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Mark Drasutis, Head of Innovation, News Corp Australia

Mark Drasutis, Head of Innovation

You would think the newspaper industry would be the last place to look for cutting edge innovation strategies. Yet content giant, News Corp, is executing the kind of ideas that match the boldest initiatives in Silicon Valley. Today, Sydney commuters are encountering news through a computer game offered on buses; surfers are finding a new content “stoke” through unique drone video footage of a point break; and junior...
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How is your team changing the game within your industry sector?

News Corp is actually where the customers are, and that’s the change. Its about innovating around the proposition that content is about “and,” not “or.” In the past, customers either bought a newspaper or consumed content on mobile, or on PC, or Tele, or listened to it on the radio. Now, they are consuming content in newspapers and on Twitter, YouTube, in their cars, and on Spotify, so if you take the “and” model, it becomes about curating great, relevant content and delivering it where and how the customer needs it.

With declines of 15% circulation in Australia and 20% revenues on the newspaper side – you need to innovate yourself out of that bottle, but you need to innovate in the right way. We’ve embraced the reality that newspaper companies are never again going to own content and distribution and packaging. In fact, we don't see ourselves as a newspaper company; we are a content company.

Habits for consuming content have changed, and we can shape those habits. Do people buy newspapers for breaking news? No they don’t: because news is broken on Twitter and Facebook and then on other platforms. Content habits have changed. But job of producing great content hasn’t changed. We are recombining content in new ways for customers. We are now producing multi-dimensional long-form story telling in digital; creating a rich immersive experience in video, audio, graphics, everything. The Captivate platform in Australia allows us to build those.

For example, we produced a story around Cinderella Man: the amazing journey of an Australian man to becoming the country’s first heavyweight boxing champion. We’ve just done a great piece of footage for surfers for an angle of a surf break which you would never have seen before, using drone footage, and two surfers: one a leftie, one a rightie. So how do we get to surfers? We promote it on Facebook, we promote it on Twitter, we made a 15 second video for Instagram, and then we moved it to content for tablet.

The Wall Street Journal is doing the same thing, with amazing footage from the Oracle boat for the America’s Cup. When we have these great stories involving multiple assets, we ‘re able to quickly build rich story telling elements now that we didn’t think we could do three years ago. So it’s a case of: We’re capable - lets do more of that.

The reporters who do these pieces, like Trent Dalton, now know when they start looking at the yarn, they need a videographer, a photographer; he needs to understand how to work with a developer and designer to tell the story best via the digital channel. And that’s just one space.

On the other extreme, we just launched in Australia – and Foxsports - on Snapchat’s new Discover platform. Once again, here’s another area where we’re atomizing our content and saying we’re going to create an edition every day which is relevant to a Snapchat customer, which is more a teen, kind of funny, laugh-out-loud type of experience.


What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your organization or industry sector?

FEAR of not knowing. If I don’t know about it as a senior executive, I’m not sure I want to unleash my team on something I don’t understand. So, for instance, we built a digest App for The Australian and gave it to one of the lead editors to play with over Christmas. All it involved was his content recombined into an App, but now he understands what the power of that can be.

Another challenge for innovation is fear of quarterly targets. The trick is to make innovation real in people’s minds. Without that, people think that they wouldn’t know how to execute the ideas they had; they don't have the confidence to ask for forgiveness, rather than permission. The key is to allow people to fail safe, and to lead with an approach where you show, not tell. Stop having meetings about meetings and show it to someone. They rightly say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that a prototype is worth a hundred meetings.

Its not technology that’s the disruptor, it’s talented employees thinking like entrepreneurs that is. This business had forgotten a little bit that it had an entrepreneurial spirit at his heart. Rupert Murdoch is one of the best entrepreneurs in the world: his three drivers are opportunism, innovation and intuition. As a staff member, you should be working on those three things. Go and do it. You still have to do the business casing – you can’t work outside those processes. You still have to get new projects singed off by the finance departments and agreed by the board. So in essence, ideas are not a problem; timing and execution is the problem.


How has innovation become engrained in your organization's culture, and how is it being optimized?

News Corp has had a couple of innovation efforts previously, but they were largely external, and my title didn’t exist two years ago, which says something in itself. Certainly, there was recognition that the most expensive seven words in our business were “But that’s how we’ve always done it.” Though I wasn’t here at the time, I’d guess I might rate our innovation culture in 2005 at about 3 out of 10; now its perhaps around 6 out of 10, with our digital offerings, and now that people know they can do these things, and are less afraid of things not looking the same.

When I joined, I remember someone commenting: “Great – someone with all the answers.” I countered with: “You’re already got the answers, and you’ve got the employees – we just need to create innovation as part of their job and something they’re not scared of.” The words disruption and innovation kind of counter each other. I realized that news didn’t have a clear definition of what innovation meant, and that’s really key. For us, that definition is: ‘Recombining content, people and processes in new ways for growth.’

That idea then resonated across the business – that it’s not about drones or virtual reality or futuristic hardware. And changing the perception of News Corp in Australia was one of the key pieces – as a content company, not a newspaper company. We’ve got an ideation platform we put in, which allows you to pop in and say “that’s a good idea” or “that’s been done’’ or “actually that’s something I’m working on; lets work together.” I’m all for open innovation, most of our ideas we’ve gotten are from outside the office. We sponsor a co-creation space for startups, called Fishburners – that’s important; it opens peoples’ eyes to what entrepreneurs are doing.

We are not afraid to experiment with different models – and we have a system where you can fail safe with experiments. We have an internal system called News Foundry – an internal fail-safe environment that allows people to come up with new ways of doing things. They come out with loads of ideas; one of them drives the kind of content on our Snapchat channel, for example. I’m a big advocate for quiet change, which is that you show, don't tell; you take people on a journey; you plant seeds within the business.


What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

Anticipation of content is something I think will become important  – data signals will be there to anticipate a certain time of day you want a certain type of content – based on your location; based on your behavior; everything. Content about things you care about should come to you like a tap on the shoulder.

I think there is an interesting move back to truth in the content space  - where many customers don’t want an oversimplification of news. People have a thirst for more knowledge than the snack they can see. Snacking news is relevant; as Twitter’s 140 characters show, but consumers are already responding to the in depth background content we are providing, with lots of links.

The disruption will be that people will be able to access as much content as they want quickly, but that they probably want a little more detail around the five areas they care about the most, and that’s where media companies come into play. I never try to predict technology trends, but I look at connected cars, and I think there is something there for media; a space where we can play. 


Can you share a specific innovation strategy you’ve recently encountered which you find compelling?

Paul Whittaker, editor of the Daily Telegraph in Australia, and his team are supportive of an app that gameifies news for commuters on buses here in Sydney. It allows you to play a game against others around beacon technology: it matches headlines to the pictures, which means you have to read the headlines – so you consume the news via a game. That’s quite interesting as a model. I’m not saying that’s the future of news, but its interesting. I feel the same with Snapchat. They are both great ways of providing content to the consumer.

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