What Universities Can Teach News Organizations About Innovation

History reminds us that often, some of the most impactful ideas in the media industry were inspired and developed not in valleys or alleys, but in ivory towers.

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Beyond the Valleys and Alleys

Today, most of us view Silicon Valley and Alley as the hubs of disruptive technology and the successful start-ups born and raised there as the leaders in a quickly evolving industry that will continue to revolutionize the world. But history reminds us that often, some of the most impactful ideas — specifically, those in the journalism and media industry — were inspired and developed not in valleys or alleys, but in ivory towers (aka universities).

Many of us may know that Samuel Morse pioneered the commercialization of the telegraph in the U.S., but we may not know the inspiration behind his research: the work of his friend, electromagnetism researcher, Charles Jackson.

William Paley, the broadcasting tycoon responsible for the early success of American media staple Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), injected innovation in his business with the introduction of color television — specifically, the field sequential color system — developed by Peter Carl Goldmark, a scholar at University of Vienna who later led CBS Laboratories.

Jonah Peretti, a father of social content, used his research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in tandem with key learnings from the field of network science developed by his friend, then Professor Duncan Watts, to create BuzzFeed.

These real-world examples illustrate that innovation is, in some cases, the application of academic research. Morse, Paley and Peretti tapped into the knowledge hub of academia to disrupt the market, launch new businesses and discover creative solutions to existing challenges. For those of us in today’s media industry, these examples should remind us to not simply look toward Silicon Valley for solving tomorrow’s problems, but rather universities that stay grounded with a longer-term approach.

Two types of Innovation

The challenge of industry-academia collaborations stems from the existence of two types of innovation: the innovation of media practitioners and firms, and the innovation of academia — one looks for answers to specific problems, the other aims at the creation of knowledge.

The solution is to develop a third approach — a mutually beneficial approach to research and development wherein incentives and timelines are aligned and projects are those that look at exploring high value concepts and challenges on behalf of a media firm, yet outside of the company’s mainstream activities. This challenge is broad enough to appeal to an academic, but still has the real world impact potential a media practitioner and/or firm is looking for. New fields such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and automation are some of the prime candidates for this model.

For professors, the goal is to prepare their students to be well-equipped for their post-educational careers.

Research Director at the Tow Center Claire Wardle explained, “It’s so important for our students to collaborate with industry partners, as it to allows them to work through the same problems they will face when they move into the workplace”. Wardle added, “Equally it’s important for potential employers to understand the skills that exist within the academy – whether that’s technical skills or ways to consider problems from differing perspectives.”

Collaborative research projects require open lines of communication between universities and media organizations so they can better address the challenges faced by both parties.

“Students will be the industry’s future leaders — and consumers — so it’s essential that as news organizations experiment with new formats and techniques, they’re doing so in a way that’s relevant to new generations,” AP Interactives Editor Nathan Griffiths said.

Universities gain an avenue to apply insights learned in the classroom while professionals are exposed to new thinking.

Academic-infused Innovation

Facilitating partnerships do not require significant investments, especially compared to the addition of a new academic department or a new research lab within a company.

One such initiative is an experiment The New York Times run in partnership with NYU and CUNY to study hyper local news.

Another is Hearst Corporation’s partnership with students from Parsons New School of Design to develop, a new approach to surfacing archives of digital magazines.

The Associated Press runs research programs with the Tow Center at Columbia University to investigate new fields such as virtual reality  and automation.

This academic-practitioner partnership approach to research could be a new model for innovation. History and present day initiatives like those above reveal that when academics and practitioners work together to analyze data and apply key findings, impactful insights are formed, innovative strategies are implemented and new businesses are catalyzed.

Indeed, innovating our approach to media innovation — looking beyond valleys and alleys to ivory towers — will be worth our while.