Tuesday, May 13, 2008

If I were a newspaper publisher today...

Newspapers are dying, there's no question about it. Every week brings news of more layoffs, whether at the biggest of the big or the teeniest of the tiny. The problem: Newspapers can't figure out how to turn a profit in this brave new world of new media.

If I were a newspaper publisher today, I'd heed the words of Ben Franklin: "If we don't hang together, we shall hang separately." I'd create a massive R&D project leveraging the resources of 100 newspapers. Each newspaper would pony up two staffers. I'd then create 20 teams. Each team would have the same mandate: Create a project to experiment with delivering news online in ways that attract and retain readers. Each experiment would run live, in real time, at one or more newspaper's websites.

Here's the important thing: The teams could do whatever they wanted. They could develop tools. They could develop series. They could experiment with social networking. They could connect to something else that already exists on the Web. There would be no vetting of projects whatsoever. The only requirement would be that each project should be geared toward attracting and retaining readers. We'd be leveraging the wisdom of crowds, the principle that answers don't necessarily come from experts. And they almost never come from on high. They come from leveraging the collective wisdom of large groups of people with diverse sets of experience, expertise, and mindsets.

The purpose of this approach would not be to find the "one" silver bullet. We'd be mature enough to know there won't be a single silver bullet. The purpose, instead, would be to accelerate the process of learning what does and doesn't not work. Any innovator knows that it takes numerous iterations (tens, hundreds, thousands) before you hit on a solution that works. As Thomas Edison once said of his own experimenting, "Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." It was only working through those thousands of things that didn't work that he found the few things that did.

The teams would constantly be sharing information. Here's what we're thinking of doing. Here's what we are doing. Here's a roadblock we ran into. Here's how we got around it. Here's how it sunk us. Here's something unexpected that worked. Here's something we thought would work and did. Here's what our project totally nailed. Here's what totally bombed. Sharing information would let teams leap-frog each other, avoiding having to re-invent the wheel on each individual question. Teams would be given the lattitude to ditch projects mid-stream that weren't panning out as they'd thought and create new ones on the fly.

The payoff? At the end of a year, the collective team would know a heck of a lot about how to deliver news online, how to attract and retain readers. They would have discovered a handful of new paradigms. And hopefully, at least some newspapers will have already permanently incorporated those new paradigms into their own websites.

When I run this idea by friends in the mainstream media, they almost universally say this will never happen. Newspapers will never collaborate with each other. Newspapers consider each other competitors. They would never join forces. To which I say, that's a luxury you no longer have. Sure, in the old days, when you were monopolies in your own fiefdoms, and your continued existence was guaranteed no matter what, you had the luxury of never joining forces. But today, you don't. If you continue as you are, you are all going down. Absolutely, positively, you are going to die. Your only hope of survival is to figure out how to make the Internet work for you. And that you absolutely positively cannot do on your own. You don't have the necessary staff and budget to make it happen. And even if you did have that luxury, no one institution is going to find all the answers on its own. But if you join forces, collectively you have the resources you need to find the answers. So, as Benjamin Franklin put it, would you rather hang together, or hang separately?

Photo courtesy of euthman

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