Raising the Bar for 'Innovation'

Apr 302015

Words and terms are prone to periods of popularity. These turn of phrases rise, get inevitably coopted, overused and diluted and eventually fall far from grace.

This has happened many times before, whether it’s “synergy” or “paradigm shift,” the words begin with value and then ring hollow after only a few short years. The most recent of these words to follow in this grand tradition is the star-child of the tech crowd, “innovate.”

Like many of the high-flying terms over the years, “innovate” (and its brethren “innovation,” “innovating” and “innovative”) is a catch all. It allows the speaker, writer or marketing agent to imbue an organization with a sense of purpose without ever actually having to say what the hell the group does.

Not everything should be called an innovation. A new font on an interface is considered “an innovation in UI.” A better filing system is “an innovation in office management.” Treating passengers with respect is considered an “innovation in airline service.” These are all ideas that can be qualified, at best, as incremental improvements (or basic human decency).

None of these actually change much of anything; they’re not new or counterintuitive. They break no ground. However, putting the word “innovative” in front of each of them justifies a price raise on fundamentally the same product, or a salary bump for the middle manager that proposed it.

“Innovation” has made strides beyond the corporate speak. It’s now unfortunately the biggest word in government, media and the sciences as well. My argument isn’t that concepts and creations can’t and shouldn’t be labeled “innovative.” It’s that, just as when everyone is an expert, no one is; when everything is an innovation, nothing is.

The bar has been set too low. Sometimes the right thing to do is to incrementally improve already working methodologies. To overhaul a system should be the last resort, one that’s undertaken when what already exists is fundamentally broken or hopelessly outdated.

There are many, many examples of recent innovations that were absolutely necessary. The advent of mobile applications for newspapers truly changed the game. The ability for an organization to allow their readers to always have the publication in their pocket revolutionized the consumption of media content. News was no longer limited to sitting at a desk reading a web page or a dead-tree paper. Mobile distribution went so much further as well, allowing a news organization to scoop their competition and immediately disseminate breaking stories with alerts and notifications.

Digital cameras were an innovation. Cell phones, the word processor, Twitter, desktop publishing software, interactive videos — these are innovations that truly changed the media world.

However, VICE is considered “innovative” (and wins awards for it) because it reports compelling international stories in a voice people want to read. That’s not innovation; it’s just creating good work that engages readers. It’s what used to be called quality journalism.

True innovation is supposed to be an upheaval. True innovation is supposed to be a revelatory idea that reinvents or creates out of whole cloth an entire industry. Innovation has its place, but journalism has sat stagnant and fallen so far behind other media industries for so long, that now anything that simply works is considered an industry-defying revolution.

If you’re looking for something to keep track of, look at concepts, not the individual implementations of them. Here are a few to think about:

Receiving news on a digital watch

With the Apple Watch, the New York Times has introduced extremely short pieces of news. Basically they’re just ledes so they’re visible and easy to glance at. This idea has been around in phone notifications for a long time, but I think there will be some interesting attempts to restructure the sentences away from basic headline formatting.

Live streaming

Now, live streaming has been around for a long time in the format of “TV” but the fact that anyone can do it, from anywhere, adds a brand new element. Periscope and Meerkat are the two major players right now, and personally, I think this will go up and then crash again, much like the blog boom/bust. We’ll have to sit and see how news organizations can coopt it and use the technology to reach viewers.

GOOD automatic translations

Google Translate and the like have been around for a while, but Microsoft has recently been testing real time, full audio, translations in Skype. I’ve been lucky enough to test it and trust me, it’s really, really good. This may well open up entire new lines of distribution and consumption, since the language something was written or produced in may no longer be a barrier.

Christopher Guess is an ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow based in Sarajevo. He focuses on long-term sustainability for media organizations and investigative reporting centers.

This post is also published on IJNet, which is produced by ICFJ.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Missy Schmidt.