Step back and question all assumptions

The Digital Innovator’s Summit Q&A with Richard Gingras of Google News.

f8206f9937Richard Gingras, currently the Senior Director of News and Social Products at Google, has been a driving force in the development of online services, software and new media for over three decades. His many forward-looking endeavors include pioneering uses of satellite networking for television, the first applications of television signals for data distribution, pre-Web and Web-based online services, the creation of various platform technologies and being at the helm of the Salon Media Group. Over the last several years, Gingras has focused his attention on the transformation of the media landscape.

Having actively managed, fostered and promoted progress and innovation in media, and with an intimate knowledge of the main building blocks journalism, business and technology, Gingras has a better understanding of the evolving ecosystem for media and news than most. He will share his perspective on this ecosystem, including opportunities he sees for business models in content and news businesses, at the Digital Innovators Summit in Berlin on 23-24 March, 2015.

Ahead of the DIS, we have talked to Richard about influences on his career, the role of culture in innovation and some of the changes and challenges he sees coming.

You’re a great example that one doesn’t need to be a digital native to be at the forefront of developments in digital media. What qualities or inspirations helped you from being an English major in college to becoming the tech savvy entrepreneur and executive you have become?

Early in my career I had the good fortune of a wise and influential mentor, Hartford Gunn. As the the founder of PBS he created modern public television in the US and was a strong and innovative leader. He believed the evolution of media was directly tied to the evolution of underlying media technologies: “to create the future of media you need to understand new technologies and innovate aggressively.” They are the building blocks of a media ecosystem. That insight led me to focus on the evolving architecture of media in all its forms. It has made for an interesting four decades.

Where, in your opinion, do some publishers still not quite “get it” when it comes to their future in a digital world?

First, I wouldn’t ever use the characterization of “getting it” or not. It is understandable that traditional publishers focus their efforts on the established models and markets where they have found historical success. When it comes to the new digital era I believe it’s easy to miss just how dramatically the internet has changed the media ecosystem. The internet is most easily seen as changing how products are delivered while in fact the internet changes every dimension of the publishing model — from how news is consumed to how it is produced to the very definition of the product itself and it’s attendant business model. It’s not so much the extension of a market as a new market in and unto itself.

What do you think media companies, especially those with high-quality news and information, could do differently in order to not only survive, but thrive in a digital age? Is there anything in particular that you learned during your career that would still apply today?

What I’ve learned is the importance of stepping back and questioning all assumptions, to reassess what one currently thinks of as ground truth. I’ve learned that innovation in new markets requires experimentation that will often generate failure. And I’ve learned directly that the primary challenge, and often the most difficult challenge, is changing the culture of an organization to both encourage reassessment and creative risk-taking and to accept the inevitable failures that happen along the way. It is important to note that the world has never experienced such dramatic and pervasive change so it shouldn’t be surprising that corporate cultures may not be optimized to address such rapid change. In fact corporate cultures have been designed to optimize for consistency and efficiency, not rapid, often messy, cycles of change.

What major changes do you see coming in the next five to ten years for society in general, and media in particular? How do you feel about these changes?

The biggest change over the next five to ten years will be the continued flow of technological change in itself! The cycles of technology development and innovation are increasing not decreasing. How do we build organizations that can be nimble in embracing change and harvesting new opportunities?

The biggest non-technological change will be the challenge of addressing the various cultural effects spawned by the open Internet and responding to those changes in ways that embrace the Internet’s openness rather than constraining or breaking it. Can government’s resist the temptation to tap into networks for undue surveillance? Can cultures accept that the Internet’s openness to free expression will more likely diversify points of view rather than unify them?

Richard will be one of the many speakers at the Digital Innovators’ Summit in Berlin from 23-24 March 2015. Register to join Richard in Berlin.