My friend Clyde at ProHipHop sent an article about how the News & Observer newspaper in North Carolina is putting a new emphasis on local coverage and online publishing. Clyde assumed, correctly, that I would be interested in reading how the staff was struggling with the new realities of the publishing industry.
But as I read the article, I found my thoughts wandering.
It's true that we've seen dozens of stories like this about dozens of newspapers and magazines trying to adjust to the Web. The story of the N&O is no different. There is nastiness and misunderstanding. There are folks with their heads in the sand; there are folks with their heads up their butts. There are turf wars and defensiveness. And too few people on the editorial side seem excited about the possibilities.
And as I read the article -- hearing of the same old problems at yet another publication -- it occurred to me that I knew something important. I knew what the next big problem is going to be in B2B journalism.
Almost everywhere I go these days -- clients' offices, universities, industry conferences -- people ask me different versions of the same question: What will be the next big thing? What they're looking for is some clue as to where they should put their efforts. Everyone wants to get a jump on what's next. No one wants to duplicate the struggles of the print-to-Web transition.
I tell them that I don't know what the next big thing will be, although I have some rough ideas. I tell them I expect someone will soon build an "iPod of reading" -- a new, portable device that changes how we read in the same revolutionary fashion that the iPod changed how we listen. I talk about epaper, and a "newsroom in your pocket." I talk about new interfaces that blur the line between creation and consumption. And I say that hundreds of people, much brighter than I, are building remarkable things. And one of those things will become the next big thing in media.
But what I don't mention is that it's unlikely that any of the people who are about to change the content world actually work in a content company.
Perhaps the great lesson of the print-to-online shift has been that traditional content companies suffered and struggled during the transition because they were structured in such a way that suffering and struggling was all they could do.
And content companies are still structured like that. Even the newest, Web-based content companies are structured like that.
And that's why our next big problem is going to be our inability to respond to the next big thing.
A few weeks ago I re-read Clayton Christensen's "The Innovator's Dilemma," which was first published in 1997.
Christensen is brilliant and complex. So I'll ask his fans to forgive me for the following brief and simplistic summary of his work.
Christensen argued that there are two types of technological advances. Sustaining technologies "foster improved product performance." While disruptive technologies, which eventually alter an industry, lead to short-term drops in product performance. Disruptive technologies generally "underperform established products in mainstream markets" and are generally "cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use."
Christensen's central argument was that good management practices -- listening to customers, investing in high-margin businesses, researching markets before entering them, etc. -- made it nearly impossible to respond to disruptive technologies.
In other words, a well-run traditional company is structured in such a way that it can't respond to the next big thing.
If you want to read more about Christensen's theories, you can order the book, read this summary, or check out the Web site of his consulting company.
And it's worth noting that although Christensen, as far as I know, has never examined the B2B publishing industry, he has studied the newspaper business. And he's recommended a "portfolio solution" that magazine publishers should be familiar with. In that plan, a newspaper should create a "suite of products and services in addition to the newspaper, intersecting the population on a variety of planes. The goal is to create new audiences of individuals who are not necessarily interested in the newspaper’s contents."
Past is Prologue
In the past few months I've noticed a problem. It's the same problem that Christensen has studied. It's the same problem that plagued us as we moved from the print world to the Web:
Our companies aren't structured to respond to the next big thing.
I've met with dozens of people from dozens of content companies. Some of these companies are newly Web-focused. Others are Web-only companies and email newsletter companies born in recent years.
And I'm seeing the exact same attitudes, beliefs, work rules, chains of command and silos that I saw in the print-only companies that failed to respond to the Web. I meet email newsletter folks who don't know what RSS is, because "that's not our business." I meet Web journalists who don't think about widgets "because our customers aren't asking for them." I meet managers of online companies who laugh at mobile content ("our readers want more detailed analysis than you can get on a Blackberry,") roll their eyes at online communities ("those are for teenagers") and won't visit a virtual world ("our audience are high-end serious people. None of them play computer games.)
So what's the answer?
Christensen suggested that "creating an independent organization, with a cost structure honed to achieve profitability at the low margins characteristic of most disruptive technologies, is the only viable way for established firms" to harness the forces at play.
In other words, he suggests a "skunk works," a separate company/unit that isn't about the existing product line and that doesn't serve the existing customer base.
Or, as I say at the end of this video interview with Sara Sheadel from ABM, "somebody has to think about and play with every silly idea that pops up ... and then, after you've played for awhile, you can make a determination about whether or not there is a value there."
The thoughts of others
When I think about what I should play with next, I often turn to the work of Danah Boyd. If the next big thing is related to social networking, young people, or community, Danah will know about it long before I do. Check out the text of a speech she gave at eTech.
Sometimes I think the next big thing will be a series of little things -- taking what we do and making it smaller, portable, mashable and shareable. Here's news of a development in that area involving Penton.
Finally, I want to welcome the newest voice to the B2B media blogosphere. Check out the new blog from John Schwartz, general manager of Dentalcompare, an online buyers guide.
tags: journalism, b2b, media, trade press, magazines, newsletters, business media, journalism ethics, journalism education