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Why innovation is so hard for the news industry

It's the deadlines, stupid.

"Because of the pressures of news – you can’t have dead air or blank pages – so much of your focus and time spend is on today that you don’t have much time to think about tomorrow," said professor Robert Picard in a recent, in-depth interview I did with him. The interview, for this magazine, is not online, but this was one of the quotes that really stuck with me.

The question of why the media industry is so slow to adapt to change has been on my mind for many years - I mean, being flexible and thriving in the face of change were things we were taught were prerequisites for a journalism careeer as early as high school - and I have several more or less finished blog posts on this sitting on my desktop. Sadly, what was true in 2006 or 2008 is still pretty much true, and I might still return to some of my earlier unpublished musings on this later, but this quote really brings home one of the obvious issues at work.

I won't try to pretend that I'm immune to that sort of behaviour myself, though I would like to think that I've learnt from early mistakes. Take blogging for instance, in December 2002 a friend told me about "how blogs would turn the world upside down" (this was at the time of the infamous Trent Lott affair), and started reading blogs at the time, I even read books on blogging such as Cluetrain, but kept blaming my deadlines for why I couldn't possibly blog myself until a friend set up a blog for me (this blog, incidentally) in September 2005 and told me to get going. Since I soon saw my mistake in not taking up blogging sooner I've been extra careful since to pay more attention to, and get to grips with, emerging technology and trends.

But back to that Picard interview. While writing my contribution to "Playing Footsie with the FTSE? The great crash of 2008 and the crisis in journalism", I was reminded of how the media always has been much better at covering events than process and trends, and the often short term focus of the newsroom due to institutional constraints and bad planning. Could it be that even though we complain about how politicians seem unable to think further ahead than the next election, they're still masters of long term vision compared journalists who're unable to think beyond next deadline? And media executives?

"The only people who are worse than journalists when it comes to short term vision is media executives who never seem to be able to think further than the next quarter," said Picard, who didn't have much faith in journalism school on this point either: "I don’t hold my breath for journalism education because journalism professors are not the most creative types and rarely make innovation and entrepeneurialism a priority."

Still, compared to when he lectured on "The Future of News" in Oslo last year (these quotes are not from the lecture, but from my interview with him after the talk), Picard was more moderate, not quite as controversial, this year, a fact he explained by saying that media "companies are not so much in denial as last year, so I don't need to hit quite so hard to make them wake up."


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