People in news don’t generally think of innovation as their job. It’s that old CP Snow thing of the two cultures, where innovation sits on the science not the arts side. I had my own experience of this at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Washington a couple of months ago.

After one of the sessions I spotted an editor whose newspaper had adopted hNews (the Knight-funded news metadata standard we developed with the AP). “How’s it going?” I asked him. “Is it helping your online search? Are you using it to mark up your archive?”

Before I had even finished the editor was jotting something down on his notepad. “Here,” he said, “Call this guy. He’s our technical director — he’ll be able to help you out.”

Technology and innovation still remain, for most editors, something the techies do.

So it’s not that surprising that over much of the last decade, innovation in news has been happening outside the news industry. In news aggregation, the work of filtering and providing context has been done by Google News, YouTube, Digg, Reddit, NowPublic, Demotix and Wikipedia…I could go on. In community engagement, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter led the way. In news-related services (the ones that tend to earn money) it has been Craigslist, Google AdWords and now mobile services like Foursquare.

Rather than trying to innovate themselves, many news organisations have chosen instead to gripe from the sidelines. Rupert Murdoch called Google a “thief” and a “parasite.” The U.K.‘s Daily Mail has published stories about how using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer,, referred to someone as a “Facebook killer” (as in murderer), and runs scare stories about Facebook and child safety. And let’s not even start to take apart various news commentators’ dismissive attitude towards Twitter.

When they have seen the value of innovation, news organizations have tended to try and buy it in rather than do it themselves, with decidedly mixed results. Murdoch’s purchase of MySpace initially looked very smart, but now, as John Naughton wrote over the weekend, it “is beginning to look like a liability.” The AOL /Time Warner mashup never worked. Associated Newspapers in the U.K. have done slightly better by making smaller investments in classified sites.

Most news organisations do not see innovation as a critical element of what they do. This is not that unexpected since they spend their day jobs gathering and publishing news. Unfortunately for them, if it doesn’t become more central to their DNA they are liable to become extinct.

Speed and Unpredictability of Innovation

At last week’s Guardian Activate Summit, Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, was asked what kept him awake at nights. “Almost all deaths in the IT industry are self-inflicted,” Schmidt said. “Large-scale companies make mistakes because they don’t continue to innovate.”

Schmidt does not need to look far to see how quickly startups can rise and fall. Bebo was started in 2005, was bought by AOL in 2008 for $850 million, and then was sold again this month to Criterion Capital for a fee reported to be under $10 million.

The problem for Schmidt — and one that is even more acute for news organizations — is the increasing speed and unpredictability of innovation. “I’m surprised at how random the future has become,” Clay Shirky said at the same Activate summit, meaning that the breadth of participation in the digital economy is now so wide that innovation can come from almost anyone, anywhere.

As an example he cited Ushahidi, a service built by two young guys in Kenya to map violence following the election in early 2008 that has now become a platform that “allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline.” It has been used in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Pakistan, Gaza, Haiti and in the U.S.

He might also have cited Mendeley, a company which aims to organize the world’s academic research papers online. Though only 16 months old, the service already has over 29 million documents in its library, and is used by over 10,000 institutions and over 400,000 people. It won a prize at Activate for the startup “most likely to change the world for the better.”

The tools to innovate are much more widely available than they were. Meaning a good idea could be conceived in Nairobi, Bangalore or Vilnius, and also developed and launched there too, and then spread across the world. “The future is harder to predict,” Shirky said, “but easier to see.”

That’s why Google gives one day a week to its employees to work on an innovation of their choice (Google News famously emerged from one employee’s hobby project). It is why foundations like Knight have recognized the value of competition to innovation. And it’s why Facebook will only enjoy a spell at the peak.

Some Exceptions

There are exceptions in the news industry. The New York Times now has an R&D department, has taken the leap towards linked data, and published its whole archive in reusable RDF. The Guardian innovated with Comment is Free, its Open platform, and the Guardian Data Store. The BBC developed the iPlayer.

The Daily Telegraph had a go, setting up “Euston Partners” under then editor Will Lewis. (Although setting up an innovation center three miles away from the main office did not suggest it was seen as central to the future of the business.) The project was brought back in-house shortly after Lewis left the Telegraph in May 2010 and has been renamed the “Digital Futures Division.”

But mostly people in news don’t really do innovation. They’re too focused on generating content. But as the Knight Foundation has recognized, doing news in the same old way not only doesn’t pay — it doesn’t even solve the democratic problems many of those in news are so rightly concerned about. For some people FixMyStreet.com or its U.S. equivalent SeeClickFix is now more likely to give them a direct relationship with their council than the local newspaper.

News and media organizations have to realize that they are in the communications business, and being in that business means helping people to communicate. Giving them news to talk about is a big part of this, but it’s not the only part. The sooner they realize this and start to innovate, the better chance they have of surviving the next couple of decades.

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