Marc Andreessen’s seminal 2011 piece Software is Eating the World explains how almost everything is being digitized, strengthening the agile and slaying the slow.
And in 2015, news publishers agreed to publish their articles directly on Facebook. Oops?
So how do news organizations avoid becoming the next Borders?
Is it to stick to their knitting and focus primarily on their print assets as media columnist JackShafer argues in his piece “What if the Newspaper Industry Made a Colossal Mistake?”
While the stick-your-head-in-the-sand-and-pray strategy might seem nice, I think Jack Welch’s quote “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” highlights the small flaw in this argument.
So why is it that news organizations, some of the earliest adopters of the World Wide Web, are struggling the most?
For the same reason that Kodak, the inventor of digital photography succumbed to digital photography. Instead of adapting their organizations to the new technology, they tried to adapt the new technology to their existing organizations.
In the case of Kodak, this meant going from being a chemical company to a software, camera and ultimately mobile computing company, an almost impossible feat. The chemical plants that used to be their greatest assets, became anchors that drowned them.
So even if news organizations have developers and designers and deliver mobile-first content, they’re still stuck pursuing paper-based strategies in a software and Internet world.
So why are news organizations still stuck in the past?
Two hundred years of history is hard to change. Regardless, of the adoption of mobile, video or virtual reality the basic approach to news hasn’t changed in over 200 years. The news business is a slave to a business model built on the Tweet of the 19th century; the article.
Before the printing press made distribution relatively cheap, there was no such thing as an article, only books, letters & legal documents. Then along came the printing press, and suddenly the idea of private citizens creating throwaway publications as a way to deliver information became a thing. And the article was born. First accompanied by drawings and then later by photos.
And with the advent of radio came audio stories and recorded sounds. Finally visual news came into being via theater and later TV.
The defining traits for all these technologies are:
- One-way communication platforms that require experts manning expensive equipment to create and distribute content
- Limited space, personalization and sharing
- Non-existent search, linking or ability to take action within the platform
So how did these constraints define news and journalism business?
With space being limited to 30 minutes of airtime or 30-60 print pages the entire product was built around disappearing content with no regard to long-term reuse/access since the content viewing and storage mechanism were the same, i.e. the story was both stored and viewed on paper or TV screen.
In the physical world, the costs for adding each additional page or minute of airtime are fairly linear, so the goal is to maximize the limited space with enough high-quality content that people engage with the product but not so much content that it impacted the profitability.
The other key factor about the news business, is that it’s based around disposable/disappearing content. Since the distribution mechanism is also the storage mechanism, i.e the paper or news program, there is little to no value to build long-term content since it either goes in the trash or disappears when the segment is over. As a result, “news” has been defined as throwaway content with little thought about creating content or an information architecture designed to support reuse.
Since space was limited and needed to be constantly refilled, and since high-quality content was required to attract and retain customers then it made sense to pay people, journalists, to write stories. Since the primary skill required to fill the space was to be able to tell a story in text or moving pictures, journalist and writer became synonymous.
Allowing the non-paid public to write anything more than a letter or an occasional op-ed piece meant devaluing the concept of being a journalist and the product they sold. Since the barriers to entry were so high, companies were able to transform the businesses into local and national information monopolies, duopolies or triopolies to be managed for maximum profitability not growth.
And since the technological underpinnings of the business didn’t really change for decades there was no real need for a product management/development organization. So by the 70s newspapers and news in general had become culturally-inbred cash cows focused on continuity and maximizing profitability, not growth, for investors.
And then along came the Internet….
The key technological traits of the Internet era are:
- Infinite personalization: Every screen and item can be personalized just for you.
- Unlimited space: Every news article ever created can be fit on a single hard drive.
- Endless interconnectivity: Anyone can connect with anyone anywhere. Distance doesn’t matter.
- Almost effortless sharing: Words and images can be copied and shared by anyone anywhere without any costs and capture the value of your work.
- Simple self-service publishing platforms: Any amateur can publish professional quality stories, images & videos
- Instant Interactivity: The Web doesn’t just deliver information, it enables action, ordering a toaster or organizing a mob.
- It’s the platform stupid! Static content can be copied but server-side software can’t.
- The Network Effect: Each additional person, company and system added to a gravitational platform increases the gravitational pull in an ever-self reinforcing cycle.
- Active participation: People are no longer content to just be passive participants ingesting pushed information but want to be active contributors to conversations and drive change.
