The slumping, stodgy newspaper industry has turned for help to one of America’s most creative, tech-savvy business thinkers, Harvard Business School prof Clayton M. Christensen. Let’s hope Christensen, an evangelist for radical change and author of the best-selling book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, can help newspapers figure out how to reinvent themselves for a digital world.
I’ve got a bias here. I spent 20 years as a newspaper reporting, beginning at the now-defunct Paterson (N.J.) News and ending at the now-defunct Knight-Ridder chain. (See the pattern?) Three papers — The Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal — land on my driveway each morning by about 6 a.m. Reading them is one of the pleasures of my day.
To be sure, it is neither effficient nor “green” to chop down trees, produce rolls of newsprint, ship them across the country, print papers with multiple sections (many of which I don’t want) and then deliver them by automobile to my suburban home, particularly when more timely and personalized news and information can be found instantly by turning on my laptop. The trouble is, it’s no fun to read a computer screen over breakfast. More to the point, there would be very little news on the Internet or on television, or the radio, or in the blogosphere were it not for the many thousands of reporters and editors employed by newspapers.
Alas, major metropolitan dailies are in trouble, largely because their readers and advertisers are defecting to the Internet. Newspapers could have invented Yahoo and eBay and Craigslist, but they did not, and they have been slow to react to the onslaught of digital media. “We’ re an incredibly insular and arrogant industry,” says Drew Davis, president of The American Press Institute, an industry group. It was the API that raised $2.5 million to hire Christensen and his consulting firm, Innosight, to apply some shock therapy to the business, as part of a project called Newspaper Next.
I heard Christensen and his colleagues describe Newspaper Next this week at an API event at Gannett Corp’s gleaming headquarters in McLean, Va. They’ve got some good ideas–not a laundry list of changes for papers to make, but an array of concepts and processes that could help the industry rethink its purpose and learn to change, quickly.
The goal is pretty simple: To move from the industry’s current focus on a core product, the newspaper, with a few spinoffs like a website or a free arts-and-entertainment weekly, to a portfolio model that delivers solutions to people’s many information-related needs with a variety of products, services and platforms. Some papers are moving this way already. In Washington, The Post has the daily, a free weekday tab called Express, a robust website, a radio station and a bunch of suburban papers. But Christensen and his people argue that an even more dramatic overhaul is necessary.
They argue, among other things, that papers should think in terms of helping readers and non-readers with “jobs to be done” — one of their catch phrases — which can range from being able to participate in a democracy or converse about current events, to finding a good restaurant, to hiring a reliable plumber, to meeting other people who share their interest, to avoiding boredom during commutes. This way of thinking changes the traditional measure of quality at a newspaper. If the “job to be done”Â is to avoid boredom on a bus or train, for example, an easy-to-read tabloid with a few puzzles is actually higher quality that a broadsheet filled with long analyses on Social Security reform. If the “job to be done”Â is finding the best running route when visiting a new city, the print daily is useless. “The quality of a product can only be expressed relative to the job to be done,” Christensen said. On the other hand, if the “job to be done” is pondering the state of the world on a lazy Sunday morning, The Times has no peer.
Newspaper Next is testing this approach at such dailies as The Boston Globe (which is reaching out to small businesses as advertisers), The Dallas Morning News (aiming to solve the problems of busy moms) and the Bergen Record (overhauling its website to be less newsy and more of a go-to source for all kinds of local information). Indications are that newspapers need to think about compiling databases (like Zagats) and about aggregating the collective wisdom of its readers so they can help one another (like Angie’s List.) They have to provide platforms for communities of all kinds, and learn to get comfortable with losing control over their published content on the Internet. What’s more, they need to do all this cheaply, quickly and fearlessly.
Traditionalists will recoil. They shouldn’t. This hide-bound industry badly need a cultural revolution, to find new revenues to support the traditional and important work of reporters and editors. Newspapers aren’t just another business (the record industry, travel agents, boxed software) being disrupted by the Internet, for better or worse. They’re a business that matters to all of us.