#jcarn: How journalism faces the innovator’s dilemma

Carnival of Journalism is a monthly event when a group of us share our posts on a common topic to bring discussion to the goings on in our trade. It’s also a great place to exchange ideas with smart people. Comments welcome!

The prompt this month, simply is “What is the next big thing in journalism?” I’ve been really excited about writing this post, and I’m glad the moderator, Steve Outing, posted early – because he explained a lot of the things I wanted to say with much more clarity than I likely would have offered!

When I first looked into SoMoLo, the only information I could find was about uses for marketing. This was bothersome, because I felt SoMoLo had some obvious applications to news, but I couldn’t put my finger on how this would play out. Steve explains how the growing number of social networks or aggregators of social postings that log geolocation can provide both reliable sources and notification of an emerging news story to journalists. Ideally, a news org might have one person devoted to scouring these sources and watching for stories about to unfold.

But why are news orgs content to just aggregate from all these other networks? Even the latest Knight News Challengeseeks *not* to create a network for news, but to find ways to utilize existing networks.

“There are a lot of vibrant networks and platforms, on- and off-line, that can be used to connect us with the news and information we need to make decisions about our lives. This challenge will not fund new networks.”

But news is a BIG DEAL. A huge percentage of the activity on Twitter and Facebook are links to articles, and more and more, people are posting and reporting news on those networks. What I see here is a hunger and a market for a social network specifically designed for news.

Some concerns brought to me include the issue with apps like Meporter, where reporting news is its sold function  – there is no reason to download the app otherwise, so if a person does encounter news, it is too late. Rawporter is similar, and aims to actually sell the content – but I imagine an image like the one of the Hudson River is one in a million, and this cannot be a sustainable business model.

But stubbornly, I think this can be done well must be done. Why hasn’t it happened yet? Look no further than the Innovator’s Dilemma (a wonderful concept, also a book by Clayton Christensen) to understand why.

It says that existing companies will innovate with sustaining technologies, improving the way things are done. Existing companies will ignore disruptive technologies, because they require a loss in the near-term.

I see the existing news orgs of today embracing new technology, but only looking to implement it into the way things are already done. And I get that switching up the way a newsroom functions is quite the hurdle. Even Steve – who runs the reputable Test Kitchen, a place specifically designed to identify useful emerging technologies – wants journalists to be able to “assign” or request info or media from citizens at a news event, which I think is the old way of thinking. It falsely tries to fit the disruptive technology into the old format.

If you were at the ONA conference in Boston this past fall, you likely saw the keynote of Ben Huh of LOLcats and other UGC-type sites. His point that stood out to me the most was when he said that users won’t take the time to upload free content to your site unless it’s for their own enjoyment. I see news sites (Patch is one, there are others) ask readers to upload their own pictures to add to a story. I’m sorry, but nobody gets a kick out of providing free content that your site clearly uses for ad revenue. How is LOLcats different? It’s about the people.

The innovator’s dilemma says that disruptive technologies are initially a loss (and that is why existing companies ignore them) but eventually they satisfy the market with lower costs and these existing companies are left far behind.

In news, it’s not so much lower cost as it is faster and easier content that the market will choose. This is why news orgs lost to technology companies with digital ad revenue – they kept thinking, digital dimes to print dollars, and were slow to adapt the content itself. Mobile tools may not look productive or lucrative now, but for the reasons Steve laid out, it is much to important to ignore. As explained by the Innovator’s Dilemma:

“Large companies have certain barriers to innovation which make it difficult to invest in disruptive technologies early on. Being industry veterans means that they have set ways in approaching new technologies.  Baggage from precedents … ”

These norms include assuming journalists need to be involved to request certain images. Also – news judgement – something for which we’ve relied on journalists. Mark Zuckerberg once said something to the point of “People care more about the squirrel dying in their front yard than people dying in Africa.” News is about to be very customized, very fast – and it has a lot to do with SoMoLo.

News will be reported, person to person – with photos and videos from a smartphone that will never make it to any news site. The incentive is simply to help your neighbor – look no further than to the news reported on Facebook and Twitter to see that this is an existing incentive. News will be distributed by relevance, either through social ties or location.

Think of a fender bender that doesn’t harm anyone but plugs up a busy street for half an hour. It doesn’t matter to people half a mile away, and it won’t matter to me later tonight, but if I’m stuck in traffic because of it, maybe I want to know. Why can’t I pull out my phone and see the picture uploaded by the guy five cars ahead of me?

Imagine with me, because I think that something like this is coming. And for existing news orgs, is there a way around the Innovator’s Dilemma?

“With a few exceptions, the only instances in which mainstream firms have successfully established a timely position in a disruptive technology were those in which the firms’ managers set up an autonomous organization charged with building a new and independent business around the disruptive technology.”