Disruption, low-end solutions, Twitter and Linux

Clayton Christensen and the disruptive-innovation crew from Harvard -- who developed the NewspaperNext program with the American Press Institute -- struggle to get us to understand how and why simple, low-end, inadequate, "junk" products and services so often topple the big guys.

Take Twitter, for example. One look at the public timeline will tell you it's a vast ocean of utter crap. It's pathetically simple, often unreliable, and even some of its heaviest users are constantly whining about how something else would be better.

But it's open, with a publicly available programming interface. Suddenly you have a whole constellation of Twitter applications, Firefox extensions, image-handling, URL-shortening, conversation-tracking and buddy-recommending services created by third parties.

And now you have the Poynter Institute running a Twitter journalism webinar. Hundreds of newspapers and thousands of journalists are figuring out ways to fit Twitter in with what they do. The most compelling news photo I've seen this year came when Janis Krums was riding a ferry across the Hudson River. His cellphone photo of the downed US Airways plane was instantly "retweeted" and forwarded and relayed all over the planet.

Is it journalism? Why should we care? It is what it is.

One of the low-end, disruptive examples Christensen points to is Linux, which I first used in 1993 or so.

I bought a used '386 PC from a junk dealer and set it up at home. It had no windowing system, just a command line. It had very little networking capability, just dialup. It was unstable. I downloaded patches from Finland every week and recompiled the alpha-state kernel.

It was really just a toy for the college students, amateurs and hobbyists who were the primary developers of Linux back then. I had fun with it.

By 1995, I was in the middle of the Star Tribune Online project in Minneapolis, and our dozen staffers had a problem. Some of them were using Macs. Others were using Windows95 (we started with a pre-release version). We couldn't share files. Left brain couldn't even talk to right brain.

So I installed an early version of Red Hat Linux on a spare PC. Installing it was a struggle. It didn't solve the problem immediately, but it came with Samba, which could talk to the PCs, and I found the source code to Netatalk, which implemented Appletalk protocol for Unix.

After a bit of fiddling with the C source code I got Netatalk to compile. Suddenly this toy operating system was doing a crucial business job. And it was a job that both Microsoft and Apple had intentionally left untouched because it served their purposes to create separate universes with maximum customer lock-in.

Over a decade passes. Microsoft and Apple both make major improvements to their product line. But Linux creeps up on the server side, and eventually becomes the Gold Standard for Web operations. It runs on supercomputers. It runs on cellphones. Your Tivo and your wifi router and your print server probably run embedded Linux, and it comes on those $270 netbooks down at the Target store.

Suddenly Microsoft looks like an inept Soviet-style bureaucracy, and people begin wondering whether its day has passed.

Can we see this pattern in newspapers? Of course we can, and you don't even have to look at the Internet to find it. Daily print newspapers for years have intentionally ignored vast areas of their own business:

  • Reporters won't cover "chicken dinner" news. It doesn't meet the "threshhold."
  • A hunter brings in a picture of the deer he shot over the weekend. Newspaper won't run it; the quality is too low, and besides, dead Bambi offends somebody on the copy desk.
  • Ad sales force won't call on the bars downtown. They're too little to worry about, and besides, half of them don't pay their bills.
  • Garage sale junk ads are a nuisance. It costs more to take the ad on the phone than you get paid. Raise the classified rates until the problem goes away.

So somebody else steps in to meet the need: a shopper, an alternative weekly (we used to call them underground newspapers back in the hippie era). And they're a joke, until they start getting the real estate agencies and car dealers.

The people Mark Potts labels printies, short for Printosaurus Rex, dismissed the Internet for over a decade as a fad, a toy, the realm of pajama bloggers, blah, blah, blah. But now the Internet has become deeply embedded in American life, with news audiences integrating news from traditional sources with a vast set of Internet resources, many of which may still look like toys to the printies.

Most of the disruptive-innovation tales in Christensen's collection do not end in the outright demise of the big, aging incumbent. They lead instead to a marginalization, and in the case of the big steel mills that Christensen points to as examples, widespread bankruptcies and many mill closings. Yet we still have big steel mills, and some of them apparently are doing fairly well.

So here's what you should expect in the next five years:

  • More layoffs from Microsoft as its once-absolute hold on computing becomes weak. But don't dance on its grave; Microsoft is not going away.
  • More migration of time and attention to the Internet, much of it centered on strange new activities like Twitter that seem at first to be -- well, complete wastes of time. But TV, movies, radio and print will continue to play major roles.
  • More newspaper layoffs and bankruptcies and print shutdowns. But printed newspapers will persist and even thrive in many situations, and in some cases new printed newspapers will arise in the ashes of failed daily giants. They will be different from the ones they replace
  • Linux everywhere. I had to say it.


As pay cuts continue, reporters will be looking forward to those free chicken dinners.

Nothing new there! Drop a tray of food in a newsroom and it's like hamburger tossed into a tank of piranhas. At the Strib we used to get a giant drum of cookies every year from the local Thai restaurant. Entire nations could be fed from that drum of cookies, yet by the time the night shift arrived, only crumbs were left.

Interesting post Steve. I think you've condensed the content of "The Innovator's Dilemma" and shown how it can affect the news industry. Nice work.

I have no argument with this view of history, but I'm more impressed with Yelvington's the view of the future. This is about as good as I've seen. Now, to take it just one more step... What to do? How can the news business be part of the digital innovations? How about extending the newspapers' brand to some of these "strange new activities" and extending local marketers' brand?

When we were all new parents, we learned to childproof our homes, by getting down on our hands and knees and finding all the little trouble spots toddlers could find, that we never saw. Same with papers, except most of them never learned to childproof their markets and let all the ankle-biters fill in the "good enough" niches you described, until it was almost too late. Good news is we (papers) still have the resources to do it better than anybody else, if we are brave, or scared enough, to do it now. Bad news is we're running out of time. First we got to be willing to crawl around a little and build from the ground up.