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Review of Capturing Digital News Innovation Research in Organizations, 1990-2018 

By Kelly Kaufhold, PhD
Associate Professor of Digital Media Innovation
August 4, 2020

We closely follow media innovation in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University – after all, it’s in our name in the Media Innovation Lab. Valerie Belair-Gagnon, PhD, and doctoral candidate Allison Steinke, from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities crafted a rigorous and comprehensive look at three decades of experimentation and adaptation across a wide variety of media organizations. Their article, Capturing Digital News Innovation Research in Organizations, 1990-2018, is published online in Journalism Studies. 

Belair-Gagnon and Steinke conducted a highly structured meta-analysis of 323 studies from 118 peer-reviewed academic journals, including titles familiar to any journalism scholar: Journalism Studies; Journalism Practice; Journalism; New Media & Society; and Media, Culture & Society. They identified four distinct eras in media innovation: 1) An emphasis on changes to storytelling with the proliferation of news websites (and the first hints of audience participation); 2) Convergence, with a growth in multimedia and user-generated content; 3) A growing interest in "newswork," including changes to the sociology and practice of journalism; and 4) Networked journalism, especially how social media changed story reporting, telling and consumption. This last era featured a growth in collaborative storytelling and sharing… and commensurate threats to trust and verification.

“I intended this as a think piece. I’m not very surprised by any of the results, but I think talking about those results brings questions about the way research has evolved,” Belair-Gagnon said. “When you look at the evolution of the different periods, it seems that the focus is very much on what journalists are telling us that they’re experiencing at the time. It also is linked with the evolution of journalism studies in the field and the shift toward digital journalism.”

An early finding was resistance to innovation, especially from the oldest and most experienced journalists. Importantly, that has faded over time as practitioners recognized both the inevitability - and value – of technological innovation. Even when innovation was embraced, Belair-Gagnon and Steinke found a focus on adapting to a single technological advance rather than a macro-level view of an industry in transformation, both in the practice of journalism and how scholars studied it. And not all media actors were equal. Legacy newsrooms moved slower than non-legacy, digital-first startups, and journalists in legacy newsrooms were more likely to report excuses for their slower adoption (Boczkowski, 2010; Ryfe, 2012); and more likely to segregate, even isolate, an individual or small team taking the lead in experimentation, because some of the legacy journalists were suspicious of how their practices fit with traditional journalistic values (Boyles, 2016; Lewis, 2012). “The legitimacy of these product managers or these social media editors was seen as being toward the technology and the audience more than it was toward the journalism itself,” Belair-Gagnon said. “And then people started realizing, oh, we can use that for news gathering.” At that time – beginning in the mid-2000s – these innovators began finding themselves more as equal partners in editorial decisions and the daily practice of journalism. “I don’t write about this in the article, but it’s not just that the management has to say that innovation is great and we have to do that, it’s also that management has to do it,” Belair-Gagnon said. “When the management also does it with the innovation team and contributes to the process, rather than just writing an email to everybody else, it makes it more real to people. People trust it more, so they get more buy-in on an innovation project.”

The researchers were ambitious and comprehensive in how they arrived at their findings. First, they worked with a research librarian to organize a broad search across six academic databases for terms with even an oblique allusion to innovation (including “progress,” “future” and “media ecology”), and they searched for the root syllables of more descriptive, experimentative terms (“diffus,” “innov,” “adopt,” “disrupt”). That initial review yielded nearly 9,471 articles from scholarly literature. Then they isolated articles which mentioned journalism, or in some way captured news work; which appeared in a peer-reviewed journal; and mentioned innovation in some way. This yielded 341 articles, dating from 1945 onward. To isolate the Internet era, they chose to eliminate 18 articles which predated 1990, leaving a final sample of 323. One of their first findings was that scholarly research on innovation in journalism increased steadily after 1990, but grew much more robustly after 2000.
Based on prior formative scholarship, Belair-Gagnon and Steinke identified ten categories of innovation (Evans, 2019; Lowrey, 2011; Nelson, 2018): Process; Audience Engagement; Structure; Product System; Network; Profit model; Product Performance; Branding; Channel; Service. They found the first five to be the most prominent in scholarship:

They also applied recent social science scholarship on “mechanisms of change,” which help capture and explain the human complexity woven into a social system (Dalkin, et al., 2015; Mitchelstein, et al., 2017; Ryfe, 2012). Mechanisms in this study on innovation included “participative (open, distributed, networked, and collaborative); normative (friction, resistance, and normalization); disruptive (quick change and fractured); diversity (gender, race, disabilities, etc.); emotive (humor, fun, and play); and experimentative (disruptive)” (Belair-Gagnon & Steinke, 2020, p. 7).