- Interactive Analytics: Instead of static reports, you can filter and query to see information just the way you want
And just like in every other industry built on outmoded technologies and business models, software is eating journalism and the news business.
The current response: Building faster, better & cheaper buggy whips
Given the cultural inbreeding and the institutionalization of what news and journalism are both in academia and in newsrooms, the inability to respond effectively is not surprising. To date, the changes by news organizations have really been around leveraging technology to do more of what they have already been doing but faster, better and cheaper.
Faster: In the past news organizations competed on speed, trying to beat their competition by getting the story first. Unlike Wall Street where milliseconds can mean millions, being a few minutes faster than the competition on a commodity story generally won’t reap significant financial rewards.
Better: Since Journalism is all about telling stories, news orgs are adopting new expensive story-telling technologies such as Virtual Reality or building a multimedia experience ala Snowfall to compete against the ocean of free content.
Cheaper: Leveraging AI to write stories ala the AP using AI to generate sports stories (actually innovative) or more frequently cutting staff and wages to drive down costs while pushing their people to write more, blog more, tweet more, etc. more.
The problem with all of these approaches is that they are all about optimizing horse-and-buggy businesses, instead of developing new automotive-enabled industries. In the IT world, it’s known as paving the cowpath, using new technologies to enshrine old approaches to the world, instead of changing the organization and processes to get the most out of the new possibilities.
If you can’t fight em, join em! Embrace your status as a solutions and information technology organization
The Germans didn’t just demolish the French and Brits at the beginning of WWII because they had tanks and planes, but because they had people who could think differently about using them and saw how they could redefine the battlefield to surprise the enemy and play to their strengths.
So instead of figuring out how to optimize outmoded technologies and processes, news organizations need to adapt their missions and organizations to the new information battlefield.
The first step to fighting back and winning the war for both the public good and and corporate profits is to embrace the fact that you are in the solution and information-technology business whether you want to be or not.
And in order to be successful as a solutions/IT company, news organizations need to expand their mission and playing field to capture the new opportunities and defend against irrelevance.
Move beyond content to enabling insights, action & community collaboration to capture new opportunities and avoid irrelevance
Once you move beyond just documenting the world via articles to providing solutions your opportunities expand a thousandfold. Take advantage of the gifts that technology gives you and shift your primary mission from just documenting the world to becoming public-service platforms enabling insights, action & community collaboration to make the world a better place.
Why Public service? If you’re not in it for the public service, then you’re nothing but a PR and advertising firm. Journalism at its core is all about public service and the moment that that gets lost, then nothing else matters.
Why Platform? The battle is not about the individual article or one newspaper or another, it’s about competing platforms. Anyone can publish, but the platform determines the user experience, profits and impact. While text, images and even videos can be copied and shared almost anywhere, software platforms provide the additional interactivity and value required to be economically viable and socially impactful. Relying on Facebook’s platform means they control the conversation, your future and profits.
Why enabling insights? The goal of almost any article is provide insights, to help your audience to understand a little bit more about the world and make decisions about where to live, travel, send their kids to school, what medicines to take, who to vote for. In the past, the primary model has been through the publication of an article, video or even infographic, but modern analytics tools provide so many more ways to help people make decisions. Unfortunately, while news organizations use business intelligence tools internally they’ve almost completely failed to adopt them to provide insights to their audience.
And even when news organizations create decision support tools, since they don’t view themselves as being in the analytics & information business, they fail to monetize and support these products as products.
Why action? When I wrote about kids killing kids or about how the lack of local witness/victim-protection programs force people like “Jose” (not his real name) to live in fear with a bullet lodged next to his brain while his shooters walk free, it wasn’t because I just wanted people to go, “that’s interesting.” I wanted them to take action and make a difference. Software enables you to transform enragement into action, whether donating online, reaching out to their representatives, sending complaints, expressing their gratitude, etc…
Why community collaboration? We are a social species and so not only does the Internet allow us to take action by ourselves but it enables us to organize our friends, neighbors and countrymen to work together to make a difference. Instead of just writing articles about people coming together, we can actually help people come together to create better communities.
Together, this combination provides fills an unmet need, delivers an incredibly powerful value proposition and represent a massive market opportunity. Instead of being content companies competing against every other publishing platform and anyone who can write, you are now providing value Facebook doesn’t and competing in a fragmented space against primarily homegrown, smaller software companies.
Coming soon: How to go face to face with Facebook and succeed in the conversation business