It almost seems you can’t read a journo blog these days without finding a metaphor or simile about the state of the news business. The news business has been compared to lemmings, railroads and, of course, the horse and buggy. (Read Nick Bergus’ post on the topic for an entertaining list of many such metaphorical comparisons.)
People, including me, seem to like these comparisons because they help us understand something new based on something we already get.
So I have two more to sling at you: ice harvesting and sewing machines.
The news business is like ice harvesting:
What is ice harvesting? In the old days before refrigeration was commonly in use, ice harvesters would cut huge blocks of ice from frozen lakes in cold regions and deliver the ice to residents’ homes, so they could keep perishables from spoiling. In Tully, N.Y., a community of roughly 800 people about 30 minutes from where I live, enthusiasts re-enact this old-time craft each winter as a way to remember the past.
So what? Well, in Alltop-founder Guy Kawasaki’s book “Reality Check,” he notes that ice harvesting essentially ended as a profession because other people with different skills brought electrical refrigeration to the home. Who would buy from the iceman after that? Kawasaki used ice harvesting as an example of what not to do. He was explaining how businesses need to reinvent themselves to serve the changing needs of their customers.
He wasn’t talking specifically about newspapers, but I think the comparison applies. Right now, newspapers are staffed with journalists who know how to write, edit, take picture, tell stories, just as the ice harvesting business employed people who knew how to cut ice, store it and deliver it all over and who had the equipment to do that.
Now, perhaps, ice harvesters could have forseen that their profession needed to change. Maybe they could have teamed up with those who applied the already invented concept of refrigeration and translated it into the modern fridge. But likely, they faced two problems:
- They couldn’t imagine a world different from the one that existed for them. So they couldn’t foresee a world without ice harvesters.
- They didn’t necessarily have the technical skills or education to apply refrigeration to home use.
The result: Most went out of business, and other people made lots of money keeping things cool inside people’s home.
What does this mean for newspapers? Essentially, the ice harvesting metaphor offers two lessons: To succeed reinventing your business, you must have vision for the future and skills to bring it about.
- Vision: I won’t beat this dead horse, but it’s pretty clear that the news business as a whole didn’t forsee or plan for the day when newspapers might not be the main way people got their news. Whether news executives didn’t see the Internet’s power coming or they ignored it or they didn’t understand it in a way doesn’t really mater. The fact is many in the news business were living in a reality where they couldn’t or wouldn’t imagine a world very different from the one at that time.
- Skills: Many newspapers don’t really have enough employees with the technical skills that are needed to transform the industry. For the news business to really reinvent itself, it needs workers who understand how to create online applications from scratch, how to take advantage of the benefits of open APIs, who understand how to write code and change programming on the fly. It’s understandable that news organizations employeed few people like this in the past. It didn’t need to. It needed people who knew how to cut ice, not invent home refrigerators.
The good news is: I think the news business can do this if it wants to. Journalists are generalists; much of the profession is built on writing about topics in which one is not necessarily an expert. It seems reasonable that journalists could learn more about the technical end of the computer than many of them they know now. Will they be Google engineers? Of course, not. Hopefully, as the news business adjusts to its new reality, it can both train its staff and hire people to supplement the technical understanding.
And, really, news organizations don’t have much of a choice if they want to survive. People don’t want the ice delivered to them in a horse-drawn truck anymore. They want it right in their kitchen, ready whenever they need it.
Coming next: What the news business can learn from sewing machines.