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The Failure of Newspapers and What it Means to the Rest of the World

Submitted by on September 15, 2009 – 3:46 pm3 Comments

This is a cross-post from Radar.

Speculation about the demise of the news business and advice about what they should do about it is everywhere. It makes for great, self-congratulatory sport but it won’t help the news industry.

Why?

Because the news industry doesn’t suffer from a shortage of ideas or possible revenue models, it suffers from a different but more acute malady: being an institution during a time of disruptive change.

While we have all been busy telling the newspaper institution what they should do differently we have missed one big point: Institutions are structured to precisely NOT do much of anything different.

The number one thing that ails newspapers? 70% of all costs lie in physical distribution and printing while readership and revenues have dramatically moved away from paper. This leads to a simple-minded but commonsense conclusion (and my superfluous piece of advice): maximize your online presence, build your online community, concentrate on journalistic talent, and jettison all costs associated with print; stop the presses.

Even if I you think I am wrong, just play along with me for a moment and, for the purpose of this exercise, assume I am right. If you can’t go that far substitute your own radical therapy (you know you have one!) in place of mine and answer the next question. Which major newspaper could have gone to its board anytime before 2009 and successfully proposed such a radical solution? The answer if you have ever worked in a large, “institutionalized” organization is zero. The scenario is so horrific, involves pains so great, outcomes so unknown and certain near-term revenue loss such that no institutional body would be capable of acting on it – much less restructuring around so medieval a remedy.

The failure of newspapers is not a failure of imagination or foresight nor is it a failure of individuals. This kind of failure is the hallmark of all institutions in the face of tectonic disruption. Institutions are a set of agreements that perpetuate a social order beyond individual intention or tenure. Changing those agreements is costly and time-consuming. So when the rate of change accelerates beyond the institution’s adaptive capacity – extinction follows.

The question is not “what should newspapers do?” but “how can a large institution effectively organize in response to disruptive change?” Taken thus, it is not only the fundamental question to ask of newspapers – but to ask of ourselves in relation to a host of big-ticket game-changers such as peak oil, environmental collapse and climate change that simultaneously require and defy our capacity for institutional response.

The stakes are much bigger than news. Let’s put our mind to that question instead of making more to-do lists.   I would like to ask for historical examples of institutions that have effectively responded to disruption? What are the lessons that we can draw from them?

3 Comments »

  • Mike Turro says:

    This resonates deeply with my own experience inside the print media industry. It’s easy to sit back and give suggestions as to what this newspaper or that magazine should do to save themselves, but all of these suggestions miss one crucial point: massive organizational structures that took decades to build have a very difficult time re-structuring to meet an exponential pace of change. That is not to say that the task is insurmountable – just that it needs to be re-framed. Only with a realistic view on what is at hand will any of the old school media be able to successfully transition to new modes.

  • Joshua-Michéle says:

    Mike – I am glad it struck a nerve.
    On my Radar post there are a to of fascinating responses – Among them pointers to Senge’s Work on systems thinking and building, “learning organizations” from his book The Fifth Discipline. As well as some examples of institutions (The Army after Vietnam, Railroads after Interstate Highways and IBM moving from hardware to services) that have made massive changes. None of them entirely fit the bill for me – but are, in their own way instructional.
    The most interesting comment was a suggestion that I look at criminal organizations for flexibility and endurance… I am now wanting to understand what organized crime did after the repeal of prohibition – that may be interesting and instructional…

  • […] This post by Joshua-Michéle Ross resonates deeply with my own experience inside the print media industry.  It’s easy to sit back and give suggestions as to what this newspaper or that magazine should do to save themselves, but all of these suggestions miss one crucial point: massive organizational structures that took decades to build have a very difficult time re-structuring to meet an exponential pace of change. Clipped from http://www.opposableplanets.com […]

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