Newspapers Must Innovate or Die

    by JD Lasica
    March 9, 2008

    On Friday Dan Gillmor wrote here about bringing an entrepreneurial mindset to today’s journalism.

    On Friday, Dan’s former employer, the San Jose Mercury News, laid off 15 newsroom staffers and lost five other editors through buyouts, shaving the editorial staff by about 10 percent, on top of a larger set of layoffs a few months ago. Or, to be more precise, the paper’s corporate owners, MediaNews, did so.

    This is at once both troubling and ironic.


    Troubling, because the downsizing is indicative of deep-seated financial and circulation troubles in the newspaper industry as a whole. (As newspaper analyst Dave Morgan observed last year: “Ad revenue in most large newspaper markets will keep dropping 3-5% per year for the next five years. Real circulation — excluding the tons of papers dumped on schools, hotels and the constantly-churning “free ten-week trial” — will keep dropping 3-7% per year for the next five years.”)

    Ironic, because the Mercury News should know better. No other newspaper is so well situated to emulate the culture of Silicon Valley. Here in the Valley, the Merc has spent years reporting on the cyclical ups and downs of the technology sector. But more significant is the ethos of 21st century capitalism that the Valley embodies.

    Some of those lessons might be summarized as:

    • Experiment. Take risks. Think outside the box. The Valley’s mantra could be summed up in a phrase: “Innovate or die.”
    • Dare to fail. Build on the rubble of others’ failures.
    • Embrace uncertainty. Embrace change.
    • See where the marketplace is going, get there first and offer something of immense value.
    • Build for the long term, not for short-term returns.

    (I blogged about forecaster Paul Saffo’s rules for success here and here.)

    Innovation or inertia?

    On Friday, Beatblogging.org’s David Cohn pointed to Clay Shirky’s new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, and quoted this excerpt from Shirky’s book:

    A good deal of user-generated content isn’t actually “content” at all, at least not in the sense of material designed for an audience. Instead, a lot of it is just part of a conversation.

    Mainstream media has often missed this, because they are used to thinking of any group of people as an audience. Audience, though, is just one pattern a group can exist in; another is community. Most amateur media unfolds in a community setting, and a community isn’t just a small audience; it has a social density, a pattern of users talking to one another, that audiences lack. An audience isn’t just a big community either; it’s more anonymous, with many fewer ties between users. Now, though, the technological distinction between media made for an audience and media made for a community is evaporating; instead of having one kind of media come in through the TV and another kind come in through the phone, it all comes in over the internet.

    University of Florida new media professor Mindy McAdams chimed in:

    Newspapers used to be centered in communities. Now they are mostly not. People in much of North America don’t even live in communities.

    Is this why newspapers are dying? Because there are no communities? …

    It’s about what Shirky said: Audiences are not the same as communities, and communities are made up of people talking to one another.

    What does a community need? How should journalists supply what communities need? …

    Indeed, this is perhaps the key question for the survival of newspapers, but one that’s rarely heard in newsrooms or corporate media offices.

    I was once optimistic about the resiliency of newspapers and the promise of their online news divisions. But that optimism has faded as media companies circle the wagons and hunker down, intent on shoring up short-term profits with few attempts to boldly experiment.

    A handful of exceptions like the Beat Blogging project — a collaboration among 13 news organizations to determine how social networks can improve beat reporting — only prove the rule. The Mercury News seemed on course to embrace a new direction with its Next Newsroom Project, coming to Duke University on April 3-4. I hope I’m proved wrong, but the odds appear stacked against the paper’s Denver-based corporate owners embracing the kinds of still-evolving, far-reaching, disruptive changes on the table at Next Newsroom.

    Most of the innovation in news continues to occur outside of the newspaper industry, ranging from Digg, Newsvine, NowPublic and Facebook (rivers of personalized news) to Placeblogger‘s list of citizen media sites and David Cohn’s citizen newspaper network BrooWaha.

    News organizations need to begin thinking of news as an ongoing process rather than a finished product, as broadcast news consultant Terry Heaton has written. The new era is not about mass products but serving niche markets and repositioning your core business for the new economy. It’s about engagement, participation and conversation rather than monetizing audiences or eyeballs. It’s about taking journalism in new directions. It’s about studying people from the future — young people — and their radically different media habits.

    Chiefly, it’s about taking chances, and building value for communities, and innovating for the new information age.

    Or perishing.

    Tagged: citizen media experiments innovation new media silicon valley

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