Over the last few months the newspaper for which I work has run a contest for bright ideas and products, and found more than a few right answers. The Irish Times Digital Challenge is an initial experiment in which five startups entered the Irish Times building for eight weeks. Their mission was to try to launch new initiatives with the 153-year-old paper in that period and to grow their business in the process. Also, each of the startups is contending for the €50,000 prize from DFJ Esprit.
The reason for launching this challenge was simple. I wanted to see if we could widen our bandwidth for working with emerging digital businesses, and see what we could learn from, and teach, these potential disruptors. Now, as the startups ready themselves for the grand finale Pitch Day later in the month, a few lessons have become clear.
I sat down with Liam Kavanagh, the Managing Director of The Irish Times Group, to go through lessons learned. Liam is well placed to take a holistic view of how the experiment effected the whole organisation. His responses below are a useful primer for other media organisations planning to develop their own incubators.
Lessons learned: Our focus was on external communication. We wanted the tech scene in Ireland to embrace The Irish Times Digital Challenge, and they did. But by focusing on external communication we failed to fully communicate internally. We had a situation where the startups arrived in the building before our own people were adequately prepared.
The other lesson we learned was that when a great idea or technology comes from the outside it should be embraced, but this can discomfit some internal stakeholders. We need a better way of bringing people on board with change.
In parallel, we need to figure out how to structure people's time when they are working with startups. People bought in to the idea of The Digital Challenge, but it is hard to fully appreciate at the outset how much time each startup demands, and from how many people.
Risk: Of course there were risks. Serious ones. We have been a very heavily print dominated and very traditional news organization. This project required us to come out of our comfort zone. I was conscious that the organization could have rejected the digital disruptors when they arrived, which would have posed serious difficulties. If we did not embrace this Challenge then it would have said serious things about whether the organization could change. I took the risk. My faith paid off.
Objectives: I was not expecting that we would find one major breakthrough - although we may have found several to different degrees. I was more focused on the cultural aspect of our engagement with the online community, bringing The Irish Times closer to the startup community in Ireland. Probably more importantly, I was focused on how The Digital Challenge would change our internal dynamic and our ability to experiment. The Irish Times is constantly receiving ideas and project proposals. However, we often have difficulty engaging with these. The scale of project and structure of who does what too often gets in the way. The Digital Challenge allowed us to cut through that allot of that and to embrace experimentation.
Ireland: Some people are content to believe that Ireland is too small a market to produce innovations or to lead the way forward for the newspaper industry. I don't think that is so. The economy here is very much focused on the technology sector, there is an extraordinary pace and energy in the startup scene, and the market is small enough that we can tie all of these things together. Ireland is the ideal place to test new ideas for our industry. Back in the early 1990s we were among the first half dozen papers the world to launch an online edition. We are picking up where we left off.
Other media organisations: I think, knowing what we know now, that the incubator inside the media organization model is something that others need to consider. And we would like to help them with that.
Week 7: Last week of the The Irish Times Digital Challenge
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