Spitting on the bonfire

I’m at a session on Newspaper Next, an American Press Institute project to try to bring innovation to newspapers. They’re working with Clay Christensen, change guru, and started projects with various newspapers about such things as getting ads from smaller businesses; creating a one-stop resource for mothers; developing an organizational structure for innovation; increasing readership; getting broader audiences, and this: “rethink online effort to meet key information and community engagement needs for wider range of users, including nonconsumers of news.” I thought that last one might just be about citizens’ media. But, no, it’s more about “audiences.”

We’re not an audience, damnit. I think this project needs to learn how to collaborate with the people formerly known as the audience. When they launched, I was cranky about it. They’re trying to reshape newspapers but I think they should be more aggressive and imagine the world after newspapers and figure out how to get news there. They need to get out there and work with the nonnewspaper people

The project took a survey of 500 newspapers managers found that 28 percent thought their companies saw the trends and had answers; the rest didn’t. “So it’s clear that the industry has no idea what to do next,” says Steve Gray, leader of the project, who’s speaking here.

We’re getting the Christensen disruptive innovation spiel. I hate to think that there could be anyone left in the newspaper industry who isn’t aware that they’re quite disrupted. I’m eager to see innovation and experimentation that is not afraid to disrupt itself.

Now he’s starting to list the disrupters taking on newspapers, starting with free print dailies, then Craigslist. Oh, those are only the easy disrupters. Sit down and start listing how the internet disrupts the newspaper business and you’ll fill a page very fast. Start here: How about your readers writing as disruption?

Will innovation happen within the industry this way? Having been in too many task forces inside and outside news companies, I am dubious.

See, instead, how Murdoch is innovating: He’s buying MySpace. Viacom buys iFilm. Even Yahoo and Google buy the guys inventing the next things.

I said to Gray that the project seems to be trying to move a big, old barge five degrees when we need to blow up the barge and pick up the pieces and build new boats. He shifted the metaphor and said he’s trying to big, old cows to move a bit.

I don’t think that’s enough. In fact, I think that making small steps — hey, least we’re doing something, you say — is false comfort. It is dangerous.

  • Jeff,

    I think I’m among a large group of people, perhaps the majority, who sometimes are part of an audience and sometimes are not.

    I often get the feeling that you’re treating me, and people like me, as part of your audience who damn well need to get with your program.

    Most of the time, when you’re not unwittingly lecturing me, I greatly enjoy being a part of your audience, and strongly prefer not to be a part of the conversation. What, exactly, is wrong with that? And, please don’t tell me that this comment undermines my argument.

  • After Gray’s response to you it would have been a hoot to suggest blowing up the old cows and picking up the pieces and making new cows… just so he got the point in his own lingua franca.

    Industries rise and fall (um, rail as primary long haul transportation comes to mind) and there are times where even the best changes agents will only delay the inevitable. Newpapers time has come and the change agents have already played their best cards. Like rail… there will be purpose for newsprint after the dust settles. I think I’d be jockeying for THAT positioning instead of hinging my hopes on a last bit gamble on juicing up an entire industry.

  • I just got out of journalism school 18 months ago. In almost every class, the instructor would ask how many students read the newspaper. It was consistently less than 25 percent. In JOURNALISM classes.

    The newspapers are in more trouble than they can imagine.

  • The newspaper industry may recognize that they are the victims of disruption, but they don’t seem to understand the nature of the disruption. The truth is that Craigslist, citizen’s journalism, etc. is NOT the source of the disruption. (These are only results of the more fundamental disruption.)The problem is that *paper* is being disrupted as a distribution channel for news. The technology for distributing news is changing and inevitably, the structure of the news gathering business will be shaken to its core. This is much like what happened to the buggy-whip makers and to the livery stable operators… When the automobile came, it didn’t compete with buggy-whips or liverymen, what it did was eliminate the horse as a primary motive force for transportation. The result was what the economist Shrumpeter called a “gale of destruction” as industries and structures which were based on the horse were wiped out — as a secondary effect. The newspaper industry, like the Television business, music distributors, radio stations, etc. are being shaken as *secondary* effects of a primary disruption — the growing supremacy of the Internet as the means for distributing content.

    The structure of the newspaper industry is based on anecdotal characteristics of the technology it once relied on exclusively to distribute news. Initially, newspapers HAD to be local since there was a very limited range over which you could rapidly distribute paper. You had to have presses scattered around the country and there wasn’t much economy of scale in owning presses in multiple locations. The creation of the Associated Press ended up reinforcing the local nature of newspapers since the AP allowed non-local news to be shared by papers and thus removed a primary motivation to otherwise consolidate papers.

    The Internet, in disrupting paper, deals a death-blow to the structure of the newspaper business whose structure is based on the limits of paper rather than the requirements of news gathering. Since the Internet allows distance-independent distribution and gathering of news, it permits new and economically more efficient location-independent structures to be employed. The newspapers have staff who provide important functions in gathering news locally, providing local perspective on news, and gathering local advertisements, etc. However, the newspapers’ economic structures rely on assumptions that no longer hold. Thus, it is likely that unless we build a new *structure* to the news business, we’re going to lose not only the newspaper organizations but also the valuable local teams that live within them.

    Getting “old cows to move a bit” isn’t going to be enough. We do, in fact, need to blow up the barge and put it together again. The challenge is to filter out the structural elements and assumptions that rely on anecdotal characteristics of paper as a distribution media and keep those things that are independent of the distribution media. The “Newspaper” of the future will rely on location independent distribution while having distributed news and opinion gathering. Thus, the “local” news operation won’t be running its own presses — or web sites — what it will do is feed content into a platform run remotely on a scale larger than the local news operation. Of course, the local operation won’t be limited to just text and pictures. They will gather and support video, sound, etc. The result is that the the proper “newspaper of the future” will be vastly more focused on the problem of *journalism* than is the paper of today that spends so much time worrying about ink, paper, trucks and kiosks.

    bob wyman
    (Member, API Newspaper Next Task Force)

  • Joe,
    I wouldn’t dare tell you anything now. ;-)

    Great post. Good luck at those API meetings!


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