Posted by: structureofnews | January 11, 2012

A Kodak Moment

As Kodak teeters on the verge of bankruptcy, Steve Yelvington comes up with a great post on lessons newsrooms should take away from the decline of a once-venerable brand.

They’re good ones: 1. Your business isn’t what you think it is; 2. Brands decay; 3. Early to market doesn’t mean you win; 4. Disruption doesn’t happen just once.

They’re also profoundly depressing,  although Steve does go out of his way to note that facing those facts can make it easier to find a path forward.  It’s certainly true that not facing those facts – as any number of newsrooms have tried in vain to do – doesn’t get you anywhere.

Still, it’s a huge leap between recognizing what the problem is and actually being able to do something about it.   It’s one thing for, say, train companies to understand that they’re really in the transportation business rather than in the locomotive business; it’s another to get the skill sets needed to compete and win in that other business.  Similarly, horse carriage companies may well want to move into fabricating auto bodies, but that calls for different tools, skills and factories.

As Steve notes, newspapers thought they were in the news and information business, but as it turns out, they were really in the commercial advertising printing and delivery business.  And even if there was a viable future in the ad printing industry, that’s frankly not the one that most journalists want to be in.

Part of it is simply being trapped by who we are – in the same way that skilled carriage makers can’t suddenly decide to be auto mechanics, it’s not like most journalists can just become information platform architects, say.  By and large, news people want to be in the news business, for all sorts of personal and public interest reasons.  And that’s a good thing, in many ways.  But it doesn’t make finding a business model any easier.

But what we can do – even while holding on to that goal of providing news and information – is to at least really unpick what it is we do and provide.  Our traditional “product” has been the story and the “bundle” (of news, in a newspaper).  There’s certainly some continuing value in them – story telling is a great way of conveying information, and editing and aggregating – another way of thinking about “bundling” – should be important in a world where people are drowning in information.

But we shouldn’t be wedded to those forms simply because they’ve served us well over the decades.   What other forms might work better in a digital age – what are the characteristics of digital media that we need to retool around to take advantage of?  Speed, reach, persistence, interactivity, visuals, sound, data, automation, technology… and more.  We’ve barely scratched the surface of these advantages, at least in part because we’re wedded to the form of the story.  (It’s like carriage makers wanting to learn how to do metal work, but insisting that steel has to worked like wood.  Or whatever. I failed shop when I was in school.)

That’s not to say any of these will be a savior or lead to a new business model.  But if we want to stay in the information business (and stay in business) we need to be willing to completely upturn what we do and how we do it, and fundamentally rebuild the factory floor – the newsroom – that we’re used to.

Hopefully then we’ll we be able to have a happy ending – a Kodak moment in the best sense of the word.

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