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Jan. 4, 2010, 9 a.m.

News orgs’ goal for 2010: Imagine tomorrow’s media world today

The legacy press — or the traditional media, or whatever we’re calling newspapers these days — has one main challenge for 2010, and it’s not finding a new business model. It has to do with vision. It has to do with being able to imagine a world that does not yet exist.

While the news media’s woes come from lagging ad rates and content that’s scooped up by aggregrators, those are symptoms of the main problem: an inability to imagine what media consumption will look like in one, five, 10 years.

It’s a problem that’s not new or unique to the news business. Two examples illustrate my point.

Personal computers

In the early ’60s, IBM, the king of computers at the time, couldn’t imagine a need for personal computers, according to Robert X. Cringley’s 1992 book, “Accidental Empires.” (The famous quote from IBM chief Thomas Watson — “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” — appears to be apocryphal, though.) In those days, computers were mainframes that filled a room. Executive didn’t type; they had secretaries for that. Watch an episode of “Mad Men,” and you’ll get the idea.

Cringley writes in his book that top IBM executives were briefed on a plan for video-display terminals in those days, but they didn’t get it. “These were intelligent men, but they had a firmly fixed concept of what computer was supposed to be, and it didn’t include video-display terminals,” he wrote. “To invent a particular type of computer, you have to want to use it, and the leaders of America’s computer companies did not want a computer on their desks.”

Imagine that: a computer company that could not foresee that people might want to harness the power of a mainframe computer, plunk it on their desk or lap, and use it all by themeselves. Today it seems preposterous; my laptop gets turned on as early each morning as my coffee maker.

IBM and others couldn’t imagine a world that didn’t exist then. Of course, others did — including later bosses at IBM — and the personal computer was born. But the inability to imagine delayed the process and changed the computer industry forever. Ask you typical 20-something who rules the computer business, and IBM won’t be on their list.

Microwaves

The first commercial microwave hit the market in 1947, according to Microtech’s history of the microwave. But it wasn’t until the 1970s when they caught on in the home. I remember when my family got our first: We all watched as my mom boiled her first cup of water for tea in this mammoth machine. “I can’t imagine what I’ll do with this,” I remember my mother saying, noting that making tea water in a stovetop kettle seemed easier.

Then think about today. My microwave died on Christmas Day, when not a store was open to replace it. Our family barely made it to Saturday, when I rushed to Target to buy a new one. What we couldn’t imagine a use for 30 years ago, we can’t live without today.

What this means for the news business

My point is news organizations need to imagine how people will consume news in the future — even though it might not make sense to them today. Newspapers owners may want ink on their fingers, and a paper they can feel, but many of their customers don’t now — or won’t in five years. And they may think a newspaper web site should look like a newspaper, but it shouldn’t. (It’s normal to build something new based on something old. That happened in the computer world, too, with the first microcomputers modeled on a mainframe.)

The challenge for the news biz is to look ahead and imagine how people may want their news and information. It’s about format (online, by phone, through social media) and content (aggregated, local, tailored to their needs.) For local news operations, this mean “organizing a community’s information so the community can organize itself,” as Jeff Jarvis puts it.

For all media organizations, it means adding more value to what they offer readers, according to Jay Rosen. What it doesn’t mean is forsaking the journalistic mission in search of the “almighty hit,” as Lehigh University journalism professor Jeremy Littau puts it.

This doesn’t mean news organizations should be inventing technology. I think that’s probably out of the pervue of most journalists. What I’m talking about is envisioning a new way to use technology, in this case the Internet and the cell phone and likely other tools that others will invent. The new business doesn’t need to invent the tools — just figure out how to use them to best serve their readers.

Newspaper readers, at least those who read small or mid-sized papers, have always expected the newspaper to make sense of the world for them. If you’ve spent Saturday night shifts at the city desk of at a mid-sized newspaper as I have, you know what I mean. People would call with seemingly inane questions: On what channel will the local college basketball game be shown? Is there trash pickup tomorrow because of the holiday? If I mail a package today, will it make it to my grandchildren by Christmas?

A wise editor of mine explained that we should be proud readers came to us with these questions because it meant the newspaper was so intrinsic to people’s lives that it was the first place they went for answers. Newspapers still need to be that today. It’s still their job to explain the changing world to readers. And it’s also their job to imagine what the world will look like, so they can serve the readers of tomorrow.

Over the summer, I blogged on this site and on Save the Media about artisanal news, my concept of small batches of news tailored to tight niches of readers. A commenter noted that he or she couldn’t imagine what I was talking about until it happens. Fair enough. But to survive, news organization must imagine. The question is: What’s next? That’s the challenge for news organizations — to figure out what readers won’t be able to live without tomorrow. And then the money will come. Because, really, making money is a simple formula: Make something people can’t live without, and they’ll be willing to pay for it.

Photo by David used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 4, 2010, 9 a.m.
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