Innovation versus stealing: An object lesson from newspapers

Six years ago I was asked to join a company-wide innovation seminar. Editors, ad managers and publishers from a few metro and a few community dailies got together, listened to some presentations and tossed around phrases like “innovating from the core.” It was dreadful, and I only remember one thing about it.

On the last day, we were broken up into small groups and told to come up with one practical idea that we could go back to our respective papers and implement. I couldn’t tell you what my group came up with, so it couldn’t have been very good, but I do remember the last group’s idea.

MySpace, but for pets, and in print

Remember, this was 2006, so MySpace was the thing to beat. The idea was pronounced with the certainty that only the clueless get to have. And it wasn’t received to peals of laughter, either.

Think about how truly bananas that idea is—how it not only misunderstands social networking and the Internet, but how it also does nothing other than ape an existing success with a small twist. It sounds like a jokey story about Hollywood executives, and if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears, I might not have believed it.

But the truly depressing part, at least for me, was that my publisher didn’t understand my complete incredulity that idea like that passed for innovative. She thought there was nothing wrong with taking and repurposing a good idea.

And she was right, up to a point. But innovation is more than just repurposing something, it’s doing something new and different with an existing idea.

There’s a reason newspapers never built a viable competitor to huge social networking sites: none of them had the idea until it was too late.

Part of the problem is that executives at businesses like newspapers have a tendency to play small ball because they don’t want to kill their main source of revenue. That’s understandable, but what isn’t is that they still feel that way when they can see huge problems for their main source of revenue in the future. They don’t want to be the person whose zany idea caused a venerable newspaper to cease operation, even if that zany idea might be the thing that stops that very scenario from happening.

But at least one of them had the idea for MySpace, in print, for pets. So far as I know no one ever implemented the idea; there’s an untapped market ripe for the taking. And now there might be a newspaper executive out there desperate enough to try it.


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