Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How to avoid extinction in an evolving world

I saw Rory Brown tweet about journalist Hugo Dixon talking about the death spiral of newspapers today. It's a subject dear to my heart. Newspapers were where I started my career 21 years ago. I was trained for print.
But we've logged their decline on this blog and many others. Microsoft, for example, predicts their extinction within 20 years.

The newspaper industry made, in my view, two key errors.
1. It missed the quality opportunity.
2. It spurned the R&D advantage it had

Now these are very grave errors. But if you're not in the newspaper industry I'd advise against form of smugness. For there, but for the grace of etc etc... (image by colin purrington via flickr)

Newspapers had (perhaps still have) an opportunity to do what the gift economy of the net couldn't: Invest in quality.

Churning out the same press releases anyone can find repeated 1000+ times on the internet may be cheap but it's also self-destructive. If you can't beat the web on price, you can't beat it on relevance and you can't beat it on speed (and you can't) you'd better find something else to beat it on. Quality seems the only game left in town. The creation of the point-worthy.

The R&D advantage was spurned too. When the print barons had piles more cash than the gift economists of the likes of wikipedia, google, youtube et al, they could have invested to make the kind of structural change required to match the networked world.

Now, ever more fearful, they are reduced to picking through the wreckage and looking for further efficiencies.

They chose not to invest in survival strategies for a world of complex adaptive systems (such as the net, such as evolution) and instead persisted with the linear mass-efficiencies models which worked so well in a mass industrial age.

Ok, so newspapers are having it hard. What's that got to do with you (if you aren't a print journalist, for example)?

Well, I don't think all of the troubles newspapers are facing are caused by the medium.

Anything which seeks to mediate in a networked world faces the challenge of being worked around, that's for sure. That is the impact of group forming network theory in practice.

But perhaps of even more impact is the way traditional companies and corporations are responding to, or are able to respond to, the huge changes being wrought by the networked world.

The death spiral Hugo Dixon describes is that of a company managing efficiencies. This is the mass industrial response - the fnal phase of the S-curve seen in many businesses (as referred to by Professor Malcolm Mcdonald among others).

When you have run out of innovations you turn to the accountants. More and more effort is focused on saving, less and less on growth.

You save until you can no longer spend.

This applies to newspapers.

It may also apply to a business near you.

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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?