Newspaper Next did not succeed in transforming the newspaper industry. But it transformed the career of this journalist.
N2 attracted great curiosity in the newspaper business five years ago today with the release of its Blueprint for Transformation report.
For the next year or so, the American Press Institute project was the talk of the newspaper business. My API colleagues and I made more than 100 presentations to several thousand executives, sales reps, managers and journalists at industry conferences, seminars and workshops.
As someone who spent most of two years trying spread the N2 message and issuing the N2 call for transformation, it pains me to look back five years later and say that we didn’t bring about any significant lasting change.
N2 was a worthy effort that delivered what the newspaper business needed. We presented tools and concepts for newspaper companies to focus more clearly on meeting the needs of their communities with multiple products doing valuable jobs for businesses and communities. We spurred development of some niche products, some of them still in operation. We guided some innovative projects. But the default settings of the newspaper industry were too strong for anyone to embrace the thorough organizational transformation that N2 championed.
The most widespread notable business change in the newspaper industry the past years has been the opposite of the disruptive innovation that N2 advocated — a rush to erect various types of paywalls. I may be wrong about how foolish newspaper paywalls are (I don’t think so). But they certainly are not disruptive. They are what Clayton Christensen, our N2 partner, calls a sustaining innovation – a tweak to the existing product rather than a disruptive move that creates a new market and attracts new consumers.
If N2’s impact on the newspaper industry was disappointing, its impact on my career has been profound.
I had long been interested in innovation. In 1984 and ’85, I was launch editor for a regional zoned section of the Des Moines Register called Hometown, including a user-generated content (not that anyone used that term then) feature that was my idea.
As portable computers became available for reporters, I used them enthusiastically, not whining about the roll of thermal paper that the Texas Instruments computer used or the 4-line display of the Radio Shack TRS-80 (called the “Trash 80” by reporters who used it).
I embraced data analysis as a reporting tool, using state data to debunk claims of Nebraska environmental and child welfare officials.
I posted my first web page in 1997 and in the 1990s and early 2000s, I agitated for a more aggressive digital approach by the Omaha World-Herald, which steadfastly resisted nearly all efforts to innovate. In 2000, I collaborated with newsroom trainers around the world to launch No Train, No Gain, a website of journalism training materials.
For all my interest in innovation in journalism, I remained largely and blissfully ignorant of how a newspaper operated as a business. I knew someone sold the newspapers and the ads to cover my paycheck, but I had never sold an ad (still haven’t). My deepest exposure to the business operations of a newspaper had been as a youth, carrying the Columbus Citizen-Journal (may it rest in peace), collecting for the paper once a month or so and keeping track of my profits, which paid my way to Philmont Scout Ranch and a Canadian canoeing trip.
When the Des Moines Register and Tribune company killed its afternoon newspaper, the Tribune, in 1982, and the Kansas City Star killed its morning newspaper, the Kansas City Times, in 1990 and moved the Star from afternoon to morning publication, I was mostly puzzled. The afternoon papers were not losing money, and I didn’t understand why you would kill a product because its profit margin was too low.
As editor of the Minot Daily News in the early 1990s, I sat in on the publisher’s department head meetings, and got a broader view of the operation. But the publisher was in over her head and any lessons I learned there about the broader operation were about what not to do.
As a freelance newsroom trainer from 1997 to 2005, I learned some business basics as I marketed and sold my services. When I joined API in 2005, I probably had a bit more business savvy than most journalists, but that’s just another way of saying I didn’t know much.
As we launched the research phase of N2 in 2005, I went through API’s Executive Development Program as a participant, learning more in a week about the full operation of a newspaper than I had learned in my first 30-plus years in the business. Newspaper Next helped me move swiftly from someone who barely understood the business into an advocate for developing new business models.
I didn’t work closely myself with Christensen, the Harvard business professor who is the leading authority on disruptive innovation. But I attended the first N2 symposium, where he explained the principles of disruptive innovation and it made a lot of sense to me. Christensen explained why so many of the smart executives of companies I worked for had done so many foolish things. I wanted to know more, so I read Christensen’s books, The Innovator’s Dilemma and the Innovator’s Solution, and watched his videos.
