Anyone remember when “disruptive innovation” was the focus of discussion about the future of the newspaper industry? It seems like ages ago, but it has been just six or seven years. A Nieman Journalism Lab interview with Clay Christensen of the Harvard Business School has brought the phrase back in recent days. For those who don’t remember Newspaper Next, Mathew Ingram at Gigaom.com aptly summarizes the idea:
“One of the classic lessons from Christensen’s seminal book ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ is that companies with a commanding lead in their field, whether it’s hard-drive makers or steel mills, are almost incapable of taking the steps that need to be taken to survive a technological and/or behavioral disruption — even when the danger of not doing so is blindingly obvious. In other words, even when a company can see quite clearly that a freight train is approaching or a cliff lies directly ahead, it is still almost impossible to step off the tracks or do anything other than stampede over the edge.”
For a few years, “innovation” got a big push, at least in newsrooms. Journalists, in fact, generally have done the most innovating in the business, making their news more mobile, more diverse in form.
But in the wake of the Great Recession and the ongoing slow recovery, many people in the business are focused on where they can find revenue, not on the main point Christensen had stressed, which Joshua Benton described for the Nieman Journalism Lab as:
“First, focus on the jobs that your customers are hiring you to do — and on new ones that you might be in a good position to do. Successful companies often value elements of their products that audiences don’t particularly care about; getting too much distance between those two perceptions leads to business failure.”
What is the job that people come to newspapers or any news source to get done? Ingram asks at Gigaom:
“Are readers suffering from a lack of paywalled content for which they can submit their credit cards? Probably not.”
The current focus on paywalls and how to grow the online subscription business helps the business survive, and it might even be considered an innovation if the purpose is to change the industry from one relying on cheaply acquiring an audience in order to sell lots of advertising to one that relies on creating a product that people are willing to pay to acquire — but it doesn’t serve customers. Continuing to provide the public with the same information we’ve always provided them isn’t an innovation. There has to be more.
Look at the way people use technology – and how rapidly that technology is moving. Ask yourself whether the way you do business makes sense in that world. What is the job people come to you to get done?
Christensen sounds a warning that innovation focused on customers can’t be put off for long:
“Even as the disruption is getting more and more steam in the marketplace, the core business persists, and is really quite profitable for a very long time. Then, when the disruption gets good enough to address the needs of your customers, very quickly, all of a sudden, you go off the cliff.”
10/26 UPDATE — More on the ways people use technology:
“This year, the amount of time consumers spent using mobile devices—excluding talk time—will grow 51.9% to an average 82 minutes per day, up from just 34 minutes in 2010, eMarketer estimates.
“… Time spent with print media will drop to an average 38 minutes per day this year, eMarketer estimates, down from an average 44 minutes per day in 2011. Newspapers will see a drop to an average 22 minutes per day this year, while time spent with print magazines will fall to 16 minutes per day.”