Jargon Watch: ‘Innovation Journalism’

What is Innovation Journalism? It’s a meme being pushed out hard by Stanford, VINNOVA — an agency of the new asocial-democratic political order there in Sweden — and the U.K.’s “innovation” quango. It has a blog network and an academic journal dedicated to it.

They’ve already shortened it to InJo, in the best tradition of Newspeak. The PR industry loves it.
It is it anything more than a meme? No, I don’t think so.

It’s innovation time for journalism! Traditional news media are being challenged by innovative sources of news on the Internet, such as blogospheres, or citizen journalism. Traditional journalism struggles when covering innovation as a topic. While innovation pivots society it is not a key news word. Traditional news beats, such as technology, business or politics – chop up innovation processes to fit their news slots, missing the bigger picture. How can journalism report on innovation, following the cross-boundary interactions driving today’s society? Who can do it?

I take offense at that blurb.

I consider myself one of the most old school journalists around, and innovation is a key area of interest to me — but not as a mere buzzword.

The problem for a “traditional” — I prefer to think of myself as applying “time-tested” standards of epistemology-based reality-testing of the press release, by the way — journalist like me is how to discover the pearls of real innovation in the flooded sump of newspeak that technology public relations has become.

And of course, when it comes to “innovations in journalism” the buzzphrase too often has come to mean a strategy for disintermediating the relationship between the marketer and his market, cutting the independent journalist out of the loop and performing those reputation-laundering operations that allow marketing material to masquerade as critical journalism based on independent sources.

The preeminent “innovative source” in this regard?

Edelman, which was recently caught using cut-outs to interface with the media — a strategy for concealing, quite deliberately, the fact that there is PR professional in back of the source’s statements.

When it comes to Global Voices Online, to take another case I follow closely, the primary “innovation” is the marketing of the project’s non-transparency, as the hackers say, “as a feature, not a bug” — selling the idea that destroying the simple epistemological principles that govern news-gathering and rational inquiry in general does not affect the quality or usability of the information we are consuming.

It’s all based on a Big Lie: That the transformation of society, or business, or education, or government, or anti-insurgency warfre, by technology means that the old rules and principles no longer apply.

By which I mean, oh, let’s say, that notion of Karl Popper’s that the practice of rational inquiry embodied in the sciences provides a good model for democratic deliberation and the “open society.”

The problem with the rhetoric of the technological sublime is that the endpoints of the network are still and will always be human beings — wetware.

And it will take a lot of convincing to get me to believe that the brave new world of the press release has transformed or will transform human nature — transhumanism notwithstanding.

I’ve interviewed Ray Kurzweil. He’s completely full of it. And none of his predictions ever pan out — like Dow Jones 36,000 by 2004.

Whenever I hear the word “innovation,” I hear the voice of the professor who led our compulsory freshman seminar in Western Civilization, thundering:

Ladies & gentlemen, YOU WILL NEVER HAVE AN ORIGINAL IDEA IN YOUR LIFETIME.

Which is, of course, not an original idea itself.

There is nothing new under the sun. Thus sayeth the Preacher.

In my specific area of interest, for example, I try to keep up on two areas of background research and understand the observable disconnect between them.

Using a buzzphrase from the field of “service-oriented architecture” and “business process management,” lets call that topic “bridging the business-IT gap” — a subject on which I have actually ghost-written a couple of books, believe it or not.

The two areas are (1) engineering methodology and (2) theories of management.

Of the two, I must admit, I greatly prefer (1).

In engineering, reinventing the wheel unnecessarily is considered a sign of wasteful stupidity, not genius — as so often is the case with (2).

To illustrate this critical approach to “innovation journalism,” I like to look back to a throway vendor story I did for my last full-time gig, called “Art of the Kludge.”

It’s about a software firm that cleverly adapated a piece of open-source software development database code to a common problem in “fast database” management.

In the story, I tease the firm a little bit about its marketing slogan — “TiVO for fast databases” — in order to tease out what is innovative and what is not about its concept.

When you write for “build or buy” decision makers, as I often do, I tend to feel that you aren’t adding any value unless you do that.

The company, when the read the published story, was a little wary of that word “kludge” — they thought it had a negative connotation — but actually the story as it appeared in print and on the Web had a teaser that spun that term in a positive light — I basically came away with the impression that, from an engineering point of view, these guys had come up with a clever and efficient solution for a problem that, as they correctly point out, tends to get hidden in all the hype over “Golden Copy” data quality managemetn systems in a (black) box

See a need and move quickly to fill it.

That’s business, right?

If I had had more time to do a proper job, I would have hunted down comparable solutions and evaluated the sames and differents.

See, a product manager is not obliged to give you the skinny on the competition, although a lot of folks will give you that side of the story if they want to underscore a feature the competition lacks, with an eye to gaining ground in a certain target market.

My general point, however, is that skepticism and critical distance are not synonymous with a debunking approach to public relations pitches.

Although God knows there is a shitload of debunking that needs to be done, as a working journalist you just do not have time to waste on filtering every crock of shit that lands in your inbox.

You simply throw the blatant bullshit on the dreck pile and keep searching for the pearl you need to find by deadline.

But what criteria does and editor or reporter use to make that choice?

Is it all merely “subjective,” as all those 18-year-old first-time readers of Nietzsche used to like to tell me during my office hours when I was teaching comp lit and rhetoric?

Or could we program a rules engine to automate that process?

Will Google News ever pass the Turing test against a wetware news editor, or will it remain the same aleatory grab bag of sources reliable and unreliable?
Those are the questions this blog looks into every day.

Because professional journalists are there to do the due diligence so you don’t have to.

Think of it as an essential part of the social division of labor.

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