What’s new? As a journalist, the question accompanies you throughout your professional life. But beyond the daily news business, the search for new insights and original ideas also drives media and innovation research.
The task of Media Innovation Labs is to generate new innovative approaches. These Labs see themselves as an experimental space for collecting ideas and developing concepts. But before we look at Media Innovation Labs in concrete terms, let’s take a look at the understanding of innovation and the associated process. There are numerous definitions of innovations in textbooks. However, there is no generally accepted explanation for the term. One of the reasons for this is that innovations exist in every industry and accordingly have different connotations in every discipline. A synthesis of different definition approaches crystallizes a few characteristics that overlap (see Aregger 1976; García-Avilés et al. 2018; Dogruel 2013):
- Novelty: The innovation represents a renewal that has never been seen before and that has the potential to change the current system in essential features.
- Closely based on technology and research: Before an innovation is implemented, research is first conducted. The research goal is, for example, to learn more about user needs in order to develop a product that fits perfectly.
- Economic viability: The innovation must be promising and profitable to the company and should offer an economic advantage.
- And especially with regard to the media industry: An innovation has communicative consequences in the media sector. That means it can lead to social changes, for example in the way we communicate with each other.
The path from idea to innovation
But an innovation does not appear from one day to the next. It goes through a multi-phase process. The methodical process that can be used by Innovation Labs is presented in the following figure. In the first phase, the target group is analysed. User needs are filtered out through empirical research and the economic viability of journalistic productions is estimated. In the next step, the exploration phase, ideas are collected to respond to the challenges (see Hensel/Wirsam 2008) This is where the first selection process takes place: The ideas are compared and their feasibility is examined. In order to come up with a specific idea, various methods are used: including classic brainstorming, design thinking, hackathons and barcamps. It is advantageous to rely on interdisciplinary teams: People who come from different disciplines can combine several perspectives on a product in collaboration (see Deurloo/Moring 2018). An idea is then concretized and the further project is planned. Then it goes to prototyping: the selected project idea is implemented and presented internally. In addition, validity is tested to check whether the user needs are actually satisfied by the prototype (see BR next 2020). If all these phases have been successful, the final step is to publish the project and iteratively improve it – always with the involvement of the target group. Depending on the acceptance of the recipients, the innovation may survive on the market or it may be rejected. Throughout this entire innovation process, the culture of innovation is also decisive. The more motivated the upper management is, the more likely an innovation will be implemented.
The role of Media Innovation Labs in this process
They see themselves as a protected experimental space in which people can develop ideas and innovations together. They are at the center of a triangular constellation and attempt to unite the dimensions of new technologies, changing user needs and new organizational units. In doing so, they function both independently and as part of a larger media company. A large number of Media Innovation Labs have emerged in recent years: at DER SPIEGEL, Burda, BILD, the Media Lab Bayern, and many more.
Some of these Labs, such as next Media Hamburg or the Journalism Lab of the State Institute of North Rhine-Westphalia, have an exclusively regional focus. But they don’t just focus on pure local journalism. For example, next Media Hamburg sees itself as a hub between media companies, agencies, publishers and students. They offer events and Labs in which experienced practitioners work together with students on innovations and prototypes.
Another example is the Greenhouse Innovation Lab run by Gruner+Jahr and the RTL media group. The goal is to explore new markets, target groups and business models. Innovations are integrated into existing structures as a new organizational unit or an entirely new environment is created.
A lot has also happened in the area of innovation at public broadcasters. Public broadcasters struggle with criticism of being too sluggish and that they have lost the younger target group (under-30s). This target group consumes content mostly non-linearly (see ARD/ZDF Onlinestudie: 2020). In order to provide offerings for these users as well, public broadcasters are investing in digital products. One approach to innovation are the Media Innovation Labs. These are linked to the regional broadcasters: AI + Automation Lab at Bayerischer Rundfunk, the X Lab at Südwestrundfunk, mdr next at Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk. In addition, the Innovation and Digital Agency (ida) was launched this year. It is a joint subsidiary of ZDF and mdr. It, too, supports the development of digital innovations from the idea to implementation.
