Jobs to be done – Here’s how Newspaper Next defined its challenge

Posted on October 28, 2011


Find a way to help newspaper companies migrate from a fixed and monolithic business model to a diverse and growing portfolio of business models, products and services that engage throngs of new consumers and advertisers.

A portfolio solution is necessary because a newspaper alone, or a newspaper and a news Web site, are no longer enough. These are solutions for a mass audience, but the mass audience is dispersing in many directions, never to return.

At least one of the reasons Newspaper Next made a splash when it debuted was because it brought from the business world a name for what was happening to the media industry: disruptive innovation. It’s the process outlined by Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen that ties together the fate of automakers, excavator manufacturers, and newspapers, all of whom have had their business challenged by new technology. In the case of newspapers, the disruptor of course was the Internet and all the technologies it enabled, which broadened the channels for news and advertising, splintering newspapers’ market share while giving the tools for publishing to readers. Christensen’s research and his books, The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, provided the framework for Newspaper Next and put the focus on fending off obsolescence by diversifying your business and embracing new opportunities.

“I do feel like the circumstances of the last few years have helped people understand that our culture has to change, that we have to go about our work differently.”

“We didn’t want to look at this as a standalone event or standalone report,” said Carol Ann Riordan, current president of API and vice president of programming at the time of Newspaper Next’s release. “We really wanted to make it the DNA of everything we do at API.” Riordan said they believed Newspaper Next had to be radical in its approach but practical in its strategies for newspapers. The idea was to launch a kind of consultancy with Newspaper Next, using the report as the guidebook with API staff and members of Innosight, a consulting firm founded by Christensen, working with editors and executives to jump start the process in their newsrooms. How big was the whole show? Davis put the price tag for Newspaper Next around $2 million.

“One of the things we knew when we were rolling out in September 2006 is we really needed to have an evangelical period to get out quickly to the industry to spread the gospel of Newspaper Next,” Riordan said. And that’s what led to a barnstorming tour, going to newspapers of all sizes, as well as colleges and other journalism programs to spread the message. “Right after the introduction of it we got on Gannett airplanes, went around talking to Gannett publishers, and they got really excited about it,” Davis said.

It was a new hope, or at least a model to turn things around before the situation got any bleaker. In a way Newspaper Next tried to convince editors, publishers, and their staffs to change, and of the need to both “maximize the core” (i.e. getting the most out of the main print product) and venture into new ideas. Essentially Newspaper Next was asking newspapers to see where they are weakest, where they may have created an opportunity for competitors, and to jump in before someone else beats them to it. “In newsrooms, particularly, culture change — and newspaper company culture change — is not easy,” said Peter Bhatia, editor of The Oregonian, one of the seven papers that created test projects for the N2 process. “I do feel like the circumstances of the last few years have helped people understand that our culture has to change, that we have to go about our work differently.”

To do that, Newspaper Next advocated Christensen’s system of identifying “jobs to be done,” trying to “fail fast and fail cheap,” and developing products that are “good enough” instead of worrying a project to some perfect ideal. “It really forced some critical thinking about what is it that we do in a jobs-to-be-done fashion, rather than, ‘we cover the selectmen meeting, print it in newsprint and deliver it every week,’” said Anne Eisenmenger, who was vice president of business development for GateHouse New England. Eisenmenger was on the team overseeing the development of Wicked Local news sites as part of the Newspaper Next process.

Unsurprisingly, Newspaper Next had its share of skeptics. Some were weary about whether a grand solution for the industry could be executed by the same people who neglected the disruption around them in the first place. In June 2006, Jeff Jarvis wrote on BuzzMachine: “I said to [Stephen Gray, project leader of Newspaper Next] that the project seems to be trying to move a big, old barge five degrees when we need to blow up the barge and pick up the pieces and build new boats. He shifted the metaphor and said he’s trying to big, old cows to move a bit. I don’t think that’s enough. In fact, I think that making small steps — hey, least we’re doing something, you say — is false comfort. It is dangerous.”

Still, the report was already in the wind and the march for newspaper salvation was on. Riordan estimates they were able to reach more than 6,000 people just through one-day workshops throughout North America. Steve Buttry, who helped oversee Newspaper Next training programs for API at the time, summed it up this way in a recent blog post:

I was stunned at the hefty fees API collected for those programs, underscoring the industry’s hunger for some ideas that might lead to a prosperous future. As the person responsible for selling API’s services, I thought Drew was ambitious, if not crazy, when he set the prices. Then I sold more programs than Steve could handle and ended up doing several of the one- and two-day programs myself. I got a valuable lesson in supply and demand. We had a message that a desperate industry needed, and companies were willing to pay for the value we delivered.

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