Disruptive Innovation in Journalism

Catherine Chute writes about disruptive innovation in journalism

Guest post by Catherine Chute. Chute is a media and communications consultant and educator who teaches the spring course Media Management and Marketing: New Business Models in an Evolving Industry at Harvard Extension School. In this post she reflects on how innovation has disrupted the media industry.

Disruptive innovation is everywhere

Recently, it seems like you can’t avoid the word disruption. Big Data is disruptive. Nate Silver’s recent accurate forecasting of electoral votes was hailed as the disruption of political punditry by data and statistics. The media world has been disrupted. Libraries have been disrupted. Even at Harvard University, education and learning are being disrupted with an explosion of online learning (with Harvard Extension School an early adopter via its distance education courses).

I heard on NPR recently that the number of incubators for start-ups has increased enormously with industry, government, and universities (think the Harvard Innovation Lab) all pushing hard to drive innovation. And of course, innovation is what creates disruption. 

Disrupting the media industry

For many years I’ve been reacting to disruption in the media industry. I’ve been involved in finding and implementing new business models for media companies and news organizations. And I’ve been observing and analyzing these models with students in my Harvard Extension School course.

Recently, 2012 Nieman Fellow David Skok co-wrote a Nieman Reports article with Clay Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who is the seminal thinker on disruptive innovation. They apply the lessons of disruption to show how the media industry can move beyond the “innovator’s dilemma”—a false choice between today’s revenues and tomorrow’s digital promise.

This piece has stirred up a few thoughts for me on what it’s been like to work in this world.

The New York Times: a case study

Photo of the New York Times headquarters where the author worked before innovation disrupted journalism

Fresh out of business school in the mid-1980s, I was thrilled to land a job in an internal consulting group at the New York Times. Applying my nascent skills in business analysis, marketing, and strategy to a real company that produced something tangible and physical—and, importantly, something that served to bring together communities and to hold the powerful accountable—was a heady mix.

Early on, a business school acquaintance suggested to me that a cash cow industry like newspapers was boring. I was a bit nonplussed. Hadn’t I landed a job with a best-in-class organization in a strong financial position? Didn’t it have a competitive advantage in practicing influential journalism that reached affluent, educated readers?

All that was true. But my old acquaintance’s comment came back to haunt me a decade or so later—probably when the stock price began its tumble downwards and I hadn’t sold my New York Times employee shares. Before then, though, I went on to several jobs at the Times, including a final stint searching for new revenue sources, with a focus on then-emerging digital opportunities.

The New York Times is a company vulnerable to disruptive innovation. Yes, while I was there we competed with institutions like the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker for advertisers and readers. But we failed to anticipate the news aggregators like the Huffington Post or Yahoo News. We overlooked disruptors to advertising like Craig’s List and Google. And we had cultural challenges innovating, too. Nevertheless, since those dark ages, the Times has gone on to be a leader in digital news and content monetization too.

New models for new times

Graphic word cloud reflecting key elements of the disruptive innovation transforming journalism

It’s fun to study this. But it’s even more fun to get involved in creating these new models. My former Times colleagues are now reinventing themselves. One runs a prominent state online news organization, funded primarily by public interest foundations. Another has successfully transitioned to digital advertising sales. Another one launched a hyperlocal online community news and information service in Los Angeles.

I too have been involved recently in this new media ecosystem. I’ve helped pull together a nonprofit investigative journalism center producing spinach (as in “eat your spinach”) journalism for local news outlets, funded mostly by donors and foundations. I’ve advised a few journalists starting up online news organizations, seeing gaps they want to fill. And I’m currently advising a mission-based startup magazine funded also primarily by donors and foundations. It’s a traditional medium (print) with an innovative approach that would never have been able to take off if technology hadn’t lowered the barriers to entry.

Not all of these projects will succeed. But they’re all examples of this fertile and wildly innovative period for media, news, and journalism. The opportunities are many. The disruption is significant. Innovation is ascendant. Hop on!

Courses in journalism and innovation