Learning from the now

This afternoon held in store for me a fast, engaging conversation with Andrew Jesaitis, a former business manager and colleague at the Whitman Pioneer, who I hear might be getting back into the journalism and media industry. He’s worked for Goldman Sachs since graduating, but will be starting an internship with The Ski Journal in the next couple of months.

I did my best to explain my understanding of how the business is changing, the forces driving the change, and what trends are solidifying for the future. Newspapers and journalism are under the influence of longer-term change because of more ubiquitous ICT, but the current cacophony of crisis is largely due to the biggest recession in half of a century and over-leveraged debt. A lot of the discussion has been centered around the lack of leadership in redefining newspaper business models, but I think Michael Nielsen deserves merit for saying that newspapers might also be failing because their institutional structures are too optimized for an old paradigm. They are too good at what they used to do, and the jump into experimental and uncertain territory is nigh impossible.

That was Nielsen’s most visible takeaway. More obscured, although equally important in my opinion, is his opinion the successful companies of today, Google, Apple, etc., have a foundation of “technological innovation, and most key decision-makers [are] people with deep technological expertise.”:

If you doubt this, look at where the profits are migrating in other media industries. In music, they’re migrating to organizations like Apple. In books, they’re migrating to organizations like Amazon, with the Kindle. In many other areas of media, they’re migrating to Google: Google is becoming the world’s largest media company. They don’t describe themselves that way (see also here), but the media industry’s profits are certainly moving to Google. All these organizations are run by people with deep technical expertise.

This is one of the paradigms we’re trying to instill in student newspapers at CoPress. It’s no longer acceptable to outsource your CMS to a third-party company who doesn’t care about innovation; technological innovation has to be at the core of your business. Granted, CoPress does offer competing hosting and support with WordPress, an open source publishing platform, but our ultimate goal is hold the hand of student newspapers as we help them develop their internal capacity to create.

Let’s take a 10,000 foot view at this, however. In my opinion, there’s a deeper technological shift happening that eventually will affect all industry and every facet of society. The internet is becoming a utility, much like electricity, and those who don’t have the utility at the core of this business operations will seem as backwards as businesses today that don’t use electricity. Simplistically, the disruption the internet is causing first hit the music industry, then the movie industry, and now the newspaper industry. I assume that it will also affect at least healthcare, politics, and education, industries that Andrew observed “have deeply entrenched positions of power.” I also assume that those with power don’t generally enjoy giving it up, instead preferring to try and manipulate public policy with the likes of France’s “three strikes” legislation and Connie Schultz’s attempt to make copyright even more restrictive and ban linking on the web in certain situations. Lastly, I assume that this type of reactive behavior is beneficial to the monopolists only and damages general society on a whole.

Given these assumptions, what general lessons can we learn from the music, movie and newspaper industries such that our society is less seriously disrupted when healthcare, politics, and education face the same type of deep transformational change? Keep in mind, too, that these are industries which will likely also shed thousands of jobs as they go through at least structural, and maybe even technological, unemployment. This is history in realtime.

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