.)

    Plus, you have the designer millstones; just thinking about them spending 10 percent more of their time obsessing about rule lines and cutouts is truly a scary thought.

    Newsrooms have to get out of the 19th century before they can move into the 21st century. That can’t happen with bad hires, gutless MEs, cowering CEs and design dolts.

  5. Things that have emerged in recent years that probably started out as the side projects of online news folks working at newspapers in the U.S.:

    Django.

    Ellington.

    ChicagoCrime.org.

    Politifact.

    Soundslides.

    Not that bad a track record, really.

    My advice? Stop worrying about your managers and just start doing innovative work on your own. When you show them your prototype, they’ll want to see more.

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  7. The idea is great, and what’s why it will never happen.

    What’s the last great idea that has come out of a newspaper?

    I’ll be waiting here for awhile.

    Wenalway – I agree with a lot of what you said. Even if newspapers had enough staff to do 10% time, they don’t have the innovative mindset. It’s all about the “daily miracle.” There is also far too much politics going on in newsrooms. If you look at the average newsroom, it’s no wonder most don’t innovate.

    And that’s why newspapers and journalists are so reluctant to change. They just have never been innovators.

  8. Ryan,

    Django, Ellington and ChicagoCrime.com are all Holovaty projects. How many of him are sitting around? Adrian has more than enough programming talent to work in other industries.

    Politifact was made with Django, and I doubt that site would have been made with Rails. But it’s a cool site nonetheless.

    I’ve never used Soundslides under OS X, but it is not a good program under XP. But I like the concept.

    Most of the innovation you mentioned is rooted in one paper, The Lawrence Journal World. It’s not like journalists everywhere are innovating.

  9. Even if Django, Ellington and ChicagoCrime.org all involved (or sprang from the mind of) Adrian Holovaty and LJWorld, there’s plenty to be learned from the model. Holovaty said in a recent interview that he switched from PHP to Python when PHP didn’t cut it. And LJWorld let him try that out. Maybe it’s just a matter of editors and managers having confidence in their people.

    I lean toward Ryan’s view on this: Try stuff out on your own. Play with whatever toys you have. Smart editors will eventually catch on. I hope.

  10. @Pat – I’m sure that Adrian would be quick to point out that Django and Ellington involved a team of developers and designers employed at LJWorld. 😉

    And yet there they were at a newspaper, building useful/innovative products because what they had wasn’t good enough to get the job done.

    I’m pretty sure there are more than a few folks who would differ on your review of Soundslides, and given its widespread adoption, I’d say it’s a pretty big success story.

    There’s innovative work going on all over the place – Nashua (Twitter), San Jose (Multimedia), San Antonio (Video), Greensboro (Reader blogs), Roanoke (Multimedia), Norfolk (Video), Portland, Orlando, the list goes on.

    This stuff doesn’t come out of the blue – there are talented producers or editors or coders making it happen.

  11. @Mindy “Google isn’t a bloated taxpayer-funded company. And look what it’s done for them.”

    Yeah that’s probably why Google does better than most companies. Not saying it can’t be done, just that the attitude of most companies, especially traditional media ones, towards investing money into the future means it probably won’t. Which is a shame.

  12. @Tom: If newspapers want to survive as news organizations, they have got to start innovating. If the problem is that you can’t change your people, then change your people. And I do mean management. Top management, if necessary.

    @Matt Buck: Yes, risk means failure. People have to be allowed to, encouraged to, fail. Fail early and often. Rapid, frequent failure leads to innovation. Nothing else does, as far as I know.

    @Pat: I use Soundslides on Windows XP and OS X. I have taught dozens of students to use it. They learn it in 5 minutes and can do well at it by the second project (many do fine on the first project). It’s one of the most satisfying software tools I have ever used and taught.

  13. Mindy,

    My main complaint with Soundslides is its buggyness. It crashes a lot, and it doesn’t follow XP user interface guidelines. It doesn’t behave like a Windows program should, which I find annoying and strange.

    I believe Soundslides was originally written for OS X, so that explains many of its XP issues. I’ll have to download a trial on OS X to see how it works before passing more judgment.

    I have not tried Soundslides Plus, so I don’t know if it behaves better and how much better the program is with the added functionality.

    My other issue is with how it functions. I haven’t found out how to turn off the feature where when you change the length of one photo, it changes the length of the photo next to it. Soundslides is easy to use, but in a lot of ways I find Flash less annoying to use.

    I’ll have to try Soundslides Plus, especially under OS X.

  14. Hear, hear from a new reader!

    I fear commenters #4 and #5 will be proved right–heck, I worked at a newspaper so fearful of innovation that it wouldn’t even let a crime reporter take half a day (on a slow news day!) to write a fun piece of fluff about a local statue.

    We have to get past that before we can get to the project-level of innovation you’re talking about, not to mention innovation on an ideological level.

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  17. A history of newspaper innovation would include a few big events and a lot of small steps. Somewhere between offset printing and USA Today there were a few. Some newspapers were early adopters of bulletin boards and interactive text services, perhaps too far ahead of their time. The rise of free metro dailies like Red Eye and Dallas Quick are not quite as revolutionary as USA Today but still bold. Then there was Cue Cat.

    Newspapers seem to be on an awkward scale. National chains but local in focus. Too big to be two guys in a garage with nothing to lose, but too narrow to think of creating ESPN.

    On an individual scale, maybe innovation is like the Bob Woodward quote, “All good work is done in defiance of management.” In the case of USA Today, it was one large-egoed tycoon who defied the industry.

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  19. @ Mindy and Amy.
    Agree re having the space to fail in innovation. Google has got a lot wrong over the years but it does keep trying new things – a most admirable quality to me. This is a print media story, but I think it has some relevance because of the innovative thinking, look at the Raleigh N+O boosting its comics section rather than reducing it – look at the consequent reader response. All they have done is do something counter-intuitive to the prevailing economic orthodoxy. Sounds easy right, well, why isn’t everyone one else doing it? Thinking creatively – and simply, is hard. Inside an organisation, newspaper, broadcaster, whatever, this requires patrons to allow the creative ideas to come up through the hierachy. This is rare in my experience. The digital wave is a great opportunity to secure some of this patronage for those of us who care about how information is made and diseminated. We have an opportunity to try and seize the chances it offers*.

    * And beat all the attendant problems at the same time 🙂

  20. I just used my 10 percent to read the comments on this blog… 🙂

    An old-time reporter once told me to quit complaining about all the work my editors were piling on. He said — and I think he was right — that if I were truly interested in a subject, I could write/develop/code on company time, that I could get the “must” work done by lunch time and spend the afternoon on “want” work. That’s a riff, I suppose, on Woodward’s quote above (“All good work is done in defiance of management.”)

  21. @Jack: Thanks — I think you’ve made a great point. I know I wasted a certain amount of time most days in the newsroom. I think all white-collar workers do. So instead of doing the crossword or checking your fantasy football, that’s the time you could use to follow your bliss — work on some journalism that you really care about, under the radar.

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