Saturday, October 06, 2007

Two faces of innovation

Tim McGuire and Howard Owens doubtless agree on many things about our business – Tim's excellent points about the necessity of value-added journalism, for one – but they're miles apart on the question of innovation and breakthrough thinking.

Tim's speech is available here, and Howard's rebuttal is over here. Tim has always been a big, Beyond The Horizons kind of thinker, and his speech reflects that. Howard's more likely to be found down in the trenches.

Tim's indictment:

Innovation is big, bold and a little nuts. Starting an online website and putting video on it is not innovation. Kicking the stuffing out of old boundaries, now that’s innovation.

Innovation is not safe. Innovation calls for risk. Look at the innovators of the last several years. Google, eBay, Auto Trader, Pay-Pal, Craigslist, Monster and thousand of others. Those innovators did not introduce incremental change, their changes were giant leaps forward.

Look at that list again. Any body missing? You don’t see a newspaper on it. Newspapers have shown themselves incapable of innovation for a couple of reasons: they are risk averse and want to keep the business they have even if it’s not going to grow or perhaps wither away ...

From the rebuttal:

Here’s the rub, and why I think McGuire’s assertions are dangerous: If you believe you can’t innovate, you won’t. And if you believe that innovation takes big blow-out expenses, you will never innovate.

Google was started on two computers in a garage. Craigslist was started by one guy sending out a few e-mails to friends. Yahoo! had the same humble beginnings.

All of these ideas began with an insight on how something might be done better, not with big budgets, bright-light epiphanies, or an understanding how available tools and previous advancements could be used to create a new opportunity.

As soon as you think you can’t do something, you are already defeated.

... If you’re waiting for the publisher to hand you a million dollar check, or for that big break-through thought, you’ll never be an innovator. But if you get busy thinking about what problems need to be solved and what available resources you can use to solve those problems, then you have a chance to make a great contribution to our industry.


  1. We didn't invent printing presses. We didn't invent computers, cameras, film, brick or mortar. But we've put them all to great use in the past few centuries.

    We can innovate without huge influxes of cash. We can innovate with cheap or borrowed video cameras. We can innovate by being mobile and flexible. We, as an industry, have a helluva lot of talent in our newsrooms. Good journalism combined with mobility and flexibility will continue to be our salvation.

    We must not fear innovators. We must simply make use of them as they come along. That is our biggest problem right now. We don't have great search functionality. We don't promote ourselves very well. We act like dinosaurs with new toys.

  2. Ownes seems to be missing the point by saying "...If you’re waiting for the publisher to hand you a million dollar’ll never be an innovator."

    McGuire's point wasn't that Google, eBay, Craigslist, etc. cost a lot of money to get started. Just the opposite: they started very small but it was their THINKING that was radical, and therefore risky.

    And he's right. In the last decade, maybe more, newspapers have mostly been followers when it's come to new ways of thinking about information.