Media Innovation Means Permanent Questioning of Own Position

Media Innovation Means Permanent Questioning of Own Position

Media Innovation Means Permanent Questioning of Own Position

To understand media innovation we have to understand what concepts and ideas of communication in societies and plans for media businesses are behind doing something new with media and technology, says media expert Andy Kaltenbrunner.

Photo: Andy Kaltenbrunner

Political scientist, PhD, co-founder and director of the research centre Medienhaus Wien, Andy Kaltenbrunner, after a career in journalism, is now a media advisor, researcher and visiting professor at universities and academies in Europe and the USA. He developed various educational projects such as the executive MA programme “International Media Innovation Management” at Deutsche Universität für Weiterbildung Berlin.

As director of MA program on media innovation you had the opportunity to visit media in several countries in Europe and the U.S. and learn about their approach to innovation. What is media innovation today?

Media innovation can be both a buzzword and a strategic concept. Several years ago we designed a new MA program for experienced media executives from all over the world. We considered permanent “media innovation” as a must for media and journalism due to digitalization and the internet-revolution. Such innovation means very practical projects, but it is solidly based on theory of mass-communication and research in all relevant areas that are media-related.

Meanwhile the term “innovation” is often used as the magic word when there is no research and development activity, but CEOs and editor-in-chiefs have to show their stakeholders and shareholders that they have had some ideas in the morning how legacy media houses might survive. This kind of “innovation” is idle talk. Real innovation is not just one splendid inventor’s idea under the shower or in the garage. Media innovation is manifold and we have to ask and see what need of the society it meets and what it is used for. This is not new: Just think of the unbelievable revolutionary interactive potential of radio a hundred years ago. Authoritarian politics reduced radio’s early blasting power for mass communication soon to narrow-band receiver´s technological limits. Radio became the most powerful tool (but finally limited to the role of a receiver) for perfect propaganda with the German “Volksempfänger”. Was this innovation?

It took many decades after WW II and the cold war to find new interactive potential with the World Wide Web and in the 21st century with new social media tools - but again not in all countries and societies.  We must remember now: The Internet is no education program, Twitter per se does not organize revolution against dictators – but how we make use of it might have that power. Media innovation is no self-explanatory concept. We have to understand what concepts and ideas of communication in societies and plans for media businesses are behind doing something new with media and technology.

Could you identify trends in contemporary media innovation and give us some particularly interesting examples?

Let me try a brief, schematic approach describing three major developments that have consistently changed media and journalism and, thus, have newly defined its occupational fields:

The technical changes brought about by the internet and digitalization, with their convergence consequences on all levels of the production process, have most of all changed the picture. Of course, Google is a revolution which two decades ago we loved for the idea that it might bring more and more knowledge and wisdom to everybody´s screen. Around the year 2000 we were clearly worried that Google (and other search engines) would not be able to survive with a project that needed more and more technical infrastructure for its enormous data collection, without charging for its worldwide search service and without clear business strategy. Today we know: (Big) data is the big topic. And Google a super-rich company with a value of some 500 billion dollars only 18 years after its foundation.

Talking about trends, all who can now give sense to data will be the next winners, not only Google. Young start-ups who know how to use and how to present data;  legacy media, big or small, like the New York Times or the Guardian if they can use their brand and journalistic credibility to work with data on all available channels. Talking about recent technical trends, I would follow the yearly Digital News Report of the Oxford/Reuters Institute: in the next years mobile and video production will be growing fast due to broadband development and because of new devices, driven by growing users’ skills and needs.  Just one out of many examples that show the trend: 2015 was the year when the “summer-interview” with the German chancellor Angela Merkel on the YouTube channel of the German video-blogger LeFloid had more than 4 million views, which was more than the “summer-interview” of the biggest public broadcaster ARD with Merkel. From a journalistic standpoint LeFloid’s questions were not journalistic, while the ARD’s were rather boring. Nonetheless, this shows us that the space is open for all kinds of new journalism coming from old and new producers. I personally like projects on the web with an old fashioned journalism approach - with good digital storytelling and long-form narratives. To mention just one example again: the NYC start-up does a good job.

Secondly we see considerable shifts in the advertising and audience markets, shifts that have been eroding the legacy media business models and their investment in journalism. New models evolve. Examples again: the crowdfunded in the Netherlands seems to have become sustainable with its business model built on community loyalty. In Spain, started an independent website in autumn 2015 with a huge number of supporters who are obviously hoping for better and more independent journalism. In some cases paywall models finally work for legacy news media – not only for the New York Times (that reached 1 million digital subscribers last year).

New innovative marketers for journalistic content, such as “Blendle”, with already several hundred contributors from different countries, made a promising start with selling content of premium brands online.  And of course we see market shifts also in the TV market: Netflix is successful as producer and distributor. We may like it or not, but it has many innovative aspect in production, marketing – and content. The trend in TV again might be how audiences are integrated - via second screen, social media, web documentaries, where content is treated together with the viewers who then become producers. This would also be a logical answer of traditional (and especially public) broadcasters to the new challenge: involve your loyal audiences and hereby integrate the next generation in non-linear TV - a few have started with it, such as Arte, BBC, RTVE innovation lab.

The third big question will be the general alteration of the sociopolitical agenda in the context of international, digital network conditions, and its effects on general legislative and regulatory condition. In turn this impacts journalistic activity. Yet, this is even more difficult to predict. In general we might say that today’s European media policy is not very innovation- friendly. At the same time, when national media regulation in the EU usually puts strong restrictions on legacy media and on new entrepreneurial projects it finds no general way how to deal with the big disruptors and supranational competitors such as Google, Facebook, Apple. Market failure in innovation often is the result of this outage of political decision-making. Just remember the tax disparity when the biggest international media-players take an enormous amount of ad-money out of national markets and are supported in their tax evasion by other European countries, such as Luxemburg, where they do not have much more than a letterbox and low taxes. This is of course a distortion of competition and innovation prohibitive.

