Disruptive innovation is inevitable. Knowledgeable journalists can prevent serious harm by keeping the public informed of the possible adverse consequences. Sixth InJo conference, Stanford University.
How the world has changed. During much of the twentieth century economic growth was driven by producing mass market products and services. Many companies of the Industrial Era focused on mass production and a consistent improvement in quality of their products, resulting in cheaper goods with prolonged lifetimes.
Today, we live in an innovation economy, where economic growth is driven by continuous technological improvement and the apparently insatiable pursuit of the cutting edge of just about everything. Innovation-based companies constantly challenge the status quo society tries to keep up with constant change.
Although many innovations have greatly improved the quality of our lives, recent innovations, particularly those beyond public awareness or understanding, may unpredictably damage the world as we know it, they may be destructive to present structures, sometimes in general. The invention of MP3 changed the music industry forever; the widespread use of derivatives by Wall Street for a variety of unsecured loans triggered the financial crisis. Evidently unchecked innovations can cause unintended and adverse chain reactions that affect everyone.
Dr. David Nordfors, co-founder and executive director of the VINNOVA-Stanford Research Center of Innovation Journalism, believes that harmful effects of innovations may be prevented in democratic societies if journalists can warn the public of their anticipated adverse consequences. The concept of “Innovation Journalism” (InJo) was first presented by Dr. Nordfors in 2001-02. He started Stanford’s InJo program in 2003 as a Swedish initiative, with support from Lund University and VINNOVA, the National Swedish Agency for Innovation Systems. We interviewed Dr. Nordfors at the sixth InJo conference, held at Stanford on May 18-20, 2009.
“For people and the lawmakers to be aware of innovation,” according to Dr. Nordfors, “journalism needs to be organized to cover it.” Innovation has many interconnected elements: technology, business, government and society. To discuss the future of innovation-based companies and their impact on the world, one must investigate and analyze the links between the innovations, business, government and society — e.g., technology trends, R&D policies, intellectual property rights, investments, technical standards, production processes and business models — all in the context of today’s sociopolitical climate.
For journalists to properly assess innovations, infer the implications to companies and societies, and anticipate potential problems, they must thoroughly understand both technology and business. Since lawmakers’ decisions can affect the innovation’s revenue and its social benefits, journalists must understand competitive markets. So prepared, innovation journalists’ reports and critiques can contribute to scrutinized sustainable growth.
The invention of the CD in the 1970s did not change the fundamental business model of the music industry. However, the invention of MP3 disrupted this business model by allowing music to be freely downloaded onto personal computers and distributed across the Internet. Unfortunately, the news about the potential destructive effects of MP3 were only brought to public awareness during the Napster trials, much too late to save the music industry.
Nordfors argues that journalists as “whistle blowers” could have prevented this by anticipating the devastation and stimulating a discussion. But would preserving the status quo have thwarted the resulting innovation?
“Society needs journalists, the story tellers who can grab public attention and can help moderate how we innovate — this is very important for democracy and is necessary to try to prevent catastrophes in the future,” Dr. Nordfors predicts. But the revenues and business of journalism must succeed for innovation journalism to succeed. Today the business of periodicals and the media is seriously threatened. But the Internet offers interesting possibilities for new services and dramatically lowers marginal costs for production and distribution of news.
According to the keynote speaker and a supporter of InJo, Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief and publisher of MIT’s Technology Review, journalism will have to move to the subscription-based electronic media with a spectrum of different subscription durations and levels of service. Dr. Pontin claims that online content should not be offered for free if others must pay for it in any other form, and that consumers must pay for quality journalism and will do so accepting online display advertising. “People who want their news and opinion free of advertising will pay extra for that privilege,” Dr. Pontin argues. Dr. Pontin asserted that magazines and newspapers will become much smaller, and as many as 80 percent of them may not survive.
How will journalists be affected by this downsizing? There will be far fewer journalists, he believes. Only one-fifth the journalists in 2000 are still employed today. By 2020 there will be fewer still. Even so, he believes that this may result in a stronger profession and more robust periodicals that generate revenues to make them very successful. “In my life as an editor, I’ve just met a very small number of people who were good writers, since writing is a tremendously difficult profession and reporting takes a lifetime to master,” states Dr. Pontin. Yet he believed that journalism will have to accommodate citizen journalists and amateur bloggers whose style and insights may garner a wide audience.
At the conference, another advocate of InJo, Vint Cerf, “Father of the Internet” and now VP and internet chief evangelist for Google, spoke of the power of technology to diminish privacy as it increases transparency in organizations. Dr. Cerf warned that “when we use the Internet, we leave behind digital footprints that can be stored and misused without our awareness.” This can lead to a serious breach of privacy and can potentially lead to crime — as in the case of identity theft (where hackers can use the digital footprints we leave behind to uncover our addresses and gain access to our bank account information or steal our identity numbers). Journalists can help bring potential threats to our attention and warn us of their consequences in time for lawmakers and information security specialists to take appropriate action to protect our private information online.
The InJo Fellows — active journalists from Sweden, Finland, Pakistan, Slovenia and Mexico — moderated various workshops featuring practicing U.S. journalists. Here half a dozen participants discussed various aspects of how journalism can best play its part in innovation economy. It was exciting to hear the opinions of professionals about the challenges that journalism is facing today and what journalism may look like in the future.
“We have to be better at promoting our journalistic brands and use more marketing through blogs and Twitter, for instance, in order to be more competitive and survive,” says Ellen Andersson, this year’s InJo Fellow from Sweden, who works as a staff writer for the American newsroom AlwaysOn, and is a Web editor for nwt.se, the Web site of the Swedish daily newspaper Nya Wermlands-Tidningen.
Another Swedish InJo Fellow, Jörgen Lindqvist, who works as a feature editor at Computer Sweden, believes “in the future, it will be harder for journalists to make money. When media and content are separated, journalist revenues will likely decline. It may be easier for established freelancers to survive, but those journalists seeking employment at news agencies will find many more challenges.”
“The whole media industry is changing so fast now," claims the project manager for the Swedish 2009 InJo program, Thomas Frostberg, who was a Fellow himself in the program in 2006. “When I was here three years ago, all Fellows were working for printed newspapers, but this year almost none of them do. There has been a huge shift from printed media, which used to be the standard three years ago, to an online media newsroom,” Frostberg explains.
The Swedish attendee, Tony Svensson, executive director of the ISA - Invest in Sweden Agency, had this to say about the conference: “Dr. David Nordfors has done a great job of pulling this conference together. He has shown that journalism is actually a key component for innovation to happen.”
Whatever the challenges, all believed that journalism will survive and even thrive by using all of the new innovations. It will need to stay abreast of the latest modes of mass communication and personalized feedback as well as keeping up with its readers’ skills and tastes, while satisfying their individual interests. So, enjoy innovative journalism!
By Nadja Zakharova
So-called “disruptive innovations” are advances that change the way things are done in a crucial way, replacing or changing the very direction of an industry or a movement.