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Innovation in digital news is not always exclusively tied to the pursuit of clearly defined editorial and commercial ends

Dr Alessio Cornia

Research Fellow

Dr Annika Sehl

Research Fellow

Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Director of Research

Innovation in digital news is not always exclusively tied to the pursuit of clearly defined editorial and commercial ends. Legacy news organisations also invest in new digital projects to pursue less immediate and wider indirect benefits, such as enhancing their reputation, demonstrating their willingness to embrace new technological trends, and developing more flexible organisations to be able to continuously adapt to a changing media environment.

A new RISJ report, Developing Digital News Projects in Private Sector Media, by Alessio Cornia, Annika Sehl and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, examines how 12 major newspapers and commercial broadcasters in six European countries are developing new products, and focuses on the different motivations driving investment in digital news projects.

Based on interviews conducted with 41 senior editors and managers in Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the UK, the report explores a wide range of projects – from investment in content designed to drive subscriptions, over mobile-apps and social media initiatives, to experimentation with virtual reality and voice-activated speakers.

“Our interviewees are generally proud of their organisations’ past and present, but they are also conscious that focusing on past successes can lead to inertia,” says Dr Alessio Cornia, lead author of the report. He adds: “Our study shows that legacy news organisations, often seen as conservative, are willing to take calculated risks and embrace a more enterprising and experimental approach to digital news and innovation.”

The report illustrates how news organisations often seek a combination of both direct and indirect benefits when investing in new digital projects. The most commonly sought direct benefit are:

  • reaching new audiences (most frequently to be monetised through digital advertising, sometimes seen as a funnel for conversion to subscription)
  • better serving existing audiences (to enhance loyalty and engagement and, where relevant, retain subscribers)
  • boosting digital subscriptions (an increasingly important part of the digital business model of newspapers).

The indirect benefits sought are:

  • building an image as innovative/being the first mover into a new platform
  • experimenting with new forms of storytelling
  • fostering organisational and cultural change to facilitate ongoing adaptation and innovation.

While business development is a central objective in many projects, indirect benefits are often seen as equally important, and sometimes more so.

“Innovation for innovation’s sake may not lead to immediate direct benefits, but many organisations see important indirect benefits in demonstrating both internally and externally a willingness to experiment, and individual projects are often used to foster an organisational culture that enables continuing adaptation and innovation” says Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at the Institute and co-author of the report.

In a rapidly changing and uncertain environment, adaptation can be a means to an end, but also an end in itself.