What are the organizations you are familiar with doing right in terms of innovation? In other words - what factors of success are common to them?

Funding and public support for media infrastructure is crucial for media innovation.

Let me very briefly present cases. The New York Times completely questioned itself in its “Innovation Report”. This is the right approach. The Guardian re-invented itself since a decade ago, taking enormous risks. This made a small, once regional English paper an international digital player in news. This is a fascinating case of change management driven by strong convincing leaders as Alan Rusbridger. The Danish broadcaster DR is a good role model of how public media service is still needed and successful. They integrated all available digital news channels intelligently in one newsroom.

New media like Politico show us that there is still a niche for re-financing hard news and background stories if you invest time, good money with good journalists in the right places. In many regions of Europe we can find quite profitable examples of media houses still producing newspapers, but also good websites, apps, radio and TV. Their success story is based on strong local and regional commitment and knowledge.

Why are some news organisations more innovative than others?

This is exactly the question the British-Swiss researcher and media economy professor Lucy Küng has been asking for many years in her work and this is the issue she teaches our students at the MA in Media Innovation Management. Most recently she did in-depth case studies of the Guardian, the New York Times, Quartz, Buzzfeed and Vice to understand what makes them tick and move forward. She did it in her new book “Innovators in Digital News”. From this book we can learn a lot and I can follow many of Lucy´s conclusions: one key point is that future-minded media organisations know (better than others) what they really want to do, which audience they serve – and what the audience needs.

Media innovation means permanent questioning of the own position. But for this you have to have a clear position first.

“What problem do you solve?” is usually the first question of our great colleague Bill Mitchell from the Poynter Institute when working with our executive Media Innovation Master students. Another thing - according to Lucy Küng´s analysis, what good media organisations have in common is that they know how to set priorities and boundaries. Simple, straightforward strategies speed up decision-making. As an advisor of media-companies myself I like projects where the CEO has some old fashioned cardinal virtue of strategic thinkers: he or she can define the position, the plan and the perspective in a very few sentences – but then is also willing to challenge the system and the staff permanently with dialectic thinking in thesis and anti-thesis. That helps when course-correction is needed. Media innovation means permanent questioning of the own position. But for this you have to have a clear position first.

How can untapped creativity in teams and individuals be unleashed?

Give individuals and the team as much space as possible to grow with only an absolute minimum of mandatory rules.

This needs an atmosphere without fear. We usually say that company culture in the USA allows making mistakes. This “fail with a smile” idea is partly true. It suggests that creative people who make mistakes are better developers because they will not repeat them. Whereas in Europe in such cases of innovation failure you are often called a loser and rarely there is an immediate second chance. Of course, this kills creativity and the interest in any experiment. When working with teams on new projects I try to adopt a concept from education sciences which goes as follows: give individuals and the team as much space as possible to grow with only an absolute minimum of mandatory rules. But those are strictly binding then. And then let them move forward step by step as they can and as they want.  I just recently learned that tech-developers would call that “agile project-management” nowadays.

How big a role does financial health of the market and the availability of funding for experimentation play in innovation and success in the digital world? Media in the Western Balkans are struggling to survive financially in unsound markets, their employees are struggling with low wages and I am wondering how much room that leaves for innovation and success? How do you see the prospects for quality journalism, including investigative journalism, to survive and develop in such a market?

As I mentioned earlier: especially in Europe failures of media markets often are the result of policy failure. When Al Gore as the US vice president in the 1990s talked about huge US investment in the ”information highway”, most Europeans were still wondering what this World Wide Web is. But funding and public support for media infrastructure is crucial for media innovation. If we see quality journalism as crucial for democracy then society has to invest in it. Of course, this is a tightrope walk: public money for private (and public) media should not influence press freedom and journalists’ work. Unfortunately, this is not so clear especially in Central, Southern and Eastern Europe, we have to confess. We see, of course, very different media cultures when it comes to funding of journalism. In the USA and Great Britain we have the tradition of private foundations that support journalism development, such as the Scott Trust which is behind the Guardian; the Poynter Institute or the Nieman Foundation at Harvard that help with research, journalism training and all kinds of digital innovation. We will see now if and how Google´s Digital News Initiative is an open concept for supporting journalism or rather a calmative agent for media houses and lawmakers under pressure.  

In Scandinavia and countries such as Austria and Switzerland we had a long tradition of national press subsidies with the idea of supporting pluralism in the newspaper markets – but those have become too old fashioned instruments and do not support any innovation. Especially in many Southern and Eastern European countries public subsidies and advertising money for media means a very strong grip of the government on the media. I am not too optimistic that this money will help critical, investigative journalism. But politics everywhere has to be kept accountable for building and supporting good media infrastructure, giving its citizens the best possible access to information. If civil society is not yet ready to fully finance independent journalism, this has to be supported by more independent international institutions, e.g. with EU money also for non-member states. 

The EU has a big responsibility to support media innovation which supports free journalism, especially in countries that are member candidates.

Here and there we might also hope for the second generation of more altruistic winners of modernization in the new democracies. They might see independent media as the basis for an enlightened open society. Western Europeans should humbly remember how long it took after the Second World War until this concept of independent journalism as the backbone of democratic societies became common sense. The EU has a big responsibility to support media innovation which supports free journalism, especially in countries that are member candidates. This may be a long way to go, with more options than ever. But, as I said in the beginning: media innovation is no value per se. We always have to discuss its meaning and results for society.