The responses to my post last month, "Please stop calling print the 'core product' (explained)," continue to pop up here and there on the net, and a common theme is "but I'm not sure I agree or want to accept what he says is the core - helping others sell their goods and services."
I can't say I'm surprised; as I've often noted, journalists don't often think about the business that supports journalism and generally don't want to. But business is about money. And in the media business, helping others sell their goods and services is where the money comes from.
The people who spend their days thinking about the business are all on the sales side. They're busy selling what we make (desperately trying to make this month's sales goals), not noodling on what we might make.
Combine that with a recession that (temporarily) kicks the legs out from under the advertising model, and we get to our current state of general bewilderment about "the business model that will support serious journalism in the 21st century."
In 2005, the American Press Institute invested $2 million to undertake a deep rethink of the business layer. They brought in a team from the Harvard Business School and the innovation strategy firm Innosight. I was on the task force for that project, called NewspaperNext.
Some good things happened as a result of NewspaperNext. The report that emerged from that project changed the way many people think about the challenges facing the newspaper industry, and it led to a number of innovative projects, generally focused on niche markets.
But there was one angle that seems to have slipped out of the discussion that I think is extremely important.
In identifying the core business of the local newspaper as a marketing service implemented through the advertising model, Innosight told us to start thinking of a "new core" and implored us to realize that our Web efforts are part of that core.
OK, some of us get that now. But it's the next step that we're uniformly failing to take: Look outside the new core. Find poorly met needs in your community where you might create new kinds of products or services that might follow a completely different business model.
Who's doing that? Who's (a) looking outside the core, talking with people (business and consumer) in the community, finding poorly met needs, and (b) trying to build something that's outside the circle, outside the comfort zone of media product supported by advertising revenue?
Much of the rest of Innosight's advice seems to have been internalized by a lot of people at newspapers. I hear a lot of comfortable talk about "fail fast, fail cheap," the iterative strategy-development process that recognizes that "90 percent of new ventures start off following the wrong strategy." I even hear talk of "good enough," a concept that's a bitter pill to swallow in newsrooms, which prefer to puff up the mission with lofty language about excellence.
But there seems to be a wall around the core -- new or old. And there's very little action outside that wall. You have to wonder what opportunities are going unclaimed.
Update: The original version of this post credited the Knight Foundation, but the $2 million (eventually $3.2 million) was raised by API from a broad collection of donors that support the institute. Thanks to Mark Mulholland for the catch.