My public service for today is that of matchmaker, and specifically finding a match for the many online commentators who have a start-up-shaped solution for newspapers’ current crisis of faith and future.
Over on Mashable, Vadim Lavrusik has a useful round-up of “12 things newspapers should do to survive”. It’s good to see a lot of thinking brought together, and nice that the Guardian’s last Hack Day was noted with approval. But if there’s one thing that rankles me it’s the seemingly glib assertion that newspaper companies should emulate Internet start-ups, and which features at number six on Vadim’s list. He says that “creating a startup-like environment that encourages innovation in the newsroom” is one way forward, and cites three sources.
First, start-up veteran Scott Porad on the problem:
Over an 8 year period, my last startup grew from a startup into a corporate environment with several hundred employees and layers of management. For the last 5 or 6 years of that I felt like we spent 80% of our time planning and only 20% of our time doing stuff. [...] On the other hand, my current startup is the opposite — we probably spend 5% of our time planning and 95% doing.
Then Mike Briggs on how a newsroom can generate some start-up-like energy. And finally Ryan Sholin of Publish2, who thinks that you should “Make your newspaper function like a start-up.”
Somehow start-ups seem to be the panacea: not only do they make good stories, but it’s so easy to spot the successful ones: for instance Google started in a garage, and Microsoft was started by just a couple of people. And let’s not forget the many, many start-ups from more recent times. You probably remember Kevin Rose’s Pownce.com, which was successfully bought by Six Apart, which loved it to death; or tr.im, which was so successful at making URLs short, they’ve practically made them vanish. And let’s not forget the current media darling, Twitter, which is generating so much profit they’ve run out of positive numbers to express it and have had to start using negative ones. Meg Pickard has a more complete and up-to-date history for those of us with selective memory.
But that’s not to say there’s nothing there; a typical start-up has the kind of drive and energy in its half dozen employees that any corporate CEO would love to have reproduced across their 1,000-plus workforce. I’ve written before on about injecting start-up goodness into the newsroom, so you can go there for that. Mark Briggs does acknowledge all that is easier said than done.
Instead of me explaining why, let me introduce the start-up standard-bearers to the new blog from Simon Waldman. This extract from his first entry is worth quoting at length. Although his examples are older, rather than new, internet companies the principle is the same, being about “the general ways of the online world”:
It has always struck me that there has been a huge amount written about Google, Amazon, Wikipedia and eBay and the general ways of the online world. Some of this is brilliant, and genuinely insightful, some of it is frothy digital euphoria.
There has also been plenty written about what is wrong with newspapers, broadcasters, Britannica, record labels etc, and what they should or could have done; but there have been very few books that I’ve come across that take a systematic look at the what has happened to these businesses – and what they have done that has actually worked, often in the most trying of circumstances.
The point is – businesses that have to deal with the internet are fundamentally different to those that are the products of it. It is great to look at Google; great to admire Amazon, and Wikipedia is as fascinating a social and creative phenomena as you fan find. But if you are running a business that is profoundly structurally challenged, you share very little of their corporate DNA.
Yes, everyone needs to know about their world, but thinking you can just graft on the bits you like from them in a hope that you will ‘get digital’ is no more likely to succeed than putting on a flashing bow tie and hoping everyone thinks you have a sense of humour.
Simon is writing a book for the rest of us, who need to listen to those with ideas about how to save our challenged industry, and who also have the responsibility, along with our colleagues, to actually do the saving. The blog is the online counterpart to that book, which will be called Creative Disruption. As you can see from the extract above, it’s less “What would Google do?” and more “Never mind Google, this is for you.”
In ten or twenty years we’ll be able to look back and see which ideas from who were the wisest. For now I’m going to be a paying a lot of attention to anyone who recognises the fundamental DNA difference that Simon describes, and who deals with it.