I worked in the N2 project with Steve Gray, API’s managing director of N2, as well as Christensen’s associate, Scott Anthony, who led an N2 training program specifically for API staff. API’s president, Drew Davis, who had launched N2 and partnered with Christensen, made N2 the focus of API’s work after release of the report in 2006. I threw myself into it as enthusiastically as I have anything in my career.
I missed the Washington program where we released the N2 report because I was releasing and explaining it to a conference of Latin American publishers and other newspaper executives in Mexico City. As I traveled to spread the N2 message of innovation, I collected examples of disruptive projects and illustrations of newspapers’ missteps that followed patterns Christensen had seen in other industries.
Steve was the first team in presenting the full-day N2 program at regional workshops that API presented as well as one- and two-day programs for paying clients. I was stunned at the hefty fees API collected for those programs, underscoring the industry’s hunger for some ideas that might lead to a prosperous future. As the person responsible for selling API’s services, I thought Drew was ambitious, if not crazy, when he set the prices. Then I sold more programs than Steve could handle and ended up doing several of the one- and two-day programs myself. I got a valuable lesson in supply and demand. We had a message that a desperate industry needed, and companies were willing to pay for the value we delivered.
I also was the lead person doing our 90-minute overview for press associations and journalism organizations. We presented the overview at no charge beyond expenses, knowing that the more we provided a glimpse of the program, the more people would pay the fees for deeper exposure. I presented dozens of the overviews, racking up loads of frequent flier miles.
Eventually, I would take N2 programs to audiences across the United States as well as Canada, Europe, Asia and South America.
But late in 2007, demand for our N2 presentations started to fade. And we never found a newspaper company willing to hire us to truly implement N2 throughout the company. The industry responded to N2 as an a la carte menu instead of a wholly new diet that required a lifestyle change.
I tried to describe what a newspaper company needed to become in the first draft of my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection, which I wrote as a proposal for the second N2 report. Drew decided not to include C3 in the second N2 report, Newspaper Next 2.0: Making the Leap Beyond “Newspaper Companies”, released early in 2008, though he did want to use my research on interactive databases as a third N2 report, published late in 2008 after I had left API. Neither report generated significant interest.
When I left API, I was disappointed at the decision not to push C3 as the second phase of N2. But I can see that it would not have made much difference. I published it on my own more than two years ago and I have made presentations on C3 and my subsequent Mobile-First Strategy to leaders of dozens of newspaper companies. The results were pretty much the same as the response to N2: Executives praised the ideas generally, but lacked the vision, courage and/or freedom to make such dramatic changes in their declining companies. Either N2 or C3 could have led the newspaper industry to a more prosperous future if companies had truly followed them. Instead the business has followed a defensive course of slashing costs, throwing up paywalls and waiting for a miracle.
I started new jobs at Gazette Communications and TBD with high hopes that those companies were committed to the kind of fundamental change needed to develop a prosperous new model for a community news organization. Instead, each experience just underscored how difficult it is to change the course and culture of a legacy media organization.
I’m still trying, though. I can see how John Paton’s commitment to Digital First strategy is already making dramatic change at Journal Register. We still have a long way to go, but I haven’t seen any other company make as significant a change in direction and priorities and bottom-line results.
I am eager to continue and expand our work with MediaNews, which has named John its new CEO and retained a new JRC subsidiary, Digital First Media, to manage MediaNews.
I expected five years ago that N2 would transform the newspaper business. That was naïve of me. I didn’t have much expectations for my own career at the time, except that I would ride the N2 wave into the future with API, learning and teaching more about innovation as the business moved forward.
My immersion into new business models in N2 and since has changed the emphasis and outlook of my career. I still love and value traditional journalism, but my emphasis has moved to community engagement, social media and developing a healthy business model. Five years ago, I never imagined the changes in direction that lay ahead on my new path. It’s been an exciting, if sometimes frustrating, path. But I think we’re on our way to success.