But what are the results of these innovation labs? The NDR podcast with Christian Drosten can be mentioned as an example.The virologist talks weekly about the latest developments relating to the Corona virus. The podcast is the result of a cooperation between NDR Info and the NDR Audio Lab.
Google News Lab – boon or bane?
Another and in part controversial Innovation Lab is the Google News Lab. This Lab is part of the Google News Initiative and, according to its own information, works together with news companies from more than 50 countries. According to a study by the Otto-Brenner-Foundation, Germany is the biggest beneficiary of this funding program. According to the study, more than 90 projects with more than 21 million euros were funded by Google in Germany. Among the supported editorial offices are big media companies such as Der Spiegel, dpa, DuMont Mediengruppe, FAZ, Gruner+Jahr and more. This support is controversial for several reasons: On the one hand, critics argue that Google is not a philanthropist, but that the corporation is primarily concerned with influence. For example, Google can strategically influence the technological development of the industry by establishing its services in the newsroom. Furthermore, it could lead to self-censorship. Another argument suspects a well thought-out campaign behind the funding, which wants to avoid unwanted regulations (for example, the ancillary copyright).
On the other hand, the Google News Lab also offers advantages: The fellowship offer young journalists the opportunity to intern in renowned editorial offices. In addition, the Google News Lab is often the only chance for media companies to finance innovations. Other Media Innovation Labs, such as the one in North Rhine-Westphalia, have a regional focus and possibly do not have such a large budget. In this respect, media companies are faced with an all-or-nothing scenario: either take the money from Google or make no innovative progress at all.
In view of all these points, it can be said that there is still great potential for innovation in journalism in general. This is shown above all by the emergence of the numerous Innovation Labs from recent times – and more will follow in the next year, for example the InnovationLab Kids in Erfurt. By working in interdisciplinary teams, different perspectives come together. The focus shifts toward user-centric formats that are subject to an iterative approach. The constant further development of journalistic products is particularly decisive for the future of journalism. The work of the Media Innovation Labs will show whether there will be new, revolutionary developments in the future.
Further literature and recommendations:
ARD/ZDF Onlinestudie (2020): ARD/ZDF-Onlinestudie 2020: Zahl der Internetnutzer wächst um 3,5 Millionen. Online available at: https://www.ard-digital.de/aktuelles/news/ardzdf-onlinestudie-2020-zahl-der-internetnutzer-waechst-um-35-millionen
Buschow, Jun. Prof. Dr. Christopher; Wellbrock, Prof. Dr. Christian-Mathias (2020): Die Innovationslandschaft des Journalismus in Deutschland. Wissenschaftliches Gutachten im Auftrag der Landesanstalt für Medien NRW, Landesanstalt für Medien NRW, Düsseldorf.
Dachwitz, Ingo; Fanta, Alexander (2020): Medienmäzen Google. Wie der Datenkonzern den Journalismus umgarnt, Otto-Brenner-Stiftung, Frankfurt am Main. Online available at: https://www.otto-brenner-stiftung.de/wissenschaftsportal/informationsseiten-zu-studien/medienmaezen-google/
Denz, Christina (03.11.2020): Tüfteln an den Medien von morgen. URL: https://mmm.verdi.de/medienwirtschaft/tuefteln-an-den-medien-von-morgen-69369 (zuletzt abgerufen am 05.12.2020)
Dogruel, Leyla (2013): Eine kommunikationswissenschaftliche Konzeption von Medieninnovationen, Springer VS, Wiesbaden
García-Avilés, Jose A.; Carvajal-Prieto, Miguel; Arias-Robles, Félix; De Lara-González, Alicia (2018): Journalists’ views on innovating in the newsroom: Proposing a model of the diffusion of innovations in media outlets, The Journal of Media Innovations 5(1): 1-16
Hensel, Michael; Wirsam, Jan (2008): Diffusion von Innovationen, Gabler, Wiesbaden