Monday, December 21, 2009


There is a growing chorus for governments to help established media transform themselves in the digital age. From the U.S. to the Netherlands, from the U.K. to France, governments are being asked to help both print and broadcast media innovate their products and services to help make them sustainable.

State support for innovation is not a new concept. Support of cooperate research initiatives involving the state, higher education institutions, and industries has been part of national science and industrial policies for many decades. There has been significant state support for innovation of agriculture/food products, electronics, advanced military equipment, information technology, and biomedical technology and products.

State support tends to work best in developing new technologies and industries and tends to focus support on advanced basic scholarly research through science and research funding organizations, creation and support for research parks and industrial development zones for applied research, and incentives and subsidies for commercial research and development.

Many governments also support efforts to transform established industries. These are typically designed to promote productivity and competitiveness as a means of preserving employment and the tax base. In the past there has been some support for technology transfer from electronics and information technology to existing industries and for retraining, facilities reconstruction, and entering new markets.

Trying to apply those kinds of research and transformation policies in media is challenging, however, because much of media activities tend to be non-industrial and are dependent on relatively rigid organizational structures and processes that are difficult to change. These factors are complicated by the facts that media engage in negligible research and development activities, have limited experience with product change and new product development, and tend to have limited links to higher education institutions.

It is clear that a growing number of managers in media industries understand the need for innovation because of the declining sustainability of current operations and because Internet, mobile, e-reader, and on-demand technologies are providing new opportunities. The real innovation challenges in established media, however, are not perceiving the need for change or being able to get needed technology, but organizational structures, processes, culture, and ways of thinking that limit willingness and ability to innovate. This is compounded because many managers are confused by the opportunities and don’t know what to do or how pursue innovation.

Today, the innovation challenge facing media—especially newspapers--is not mere modernization, but fundamentally reestablishing their media functions and forms. What is needed is a complete rethinking of what content is offered, where, when and how it is provided, what new products and services should be provided and what existing ones dropped, how content will differ and be superior to that of other providers, how to establish new and better relationships with consumers, how the activities are organized and what processes will be employed, what relationships need to be established with partners and intermediaries, and ultimately how the activities are funded.

The state’s ability to influence media innovation of this type is highly constrained. Governments worldwide have proven themselves ineffectual in running business enterprises and they have limited abilities to affect organizational structures, processes, culture, and thinking in existing firms. What governments can do, however, is to fund research that identifies threats, opportunities and best practices, provide education and training to promote innovation and help implement change, offer incentives or subsidies to cover transformation costs and support new initiatives, and help coordinate activities across industries.

These kinds of support will be helpful, but they will not be a panacea because the greatest impetus for and implementation of change and innovation must come from within companies. The support will only be helpful if companies are actually willing to innovate and change to support that innovation. The extent they are willing to do so remains to be seen.