Dave Snowden told a good story at a knowledge management conference a couple of years ago about the sailing ship. In the early 19th century, mighty sailing ships with giant masts and sails were the dominant form of sea transport in the modern world at that time. Along came ships constructed of iron and powered by motorised engines which were more efficient (they could power along whether the wind blew or not) and became more reliable and versatile shipping vessels. The sailing ship industry responded with even bigger ships with more masts and more giant sails but in the end the sailing ships were doomed by a new technology that made sea transport more efficient and effective. Perhaps the sailing ship may make a return in an oil-depleted and global greenhouse environment in the 21st century but that’s another story…
And that poor old bird, the dodo, was no match for the slaughter by humans, and by invading pigs plundering their nests and territory. Alas, they were unable to adapt to the ravages brought upon them in such a short space of time and they became extinct.
Which brings me to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald about a conference in India at which the media moguls of the 21st century are battling to stay in the game in a world enriched and informed via the World Wide Web. The World Newspaper Congress is hearing from embattled media moguls about how unfair the internet is making the news and information business since they haven’t been clever enough to work out a successful business model for the changed world media environment.
Like the 19th century sailing ship industry, the newspaper moguls are desperate to keep alive a form of business that is actually being surpassed by more modern and disruptive technologies. The internet and social networking are changing the way content is published, consumed, and valued. Content on the internet is more immediate, more personal, more varied, and more versatile compared to traditional newspaper publishing. Not only that, but people these days do not have to rely on newspapers for their dose of worldly information since much of the information out there on the internet is provided by people for free and can be accessed for free! Even newspapers and television news programs seek out these stories from ordinary folk who witness events first hand or who have some other form of newsworthy story.
Of course, the newspapers are indeed part of the problem. Over the past twenty years (at least) newspaper proprietors have dumbed down journalism and investigative reporting so much that newspaper content is hardly superior to much of the informed news and information provided by ordinary people. In fact, it is ordinary people who actually have something interesting to say, without the caveat of having to say something that will generate advertising revenue or hanker for the bouquets from supporting ideologues.
Reading newspapers these days is like reading a bevy of opinion pieces; the opinions being no more informed or relevant than that of bloggers and social networkers. Instead of lifting quality and gaining some comparative advantage this way, newspapers have taken the easy route and proffered a multitude of opinion, loose reporting and drivel that can be easily replicated anywhere.
At the same time, newspapers continue to search for more “eyeballs” to convince advertisers that newspapers are still relevant. Newspapers still want to be found on the internet to capture these “eyeballs”, yet they want to determine and control the method and channels of being found. They want to use the 21st century technology but only in the manner of their 20th century world view of dominance and control of the news. Even advertisers are shifting their world view. Advertisers are increasingly using new methods of messaging and advertising utilising the new communication mediums available via the internet, social networking, and other forms of communication channels.
At least the newspaper industry hasn’t had it as bad as the dodo. The dodo had relatively little time to adjust to the ravages of invading species before they finally met their final and irrevocable end. Newspapers have had plenty of time, and had plenty of warning about the competitive content available via a host of alternative sources.
Newspaper organisations are like the 19th century sailing ships trying to battle their way forward using their existing tired techniques and old-century attitudes, and failing to confront the new realities of a brave new world. Like those 19th century sailing ships, newspapers as they exist today will die off and be replaced by a more efficient and effective form of news communication that does not rely on old thinking and old technologies.
Newspaper moguls can whine all they like but they need to accept the new communication realities and make the necessary adjustments, or go the way of the sailing ship and eventually, the dodo.