Necessary Disruption

Through randomly picking a class to fulfill a credit for my major, I ended up in JOMC 463 this semester. It’s a class in the Reese News Lab here at UNC. We’re trying to come up with new ideas for a real-world client, The Fayetteville Observer, who came to my professor, John Clark, with three challenges they are facing. We’re brainstorming now, but will eventually be researching and creating new media products that we’ll pitch to the Observer in a few months.

I never thought of myself as an innovator. So I never gave what innovation is, what it takes, or what the purpose of it is much thought.

I just got done with a paper for News Lab on the innovator’s dilemma and disruptive innovation, both which are ideas from Clayton Christensen. You should read what those are here rather than me trying to explain it. If you’d rather not, here’s my short synopsis:

– It’s hard for top firms in an industry to survive when disruptive innovation occurs.
– That’s because it often doesn’t make sense for the most established companies to invest in these disruptive innovations.
– These innovations, rather than being breakthrough improvements that make a product better, make a product cheaper and more accessible to more people.

Firms are stuck in the innovator’s dilemma when they are faced with the question that is: Should we keep making products that are better for our current customers and earn us higher profits or make lower-quality products that our customers wouldn’t buy and make us less money?

As a journalism student trying to figure out this evolving world of journalism and communication, understanding this dilemma has led me to further understand what’s going on in the media industry right now.

I have often been frustrated in asking: Why can’t traditional news outlets just change? Why can’t they adapt? Why can’t they transition into the digital world?

It’s because the smart businessperson might say “no” to this transition in the moment.

There are possible solutions to solving the dilemma. Christensen suggests establishing a branch or side-company within the established company so that the disruptive innovation can come from within. That way, a team of people can focus on new markets and not be distracted by preserving current customers or current revenue streams.

But, as James Allworth argues Steve Jobs did, there is another way to solve the dilemma. It is switching the motivating factor of a company from “profit to passion.” It is focusing on creating products with the most value to the customer first.

This has to happen if the established news organizations we all love want to stay around. Journalists are some of the most passionate people I know and admire, but can often be resistant to change. As much as I respect the moral code of journalism that can often make news organizations feel like something other than businesses, that is what they are and must be to survive. When the top priority is what is best for the customer rather than what makes the most money, the dilemma fades.

That means listening to the audience that you rely on and that relies on you. That means not being afraid to accept, and even strive for, disruption.


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