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.