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Steps to Building R&D in the Newsroom

For the news startup or small news organization, Research and Development (R&D) may be considered a luxury versus a necessity. Yet in today’s media climate, innovation and creativity now serve as the driving force to what will make a news organization survive and succeed – and R&D can help news organizations get there.

For example, the New York Times’ R&D unit established in 2006, has served as one of the leaders in newsroom innovation in recent years due in part to its R&D unit. Its R&D unit aims to innovate by coming up with new services and products for its readers in the digital age. In fact, the New York Times recently launched R&D Ventures, a spin-off of its R&D lab.

Some tips (first published in 2012) that can help make R&D a reality in any newsroom.

What is R&D?

R&D has been considered a tradition in many large corporations across a variety of sectors. R&D serves the function of being a unit within a company where they can experiment and explore new ways of creating and producing that can lead to new products, services, solutions or processes.

R&D is often considered a costly part of a company’s operation that requires a dedicated staff and set of resources but it doesn’t have to be this way.

For the smaller news organization or news startup, there are ways you can bring R&D into your operation without too much sacrifice.

Start with Strategy

First, you and your news staff may want to think about what you want to achieve in having an R&D unit. Is it to help in identifying new platforms for distribution of news? Is it to help in identifying new ways to engage with the communities you serve?

Creating a strategy is a good first step.

A recent paper by Professor Gary P. Pisano of the Harvard Business School on “Creating an R&D Strategy,” states there is no perfect model to having the best R&D – but having at least a strategy can make the difference.

Pisano says an R&D strategy can be tied to four key areas: architecture, processes, people and portfolio.

Having these questions answered above can set you on the path to creating a good R&D strategy.

What’s Next?

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Shayndi Raice explored the R&D strategy of Facebook and how the company has become well known for its product development process via the Hackathon – all night and all day sessions where Facebook employees would come up with new ideas for products for the Facebook platform.

Your news organization may not be able to hold a Hackathon, but here are some other steps to help you get started with the R&D process:

  1. Select a Time. Identify a slow part of the week when you and your staff (or a few staff members) can take at least two hours out of the day and use this time as R&D time.
  2. R&D Time and Space. Gather your staff for this R&D time in a conference room or other space away from desks and the temptation of existing work to help prevent distractions so the staff can focus on the task at hand – exploration and experimentation.
  3. Provide Inspirational Materials. Provide a list of potential websites that can be inspirational for your staff. Bring in different kinds of print publications ranging newspapers to magazines to books and bring those to R&D time. Consider bringing in different kinds of other items to generate creativity and innovation such as a Rubik’s cube or IDEO Concept Cards as an example.
  4. Write Everything Down. Have your staff jot down any and all ideas that come to mind during this R&D time.
  5. Give Freedom to Your Staff. Allow your staff to continue exploring these ideas weekly during R&D time.
  6. R&D Check-Ins. After four weeks, gather your staff together and have R&D check-in time to see how the development of ideas are going.
  7. Think About User Feedback. Once your staff has come up with some testable ideas from these R&D sessions, think about user feedback.

A strategy that Raice mentioned in her article was how Facebook held focus groups to help incorporate user feedback on the products they were building.

Every news organization has a reader base – a loyal audience – so don’t be afraid to search them out. There are also several professional firms that can assist you in identifying participants and providing space to host focus groups.

If money and resources are an issue, host the focus groups in a space in your building or in your conference room. Ask one of your staff members to serve as the moderator. It may not be as formal, but you can still can get an idea as to whether this new idea your staff has come up with has the potential to succeed in the community.

8. Go Beta. Another component to R&D is recognizing that once you have a product – consider going beta with it and testing it out with a select few for a while before a full-fledged launch. Just like the focus groups, this beta phase can provide you with the opportunity to see what works and doesn’t based on the user feedback you receive.

Raice mentioned in her article that when Facebook had its product Timeline ready to go, it deployed it to users only in New Zealand first to see how it would go. They also announced the product seven days before it went live on the site worldwide to give people a chance to become familiar with it before it was fully launched.

Where’s the Money?

A crucial component to R&D also ties into how this new product can bring in new revenue opportunities to the company.

In many large corporations, R&D funding is determined by how much that unit can bring in terms of revenue to the company for the immediate and long-term. For a news organization, this should be no different.

A recent Nieman Journalism Lab article by Justin Ellis talks about the new R&D Ventures unit at the New York Times and in his interview with Michael Zimbalist, vice president of research and development operations for the Times Co., mentions how R&D Ventures operates off a different premise and purpose from the R&D lab – it allows the company to identify the business opportunities with the innovations that the R&D lab creates.

As you build your R&D operations, you may have R&D creators in your newsroom but they may not be the ones to identify the business opportunities for the product. You may want to identify individuals on your staff that may be best at product creation and those that are best at identifying the revenue streams as your R&D efforts develop.

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