Kodak moments abound, but news organisations keep missing them

A strange confluence of links in my rss feeds today really annoyed me/spurred me to write.

I cannot fault the logic in Simon Waldman’s post:

“These days we can’t live without Google; but before it existed, I couldn’t even have articulated my need for it.”

It should scare everyone who is neither an inventor nor an entrepreneur — it surely scares the life out of me, because it seems like exactly where news online is headed. For an essentially subjective endeavour such as news gathering, I still feel that reporters, sub-editors and designers are a resourceful, inventive, practical lot. But from where I sit, we’ve got nothing to offer the pot — the changes in how we work and why those changes are being made are being dictated from outside.

What really caught me was this age-old observation about Kodak:

“We all know that the digital camera was invented in Kodak’s labs, but it threatened the formidable profitability of their three-legged model of chemicals, paper and film, and the innovation was never made a priority.”

When placed alongside this story about how Nokia had a touchscreen smartphone ready to go six years ago, but shelved it, it makes you feel far less sympathy for their current floundering.

“It was very early days, and no one really knew anything about the touch screen’s potential. And it was an expensive device to produce, so there was more risk involved for Nokia. So management did the usual. They killed it.” – Ari Hakkarainen

Disruption can be good, is often necessary to sweep away outmoded production methods and can give an industry the means to transform and survive. But how often are managements killing things they aren’t prepared to take a risk on? Worse still, how often do managers buy into a load of guff that sounds disruptive and transformative because it’s on the right bandwagon rather than because they actually understand the change and how it applies to their business? And how often are newsrooms even aware that any of this has taken place?

I would submit that “The art-director will run the newsroom of the future!” is in the guff category. The exclamation point is theirs, and should speak volumes. What utter bilge, peddled by people with more interest in how the container appears than in its contents. Again and again, news executives are bypassing the talent in their newsrooms looking for disruption and the iPad-led gold and glory they assume (and new media conferences and consultants promise) will follow.

Perhaps a more concrete example can be found in Juan Antonio Giner’s Innovation in Newspapers blog. It has been essential reading for me for quite a few years now, but as I have pointed out before, concerns itself less and less with newspapers as time goes by. That really is a shame – this post should illustrate to fans how far it has sunk.

It is one thing to pronounce daily on good and bad newspaper design and journalism but to put forward this “concept phone” as a possible solution is seeing the news consultant merry-go-round finally begin to eat itself.

The solution!! Hallelujah!!! — too bad it’s five to 10  years away, by which time every problem we imagine it will solve will either have ceased to be or will have been cracked more cheaply and simply by somebody else. Why not just suggest an “app” that prints money? It’s about as credible and is designed to appeal to exactly the same instincts.

Which brings us back to the true disruptors – the guys who will make a mint turning news on its head at low cost, using technology and scale, and without the burdens of legacy news production such as people, pensions and presses.

Simon Waldman cites the following:

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jerry Yang and David Filo, Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar, Reed Hastings, Marc Benioff (Salesforce.com), Andrew Black and Edward Wray (Betfair), Craig Newmark and Jim Buckmaster, Natalie Massenet (Net-a-porter),Tony Hsieh (Zappos.com), Evan Williams and Mark Pincus.

You’ll be familiar with most of the names. I dare say none of them has ever phoned a fire station at 1am, doorstepped a company director or tickled an intro with seconds to go before deadline. But until the operatives of every journalistic enterprise of every size come up with something better, the future of the industry is in the hands of the entrepreneurs and not those more concerned with its nuts and bolts.




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