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Feb. 4, 2009, 9:32 a.m.

Why newspapers should manage more like Twitter and less like GM

Set aside for a moment whatever feelings you have for or against Twitter. (It’s amazing how visceral many journalists’ hatred of Twitter is. It has even more of a barbarians-at-the-gate feel to them than blogging did circa ’03.)

But take a minute and read this piece on how Twitter was invented, by one of the original developers, Dom Sagolla. And while you’re reading, compare the environment they were working in to the environment of today’s newspapers.

Twitter had its origins a few years ago at a company called Odeo, a Silicon Valley startup that focused on podcasting. You could use Odeo to find podcasts; you could use it to listen to podcasts; and you could use it to make podcasts. I remember using Odeo back then; it was a nice product.

Unfortunately for Odeo, two things happened. First, podcasting didn’t take off as much as some had hoped; it was then (and remains) a niche interest. And second, in 2005, the biggest player in digital audio — Apple — added podcasting support to iTunes, which was already installed on the computers of every single human being who knew what a “podcast” was. So things were not looking good for Odeo.

So what was Odeo’s response?

Our board was not feeling optimistic, and we were forced to reinvent ourselves.

Note: “Reinvent ourselves.” Not: “Cut back on our staff a bit more every few months and hope the current business model can survive.” Not: “Maintain a belief that we had a good product, damn it, a valuable product, and there will always be someone who wants it.” “Reinvent ourselves.”

“Rebooting” or reinventing the company started with a daylong brainstorming session where we broke up into teams to talk about our best ideas.

Note: Their best ideas for new products. Not: Their best ideas for salvaging the old one.

One of those ideas was an early version of Twitter. Each brainstorming team presented their best ideas, and Twitter was among those picked to prototype. A few Odeo employees are chosen to build it; meanwhile:

The rest of the company focused on maintaining Odeo.com, so that if this new thing flopped we’d have something to fall back upon.

Note again: The old in-trouble business isn’t the focus; the new business is the focus.

Look: Twitter still doesn’t have a business model and maybe never will; a failing podcasting concern is not equivalent to a multi-billion-dollar newspaper industry. I’m not drawing a one-to-one comparison here. But what comes across in Dom’s story is the entrepreneurial spirit.

It’s: Let’s Find a New Idea. Let’s Be Willing To Shift Models. Let’s View Investing Into the New As More Critical Than Propping Up the Old.

And while Twitter doesn’t have a business model, someone did, not too long ago, try to buy it for $500 million — which would buy about 10 McClatchys at today’s stock price.

I see a lot of newspapers cutting back. And while I hate to see it for all my friends who work in their newsrooms, I can at least understand the rough calculus behind cutting costs.

What I don’t see is a lot of investment in what comes next. What I don’t see is a lot of “reinvention” — the skunkworks, the R&D labs, the incubators for small online startups. What I don’t see, at least in a lot of organizations, is an honest acknowledgment that, no, this isn’t just the recession and, no, things aren’t going to turn around in a few quarters. Of the people who run newspapers today — brilliant as many of them are — there are very few people who have experience with reinvention.

And that, I fear, is going to be a bigger problem for news organizations’ long-term survivability than all the bureaus they’ve closed, all the reporters they’ve laid off, and whatever inflated price newsprint is selling for these days.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Feb. 4, 2009, 9:32 a.m.
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