When I arrived at the Lawrence Journal-World earlier this month, the first thing I told the staff was that we needed to think "audience first." Not just digital first; we had to consider every possible way that our audiences wanted to receive information from us–the Web, mobile, social, print, feeds, e-mail, whatever—and deliver news, info and advertising through those channels in a high-quality, revenue-producing form. After a few weeks, the excellent Journal-World staff is probably already getting sick of me preaching "audience-first." But now comes a new preacher with the same message, and more.
Harvard Business School Prof. Clayton M. Christensen is revered by innovative and entrepreneurial business thinkers for his legendary book, The Innovator's Dilemma, which explores how existing businesses almost invariably are vulnerable to being blindsided by upstart competitors that disrupt and upend their industries. (You may have noticed something like that happening in the news business lately, no?) It's probably the single most influential and important business book of the past 15 years. All of us who've taught entrepreneurship and innovation have used it as a basic text.
Now Christensen and a couple of colleagues have turned their attention to the news business, with an important, fascinating piece in the new issue of Nieman Reports entitled "Breaking News: Mastering the Art of Disruptive Innovation in Journalism." It's a must read—maybe the most insightful, important article on the future of the news business since Clay Shirky's legendary "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" in 2009.
Christensen's treatise is long and a bit business school-like. But it's worth sitting down with and absorbing if you care about the future of news and the business models that must support it. Not only does he make a strong argument about "audience first"—and what to do about it—but he explores real-world examples of how news organizations and others are restructuring and rethinking what they do to foster innovation and ensure their future. This is exactly the kind of restructuring and rethinking we're embarking on in Lawrence to become truly "audience first" and find a model for a successful local news organization. Christensen's article is like reading the recipe.
Go read the the whole thing. But I'll leave you with the conclusion, which sums it up well:
The reason that innovation often seems to be so difficult for established newsrooms is that, though they employ highly capable people, they are working within organizational structures whose processes and priorities weren't designed for the task at hand.
Creating an innovative newsroom environment means looking within the existing value network and beyond traditional business models to discover new experiences for audiences, then realigning your resources, processes and priorities to embrace these disruptions.
While there is no one panacea to replace the traditional business models that news organizations relied upon for half a century, these recommendations taken in aggregate provide a framework for an emergent strategy to take hold. Innovation requires courageous leadership, a clearly articulated vision, and the strength to stay the course.
Postscript: The great Andrew Sullivan, who blogs for the Daily Beast, which just announced that it will cease publication of the print version of Newsweek at the end of this year, has some very interesting thoughts on the need to hasten the transition from print to digital.