June 07, 2006

Hiring for Innovation

Adrian HolovatyBob Niles' interview at Online Journalism Review with Adrian Holovaty, the bright young programmer-journalist hired by the Washington Post, has been well linked, especially for his good ideas about journalism education (get technical) and information use (extend your reporting through structure), but I want to concentrate one something else he said: Hiring and innovation.

Here's the question from Niles:

"What ought news organizations do to encourage tech innovation from their staffs?"

And Holovaty's answer (emphasis added):

"Hire programmers! It all starts with the people, really. If you want innovation, hire people who are capable of it. Hire people who know what's possible. And once you hire the programmers, give them an environment in which they can be creative. Treat them as bona fide members of the journalism team -- not as IT robots who just do what you tell them to do."

What Holovaty said is so important it bears repetition: "If you want innovation, hire people who are capable of it. Hire people who know what's possible." Holovaty is talking about programmers, but you can substitute the words editors, reporters or photographers and apply the same idea. Hire for possibility, hire for innovation, hire for the future.

Of course, this is easier said than done. If you've ever hired an absolute dog of an employee, especially after you thought he'd been vetted more than a White House appointee, then you know those decisions nag you and your newsroom sometimes years to come. And, these days, with newsroom budgets so tight that every hire is critical, how can you increase your chances of bringing in somebody who not just do a good job of maintaining the status quo, but will actually contribute to moving the paper forward?

Newspapers could learn some lessons in this department form Google. Listen to this interview with Eric Schmidt and Google founder Larry Page. Here's a summary from Stanford's Technology Ventures Program:

"The first aspect Google considers when hiring is evaluating the applicant's capability of simply doing the job. Next, they look for people who can think outside the box, but still work within Google culture. Third, communication skills are critical for any employee, even engineers. Overall, Larry and Eric have found that if someone is exceptional at something, it is usually a good indicator that they are exceptional at everything."

Let's pick at those points a bit.

 Can the person do the job? For newspapers, this question must be answered with another question: What do you want the job to be? Every hire opportunity is also an opportunity to re-evaluate the role of that position. If the education reporter leaves, it's time to examine that beat with the intent of redefining it to meet the continually changing needs of the newspaper and the community. Don't just hire someone who can cover the education beat as well as the last reporter; hire an ed writer for the future.

 Can the person think outside the box? Yeah, the phrase is a cliché, but the point is you want to hire people who are mentally agile, who can drive or adapt to change, who nimbleness under pressure to find new ways of conceiving news and of telling and presenting stories. Look for proof, apply your reporting skills to the candidate? Can he or she really do what they say they can do? Find out.

 Can the person communicate? For editor and manager candidates, look for a history of collaboration, especially in managing long-term, undefined projects. For reporters, look for people who develop and keep sources - that means they can make and maintain a human connection. Again, report on them. Talk to their former managers, staffers, colleagues and sources.

 Is the person exceptional at something? For me, this is the most important quality. Look for people who excel, on the job and in their personal life. That is typically a sign of passion - and passion is the lifeblood of a newspaper.

 Finally, is the person a risk-taker? Wayne Rosing, Google's VP for engineering, told Fast Company:

"We look for smart. Smart as in, do they do something weird outside of work, something off the beaten path? That translates into people who have no fear of trying difficult projects and going outside the bounds of what they know."

Newspapers are about news, about communication and about community. But more than anything else they are about people, and in order to get with the tough task of reinvention they need the right people in place - people who can envision a different future and have the will to build it.

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Posted by Tim Porter at June 7, 2006 10:32 AM


This is great stuff. I have been trying to do weird things all my life. Where were the Google kind of people when I needed them?

Posted by: d rabin on June 10, 2006 12:50 PM

I'll add one more tip based on the practices of my employer, a Very Large Software Company: Don't hire someone narrowly qualified for one specific job; hire someone smart enough to do any job within their area of expertise. Why? Because we assume that (a) no job is permanent; (b) no job description or duties are permanent; (c) no management structure is permanent; (d) no organization or business model is permanent; (e) only change is permanent. Hire accordingly.

Posted by: Mike on June 12, 2006 06:07 PM
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