Belair-Gagnon and Steinke quantified each category and mechanism in each article, ranking their prominence by prevalence; then they analyzed the citation history, by decade, of each article to capture its influence; finally, they each repeatedly read the 40 most-cited articles to validate their methodology for capturing the concepts for which they were coding. Most scholarship captured the process and sociology of innovation – how technology disrupted tradition. Certain major themes and theories emerged, including how a new tool or technique disrupted media habits; diffusion of innovation, in both the gathering and distribution of news; convergence, in which digital proliferation blurred the lines between journalistic specialties – both outlets (i.e., newspapers now produce video and audio content) and individuals (television’s Multimedia Journalist (MMJ) or one-person-band reporter and videographer) – convergence was also the era in which the “de-professionalization” of journalism emerged as the boundaries expanded for how to define “journalist”; and engagement and professional control, capturing the increasing interrelated connectivity between journalists and the public. 

Belair-Gagnon has contributed to the literature on journalism innovation. She and other authors examined the intersection of technology and newsroom sociology in a new article just published about intrapreneurship involving Chatbots (Belair-Gagnon, et al., 2020). She was a member of the team of innovation scholars chosen to write about Product Management in Journalism and Academia in a recent issue of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly (Royal, et al., 2020).

The authors cite some limitations – especially the Western-centric, North American proliferation of scholars and objects of study. Dr. Belair-Gagnon suggests that journalism researchers need to do more to put their findings into context – both for practicing journalists and society at large. “What can we do as scholars that can help the field to advance and connect with practice when what we’re doing is not very surprising?” She and Steinke suggest that more attention be given to looking beyond the isolation of a newsroom bubble – journalism as “an object of study," rather than how news innovation can impact society at large. They conclude by stating that it’s especially important to examine essential contemporary concerns about diversity, equity and power in journalism research. “By creating this knowledge about innovation, we’re producing a certain idea about innovation without necessarily criticizing it and offering solutions for newsrooms to think about innovation differently," Belair-Gagnon said.


Belair-Gagnon, V., Lewis, S.C. & Agur, C. (2020). Failure to Launch: Competing Institutional Logics, Intrapreneurship, and the Case of Chatbots. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 25(4). 291-306. 

Belair-Gagnon, V. & Steinke, A. J. (2020). Capturing Digital News Innovation Research in Organizations, 1990-2018, Journalism Studies. 

Boczkowski, P. J. (2010). News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 

Boyles, J. L. (2016). The Isolation of Innovation. Digital Journalism 4(2), 229–246. 

Dalkin, S. M., J. Greenhalgh, D. Jones, B. Cunningham, and M. Lhussier. (2015). What’s in a Mechanism? Development of a Key Concept in Realist Evaluation. Implementation Science, IS 10.  

Evans, S. K. (2018). Making Sense of Innovation: Process, Product, and Storytelling Innovation in Public Service Broadcasting Organizations. Journalism Studies 19(1), 4–24. 

Lewis, S. C. (2012). The Tension Between Professional Control and Open Participation. Information, Communication & Society 15(6), 836–866. 

Lowrey, W. (2012). Journalism Innovation and the Ecology of News Production: Institutional Tendencies. Journalism & Communication Monographs 14(4), 214–287. 

Mitchelstein, M. E., P. J. Boczkowski, and M. C. Wagner (2017). The Boomerang Effect: Innovation in the Blogs of Mainstream News Sites, 2008–2012. Media, Culture & Society 39(8), 1231–1244.

Nelson, J. L. (2018). The Elusive Engagement Metric. Digital Journalism 6(4), 528–544. 

Royal, C., Bright, A., Pellizzaro, K., Belair-Gagnon, V., Holton, A. E., Subramaniam, V., Heider, D., Zielina, A. & Kiesow, D. (2020). Product Management in Journalism and Academia, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, published online June 29, 2020. 

Ryfe, D. M. (2012). Can Journalism Survive: An Inside Look at American Newsrooms. 1st ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity.