May 20, 2014 Last Updated 12:47 pm

Media disruption: Newspapers need to start seeing the opportunities change presents

The NYT’s Innovation Report makes great reading it you are a media nerd (which I certainly am) and get pleasure in reading the internal discussions of other media companies. But it is also are reminder that there is a fundamental flaw in the way much of the media industry thinks of disruption, seeing it as something to be overcome, rather than an opportunity.


Leaked scan of NYT’s ‘Innovation’ report



Disruption comes in all different ways – from small changes in reader habits, to wholesale abandonment of publication categories and revenue streams. But each time there is change, there is someone there to take advantage of that change.

Unfortunately, the newspaper industry remains, even today, very much fighting disruption rather than using it to their advantage.

No better example of this involves mobile, where newspapers have a tremendous content advantage. Rather than being leaders in launching new mobile products, the emphasis remains on finding ways to sell their old products, but in mobile apps and mobile browsers.

For at least the second time, newspapers were given an opportunity to win back their classified advertising revenue but no real effort is being seen here, despite the fact that Craig’s List and others who took away the business a decade ago are just as much traditionalists as newspaper execs.

The NYT’s report, which can be read in a leaked scan, holds few surprises other than that it contains few real contestable recommendations – which is admittedly a backhanded compliment, but still a good thing.

Still, the report reads like an attempt to play catch up. It accurately identifies those new digital media properties that are stealing away readers, but doesn’t get to the core of the issue – that these new digital media properties come at their job from a fundamentally different perspective, one that tries to create something new rather than evolve an older product.

What newspapers are not good at is arming themselves for the next battle. When confronted with a world where digital media would dominate, it failed to build the infrastructure necessary to fight. Instead it outsourced or invested in outside ventures. It is why I simply can’t take the efforts of Digital First Media seriously – any company that says it is a digital leader and outsources its simplest mobile apps is not serious about digital, it is talking a good game in preparation for selling itself down the road.

There are signs that the team that pieced together the new report for Times managements sees this problem themselves. They point out that the mobile team, which should “be one of our most forward-looking groups, spends so much time making fixes to ensure our journalism appears in our apps that they say they have little time left to think about how the mobile report should be distinctive or how to harness new technologies. That helps explain why it took a group removed from the daily flow of the newsroom – NYT Now – to fundamentally rethink our mobile presentation.”

If any newspaper, outside of the financial segment, can succeed in innovating and not only survive but thrive in an ever-changing media world it is the NYT. It has the depth of talent to make it happen. But the NYT is an outlier, though one that does influence other major metro newspapers.

But if anything in the new report has me doubtful that the NYT can pull this off it is that the center for all things digital appears to remain firmly in the newsroom. It is the newsroom that is the new product engine, rather than the supplier of its content.

As a former publisher once told a Hearst editor many years ago, “I want you concentrating on producing the best journalism you can. Concentrating on anything else is a distraction.”

I’m sure the NYT newsroom and walk and chew gum at the same time, but one wonders if by centering its solutions there, as other papers have done, if it isn’t limiting its options. The authors of the new report may complain that when “the business side conducted a while rethinking of our audience-development strategies” it was not consulted. But how many times in the past has the business side been consulted before a new project was undertaken? (I’ve been told that it is very rare.) Was there a member of the business side on the panel that produced the report? (no, there wasn’t).

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