It is not about whether the Washington Post is innovating too fast

In a column, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton asked if the newspaper was innovating too fast.

Pexton noted how “hardly a week goes by without the Web site or newspaper launching some feature, or a venture to attract more revenue, or a blog, or a social media innovation.”

He later added, “I’m wondering, and readers are too, whether there’s just a bit too much innovation, too fast.”

In response, the Post’s Managing Editor commented, “I actually wish it were true that we have too much innovation at the Post.”

The crux of the issue here is not whether the Post should innovate, or about the pace of innovation. It is about the approach to innovation.

Given the fast evolving media space, news outlets have to experiment and explore different tools and services to reach, connect and engage with audiences.

The technologies people use to get the news are changing, how they use these technologies is changing and the institutional structures to support the news are changing.

Pexton notes that some readers find the pace of innovation “exhausting”. The problem for the Post, and for newspapers in general, is that the product is changing.

As a mass media product, the newspaper was designed to bring together a bundle of news, information, commentary and entertainment with broad appeal to a wide audience.

Online, that product is unbundled – both content and audiences are fragmented.  This requires a different approach to innovation as editors and developers have to consider the wants and needs of diverse audiences, who have different needs at different times on different devices.

Some features will be aimed at a broad audience, but some innovations will be aimed at specific fragments of the audience. For example, the @mentionmachine cited by Pexton is likely to have greater appeal for political junkies than a general Post reader.  And that is just fine.

The challenge for news organisations is taking a strategic approach to innovation. There is a risk of becoming enamoured with the latest shiny bit of technology or adopting a platform such as blogging without thinking through the why and how.

For example, when a British newspaper introduced blogs in the mid-2010s, it asked for a show of hands to decide who in the newsroom wanted a blog. A few months later, the newspaper realised that just letting any journalist blog wasn’t a good idea.

A good starting point for developing a new feature or introducing a new tool is Forrester’s POST framework, which provides a framework to consider the audience, the objectives and strategy to decide on the appropriate use of technology.

Innovation should be driven by the journalism and serve the journalism.  We should not argue about too much or too little innovation, but instead discuss what makes for good or bad innovation.