Innovation, disruption in media

Last Thursday, Newsweek announced it was ending its print publication on Dec. 31 and going all-digital starting next year.

The digital publication, which will be named Newsweek Global, “will be a single, worldwide edition targeted for a highly mobile, opinion-leading audience who want to learn about world events in a sophisticated context,” Newsweek and The Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown said in the announcement posted at The Daily Beast.

“There’s no demand for a digital Newsweek,” Reuters blogging editor Felix Salmon wrote shortly after the announcement. “Newsweek is hitching its fortunes to a motley group of e-readers (Zinio!), all of which are based on pretty clunky old publishing technology, and none of which have any ability to take advantage of the social web.”

I haven’t tried the Newsweek app because all my news reading are on aggregators like Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, where Newsweek seems to be largely absent (there’s relevance for you.) But I think Salmon is spot-on in pointing out digital solutions based on “pretty clunky old publishing technology.” Many publications still rely on “e-paper” solutions based on the printed page’s layout. These are not gadget-native and do not translate well mobile.

In contrast, news start-ups have started websites and applications more attuned to the needs of today’s audience. They also tap the latest advances in technology.

One such application is Circa, which is rethinking the news article and breaking it up into what its founding editor Dave Cohn calls “the atomic units of news: a fact, a quote, a statistic, an event, etc.” By breaking the article up, the app can then update Circa users on what’s new, without having to repeat information that has already been reported.

Circa answers the needs of people who want keep track of developing news stories. I’ve been using it since it was made available last week and found it useful. Circa does its job well.

By rethinking the media businesses through the “jobs-to-be-done” theory, journalists can spot opportunities in today’s disruptive media landscape. That’s what the Nieman Reports did in its latest issue. The cover story is an examination of the news industry through the innovation framework of Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, the author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.”

The series of articles is very enlightening. Canadian journalist David Skok, a Nieman fellow, said mainstream media “failed to foster a newsroom culture that rewards innovation and empowers the younger generation, that can readily adapt to the new media world around us, and that is willing to experiment with the diversified revenue streams right in front of us.”

In their “Breaking News” essay, Skok, Christensen and James Allworth cited The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed as “classic disruptors.”

“Disruption theory argues that a consistent pattern repeats itself from industry to industry. New entrants to a field establish a foothold at the low end and move up the value network–eating away at the customer base of incumbents–by using a scalable advantage and typically entering the market with a lower-margin profit formula,” they said.

That’s how Huffington Post and BuzzFeed built its business — starting as news aggregators and moving up the value chain. Huffington Post now has a Pulitzer and BuzzFeed is going into longform original reporting.

The authors looked into how digital point-and-shoot cameras lost the market to smartphones on one end and cheaper digital SLR cameras on the other end. They said there is a similar “eroding ‘middle ground’ for news.” Products and services like Metro (a free paper distributed in subways) and Twitter “are serving consumers whose need is simply ‘help me fill these 10 minutes right now.’”

“At the other end of the spectrum, for the job of ‘I will be in an airplane or on a train for four hours, and I want to be intellectually stimulated,’ sites like Longreads and tools like Instapaper and Pocket…are enabling users to find and save longer-form storytelling for offline viewing,” they said.

In thinking about charging for content, the authors cautioned that “it’s critical to avoid falling into the trap of believing that you can charge for content just because it costs money to produce.”

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