Journalism innovation: Asteroids and adaptation

This is a follow up to my piece or The Media Briefing looking at why integration might have been the wrong response to digital disruption. Like that piece, this originally appeared on The Media Briefing

After I challenged a lot of the conventional wisdomabout print-digital integration, Neil Thackraycompared digital disruption to “a sci-fi B-movie where Earth is threatened with destruction by an incoming asteroid”. I love the analogy.

He broke down the response of media managers to digital disruption like this:

  • Asteroid deniers, who don’t believe that digital is a threat.
  • Radio astronomers, who spot the asteroid at a distance and know the world is doomed but see the threat as so distant that they take no action.
  • Naked eye astronomers, who have only just spotted the asteroid and are making frantic but futile changes.
  • Rational scientists, who spot the asteroid early and invest in a rocket ship to carry them away to safety.

As Neil points out, being able to spot the asteroid doesn’t mean we’ll be able to save the planet. One of the major lessons of Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma is that even once a disrupted industry sees the asteroid as a threat, they still too often fail to adapt successfully.

Kodak developed the first digital camera in 1975, but it couldn’t capitalise on that early innovation. It created an iconic, successful business based on its dominance in the film, chemical and paper business.  But as cheap digital products got better, Kodak was killed by its cash cow.

It has been much the same for print media. In a 2011 report, Christensen, working with Canadian journalist David Skok and Harvard Business review writer James Allworth explained how magazines and newspapers’ dominance in print became a weakness:

For many years, the systems and processes used to gather, distribute and sell the news worked well. And in most respects they still do. It is a marvellous sight to witness a newspaper brought to life or a newscast on air, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Those systems were designed precisely for that process. But what was once an advantage has become an albatross.

The result is that much of print media finds itself stuck. Christensen, Skok and Allworth put the situation for news organisations like this:

Four years after the 2008 financial crisis, traditional news organizations continue to see their newsrooms shrink or close. Those that survive remain mired in the innovator’s dilemma: A false choice between today’s revenues and tomorrow’s digital promise.

At this point, if you’re a regional newspaper publisher in the UK or a print consumer magazine group, you know that your traditional audiences are declining, but you also know that your current digital revenue won’t pay the cost of supporting your traditional business. Yes, print media groups are all trying to grow their digital revenue as quickly as possible, but the big question still remains for most groups in this very different market: How to adapt?

The economist and writer Tim Harford has an entire book on the subject,Adapt: Why success always starts with failure. In the book, he lays out a three-part “recipe for successfully adapting”:

  • Try new things, in the expectation that some will fail.
  • To make failure survivable, because it will be common.
  • And to make sure that you know when you’ve failed”.

When I was digital research editor at The Guardian in 2009 and early 2010, my goal was to bring down the cost of experimentation down as close to zero as possible and try different things using low or no-cost third party services. It’s a rather simple strategy to increase experimentation.

These days if you want to try something editorially, there’s an app, a web service or a plucky start-up for that. To know whether I was successful or whether I had failed, I had a set of goals that ranged from higher user engagement, mining our own stories for data or a more efficient editorial process. In an ideal world, I would have worked with commercial teams to add revenue goals for some of the projects. Goals are important because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.

It is a model that increases experimentation, and for those projects that are successful, they can be deployed across the organisation.

Experimentation, especially editorial, is easier than ever, but organisational change is still really hard. In the next piece, I’ll look at how to scale innovation and create organisational change.