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By Thomas Baekdal - October 2014

News and Innovation. But what is the Question?

In a recent interview, I was asked about the disruptions in news, unbundling, and how newspapers should innovate.

Q: Which forces or initiatives have the most disruptive power in the newspaper industry?

There are three really big disruptions happening within the newspaper industry. The first disruption is that the barriers to entry have been removed and anyone can, and is, today a journalist. This has created a new world of abundance that is raising the bar for what is valuable and what is not.

This transformation is literally changing the entire business model of news. In the past, the focus was to create a single package of news, for as wide an audience as possible. And that works well if people know they can only choose to read one newspaper per day.

It's like if you go to your local bakery and they only sell one brand of bread. As long as people think that is the only choice they can have, they are fine with it. But as soon as another bakery opens up next door with a choice of 100s of different types of bread, each with its own individual taste, nobody will ever go to the first bakery again.

This is what is happening in the world of media. While newspapers have a very varied selection of articles, they are all based on the same somewhat superficial mass-market concept, and they are focused only on the stories that have a mass-market appeal.

As such, many of the topic areas that people used to get from newspapers are now being covered in a far better way by 'other' media.

One example, the once very popular 'lifestyle' section in the Sunday paper is struggling to make a difference, because people can now choose thousands of far more personal and targeted lifestyle channels. Just like with the bakery next door. And from an editorial perspective, the only three areas that newspapers still dominate are politics, crime, and foreign coverage of the world's trouble-spots.

While these three topics can be very important, the reason nobody else is writing about it, is because it's also incredibly boring and outside the readers' sphere of influence and control. As such, it is a very hard area of news to monetize in a world with an infinite amount of more personally relevant topics.

The second transformation is all about distribution. In the past, newspapers enjoyed a world where the distribution channels worked exclusively for the benefit of newspapers and magazines. The newsstands, kiosks, and gas stations all carried only the type of media that the traditional publishers wanted, while making it impossible for 'other' media to get the exposure they needed.

The internet, however, has no such limitation. The internet doesn't care about what you are. It only cares about the importance of the connection. This has caused the newspaper industry into a world where each individual article has to fight for its own survival. It has to prove to be worthy of being linked to, indexed, ranked, followed and shared. All determined by automatic algorithms that don't care that you are a newspaper with a 60-year legacy.

The third transformation is one of format. Traditionally, news was 'reported' and 'reactive'. And it came to you in the form of a written article. But increasingly, the concept of news has expanded into a far more active format that you can use, in the form of data.

Look at concepts like Google Now, Microsoft Cortana, and Apple's Siri. If you ask them what the score is for the football game that is on right now, they will immediately report that "the score is Brazil 1, Germany 4". Or if you are driving, news is when there is an accident up ahead and your car directs you to take another route.

The whole format of news is changing. And it's changing into three distinct areas of consumption. It is 'Active news' that is with you wherever you are, and targeted to each individual in relation to what is relevant to that person at just that moment. 'Reflective news' provides people with in-depth perspective and overall understanding of the larger issues. And 'news that you can look up' is about giving people a condensed and summarized place to go to get the bigger picture.

But when you look at newspapers today, none of them are really doing any of this. They are still basing their model on the old format of single and often short articles. A model that only makes sense if your business model is to get people to sit down with a package of news, like in the old days.

Q: Unbundling offers such as Blendle in the Netherlands or Niiu in Germany, are they a threat or opportunity for newspapers?

Mostly they are a distraction.

From a trend perspective, the concept of a random selection of news articles, published as a package, is clearly not working anymore. The whole concept of giving people a selection of random articles each day goes against the very way people behave in a connected world.

So, on one hand, it's very important to 'unbundle' the newspapers, and start to think about what they offer as individual topics of interest that people can choose. This is a fundamental mechanism of the internet.

People don't subscribe to a random group of blogs, a random group of YouTube channels, or follow a random group of people. People very specifically choose things that interest them, and the way they determine the value of that is directly correlated to how specifically the publisher is able to focus on just that topic.

A digital native would never create a newspaper with a wide selection of random stories. Instead, a digital native would create a series of 'playlists/channels' each one focusing on just a single topic.

But services like Blendle and Niiu are not really doing any of this.

They unbundle the news from each newspaper, and then they rebundle them in a single bigger package. Leading to the same result. They are not offering me an area of interest that I can connect with. They just give me a bigger bundle of random content from a bigger pool of sources.

Also, the whole concept of the connected world is that news is not just what newspapers write about. News is everything that is new to me. So, a story on a blog or some other site is just as important than a story in a newspaper, but services like Blendle and Niiu don't include those.

They have the right idea about one part of the news, but they completely miss the other two parts. As such, they are not really making any difference.

It's more of a distraction than a solution.

Q: What should newspaper publishers retain from the 'Digital Innovation Report' of the New York Times?

The NYT Innovation Report is a wonderful document in that it explains, in a very clear way, the many challenges that every newspaper is facing. And it serves as a wake-up call for the entire industry.

And from the business side of news, it explores many of the difficulties and needed changes that also affect other newspapers.

But at the same time, it makes the glaring mistake of not questioning the 'product', which in the case of a newspaper is the editorial focus.

They write:

The New York Times is winning at journalism. Of all the challenges facing a media company in the digital age, producing great journalism is the hardest. Our daily report is deep, broad, smart and engaging - and we've got a huge lead over the competition.

But as I wrote in 'What if Quality Journalism Isn't?', if The NYT is 'winning at journalism', why is its readership falling significantly? If their daily report is smart and engaging, why are they failing to get its journalism to its readers? If its product is 'the world's best journalism', why does it have a problem growing its audience?

You can't be the world's best and fail at the same time.

This is the challenge NYT faces. The transformation of news is much less about the format than it is about the focus and the function of news. In other words, you can't make any changes unless you start by questioning your editorial focus first.

The NYT Innovation Report isn't doing that.

Q: What are the top 3 areas in which newspaper publishers should innovate in the digital space?

Well, I feel the word innovation is misleading in this context. It implies that newspapers can just focus on a specific thing (like mobile), and then everything will be fine. We all know it won't.

Real innovation doesn't work that way. Real innovation is about solving a problem for a specific group of people in a specific situation.

Nike, for instance, innovates by inventing shoes, clothes and apps that allow athletes to run faster, with less injuries, in greater comfort, all of which can be measured and analyzed to further improve and tweak their performance.

There is a great video about that here:


When it comes to innovation for newspapers, it's not really about the top three things. It's more about who are you innovating for? What problem are you trying to solve, for what group of people, and for what situation?

This is where the challenge is for most newspapers. The traditional model of a random package of daily news didn't have a target audience. It was just targeted anyone, in any situation.

So, step one is to identify your target for innovation. And once you know that, what to innovate suddenly becomes clear as day because you will know what the problem is.

It's like in the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy. It tells the story of how the answer to life, the universe and everything is '42'. But nobody knows what that means because they never understood what the question was.

"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."

"But it was the Great Question! The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything!" howled Loonquawl.

"Yes, but what actually is it?"

"A slow stupefied silence crept over the men as they stared at the computer and then at each other."

"Well, you know, it's just Everything ... Everything..." offered Phouchg weakly.

"Exactly!" said Deep Thought. "So once you do know what the question actually is, you'll know what the answer means."

This is the challenged that newspapers face. To innovate you first need to know what the question is.

Innovation is not about mobile, tablets, apps, aggregation, responsive designs, listicles and many other things. It's about understanding what the question is, and then innovate to find an answer to that problem.

The newspaper industry will find that there are a thousand different questions with an equal amount of answers. It all depends on what you decide to focus on.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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