This post was published originally on the American Press Institute site on my old Training Tracks blog, Feb. 9, 2006, after the first day of a two-day Newspaper Next symposium, introducing the disruptive innovation principles of Clayton Christensen to the newspaper industry. I just blogged about Christensen’s most recent insights on the news business, Breaking News, in the Nieman Reports. I removed outdated links.
At a recent meeting of well-meaning newspaper executives, somebody suggested convening a reader panel for an upcoming conference. I suggested including some non-readers. A colleague dismissed the suggestion as a waste of time.
I wasn’t feeling particularly feisty, so I didn’t pursue the issue, but I thought the statement, and the lack of a challenge to it from other colleagues, said a lot about our business and where we are.
Wednesday I heard a lot about our business and where we could be. We could be important to those non-readers (non-users or non-consumers might be a better way to describe them).
I spent Wednesday at the Newspaper Next Symposium at the National Press Club. The symposium, which continues Thursday, presents the initial work of API’s project to develop a new business model for the newspaper industry. The project won’t be finished until later this year, but I was excited about what I heard.
I heard an attitude that doesn’t blow off the non-consumers, but sees them as an opportunity. “I have no more important piece of advice for this industry than to bring in the non-consumer and build a newspaper model around them,” said Clark Gilbert, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School and a director of Innosight, API’s consulting partner in Newspaper Next. (Update: Gilbert is now president and CEO of Deseret News Publishing and Deseret Digital Media in Salt Lake City.)
I heard a vision of the marketplace that sees opportunities in the jobs that consumers, non-consumers, advertisers and non-advertisers need done that newspapers (or at least companies with newspaper roots) can do better than anyone.
I heard a message of hope for an industry that too often is filled with gloom.
I heard a demand for our industry to define our future, rather than going the way of the huge, integrated steel mills and downtown department stores that once seemed secure in their futures.
I heard a warning that newspaper companies need to give structural autonomy to their own innovative ventures, because the core business invariably overwhelms the new operation.
The responses from industry executives at the symposium gave me hope that we may be ready for some serious change, rather than the tweaking that usually passes for change in this industry.
Clayton Christensen, Innosight co-founder and a professor at Harvard Business School, taught us about disruptive innovation, which invariably starts with the non-consumers, then nibbles at the edges of the established business’s market. Christensen told the stories of the minicomputer business, the steel industry, department stores, airlines, health care, vacuum tubes, cameras. The pattern was similar in every case — and disturbing familiar to the newspaper veterans in the room.
In each case, the mature industry’s experience and expertise actually became an impediment to innovation. So was the success that resulted in huge companies. “The bigger you get, the less interesting are the small opportunities of today that are the big opportunities of tomorrow,” Christensen said.
The stories of disruptive innovation certainly had our attention as he moved on to the message of hope. Instead of viewing the marketplace through product categories and market demographics, Christensen said, we need to identify what people want done that we can do well.
“What are the jobs that arise in the lives of customers for which they might hire a product like ours?” he asked. Too often, he said, consumer research results in a “one-size-fits-none product,” rather than in products tailored to the jobs customers and potential customers want done.
We discussed some jobs we can do better for consumers and non-consumers — matching buyer and seller in transaction-based advertising, generating actual leads for advertisers, guiding consumers through a bigger news menu rather than being gatekeepers.
When you look at the jobs people have to do, Christensen said, “the market is a heck of a lot bigger.”
A bigger market for newspapers? I’m eager to hear more.