In the past two weeks, there’s been at least a dozen stories in the mainstream and not-so-mainstream media about the importance of innovation in a recession. For businesses, refocusing on R&D and innovation really is a good strategy in down times. There’s plenty of historic evidence to back the claim up (the invention of farming technologies and civil engineering breakthroughs in the Great Depression, alternative energy investments in the early 1970s, and a sharpening of Internet business models after the dot com bust in the late 90s).
What’s also true is that writing about innovating in hard times is also good business. Writers and editors at newspapers, magazines, blogs and the rest have to produce relevant content to make their engines run and nothing is more relevant right now than the economy.
In that sense, any crisis – economic or otherwise – brings opportunity for media business (so much so that the media has been accused at times of creating or at least enhancing mundane things to crisis-like levels – see the recent media flap over John Edwards’ adultery and/or indiscretion).
Reporters, bloggers, producers, editors, and marketers are information dealers. In times of peace and stability, we have to work harder to come up with compelling stories. In times of crisis, news reporting and news translating becomes more focused (and the number-one standard for any writing worth a damn is focus – just ask your high-school English teacher).
So is the media by its very nature self innovating? Or is it just reactionary?
The headlines in the New York Times on September 10, 2001 were as follows: "Jailers Who Thrive on Silence," "Police Searches, Judicial Review and O’Connor’s Death Penalty Comments," and "Finally, Big Women on Campus." 9/11 brought news that riveted the country for the next nine months. Then came the “Post-9/11” media trend stories. Dozens of articles and books on Post 9/11 Travel, Business, Parenting, and Music were published. Dieting fads were even linked to the terrorist attacks (critics of Atkins’ fairly radical low carb diet attributed its success to “cultural anxiety” caused by 9/11).
It could be argued that reporting on the news is a reaction to the events of the day, and that creating trend stories out of the news is innovative story telling. A closer look shows that the really innovative books and articles (translation: the most successful) are those that take a long look at sub-sets of the trends or even at broad trends – they take the news in stride and apply it as a symptom of deeper attitudes. Freakonomics, for example, was a huge bestseller because it took a look at loopholes in typical economic behavior and made atypical connections. This could not have been done by simply reacting to economic news, and indeed author Steven Levitt had been studying and writing about economics for at least 12 years before he wrote the book with Stephen Dubnar in 2003.
The lesson here is the same as it is in business innovation: it takes time to produce real, lasting, award-winning success.
To that end, I would say that the vast majority of news and media does not rely on innovative thinking to succeed. Mostly it relies on news, and especially crisis-level news. At the same time, news provides the seeds of innovative story telling, which means the newsmen and women, the reporters and bloggers, the marketers and book makers need the time, latitude, and support to really write.
(By Sam Martin, frog design)