API’s ‘Newspaper Next’ Previewed

The American Press Institute’s $2.7 million Newspaper Next project is nearing completion on six innovation test beds, and getting ready to share its findings with the rest of the newspaper industry in September, according to Managing Director Steve Gray, who spoke June 29 at the Media Giraffe conference held at The University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Newspaper Next is being conducted in partnership with Innosight, a consulting firm associated with Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who authored The Innovators’ Dilemma. It is a successor project to newspaper industry studies conducted in 2002-2004 by Clark Gilbert, a Christensen protégé from Harvard Business School, and Borrell Associates Inc.

According to Gray, a survey of 500 newspaper publishers revealed that 28 percent see trends in the industry as “good”. The other 72 percent, however, think trends are “bad.” But “they don’t know what to do.”

The answer, said Gray, is they have to “innovate or fade away.” In order to defy being disrupted by Craig’s List and others, they have to figure out a way to reach non-readers, such as commuters and younger audiences between the ages of 18-34. With retail advertising shrinking, newspapers also need to zero in on the small business turf traditionally served by Yellow Pages publishers. Specifically, they’ll need to start focusing on ‘overshot’ advertisers who require better targeting, a clear return on investment via lead generation, and cheaper, self-service advertising capabilities.

In Richmond, VA for instance, The Times Dispatch sells advertising to 3,500 small businesses. But that leaves 12,500 non-advertisers on the table. “That’s the growth potential. Newspapers are nicely positioned for this last rush,” said Gray. “But not if they don’t reframe the issues.”

Test Beds Lead the Way

To help figure out the industry’s future directions, most of the Newspaper Next project has been focused on six test bed projects. These include:

1. A Boston Globe project to study profitable leads and sales to the small business community
2. The Dallas Morning News’ development of a one stop information portal for mothers
3. A re-org by Gannett to leverage new media benefits for news and advertising
4. The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s project to develop insights into small business research needs that businesses can’t do on their own
5. A project by The New Jersey Media Group to rethink key information and community engagements to attract non-readers
6. Enterprise Media’s development of the Wicked Local city guide, local information aggregation and federated search.

At least some of these efforts were partially or fully underway before being swept into the Newspaper Next project. Whether original or not, the goal here is to take their learnings and try to extend them to the rest of the industry.

Gray movingly concluded his presentation by noting that the way he felt about the industry was the way he felt about dropping his son off to college: sitting behind the driving wheel, he was depressed as a soon-to-be empty nester. His son, however, was excited, seeing all kinds of opportunities awaiting him at college. Gray said he knew he had to get to the mental space that his son was in so that he could continue their close relationship The same goes for newspapers and their changing business models.

Jarvis and Rosen: ‘Intellectual Fraud’

The reaction of Media Giraffe attendees to Gray’s presentation, however, was decidedly mixed. Several said they’d just assume that newspaper corporations die, and that someone else would pick up the baton of journalism.

“I could not bring myself to care about Gannett the way you care about your son,” said Ed Lenert, a journalism professor at The University of Nevada, Reno. Tom Rosenthiel, the director of The Project for Excellence in Journalism, also expressed disdain for the corporate influence of news. “Who cares about Gannett?” he said. “I’m talking about people who work in the newsrooms. The authenticators.”

Well-known industry bloggers such as Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen expressed disdain for the project itself. At a lunch table that I shared with the two blogosphere celebs, both had fun railing at the “intellectual fraud” being perpetuated by both Innosight and the newspaper companies participating in the project. They seemed to believe that the corporate news barons remain bent on preserving profit margins and are largely uninterested in genuine innovation that would reconnect the newspapers with their communities.

A side of me agrees with Mssrs. Jarvis and Rosen. Working on these kinds of projects, you sometimes get the sense that the data doesn’t matter – the results have to fit a preconceived mold — in this case, what Clayton Christensen came up with 15 years ago.

But another side of me suspects that Jarvis and Rosen, by nature, may have it in for consulting firms like Innosight that set up projects designed to have a motivational impact on their clients – as if these firms cut into their own thought leadership. That is an easy position for them to take, of course. Both have been gainfully employed: Rosen is a professor at NYU, and Jarvis was, until recently, the well-paid head of Advance Newspapers’ online arm.

What I’ve seen first hand, however, is that publishers greatly value the objective third party analysis contained in these projects. And that these projects really do begin to put innovation into motion. If the innovations are sustained, and goals are accomplished, that’s good enough for me.