As an editor and newsroom manager, I had been drawn to Michael Porter’s ideas of strategy, especially his 2001 essay “Strategy and the Internet.” Too often, I had watched my organization and others slash and trim to improve their bottom lines for short-term gains. Porter’s call for strategic positioning over operational effectiveness made more sense: Don’t sacrifice long-term advantage for ephemeral successes meant to appease the stock market.
It was a compelling idea that lingered with me as I pursued my doctorate and moved into research. As I worked my way through the program, I sifted through a number of ideas, hoping to find some frameworks and guides to help the news industry transition successfully to the world of the Web without sacrificing its long-term viability.
Then, Clayton Christensen disrupted my thinking.
Porter focused on the competitive environment at the industry level. Christensen’s research on innovation — most clearly articulated in his book “The Innovator’s Solution” with Michael Raynor — built on Porter’s work and put the focus in a news context squarely on the audience.
Christensen offered tangible advice for thinking meaningfully at the audience level. Don’t ask the audience directly what it wants; they often don’t know consciously. Instead, think in terms of jobs to be done. Through observation and contemplation, consider what audience members are “hiring” your content to do.
Too often, businesses overshoot consumer needs. Companies and their structures typically reward sustaining strategy, safer development supported by market research and proven products. They stick with what they’ve always done and applaud improving their best products.
The problem: They often end up overshooting consumer needs.
Into this environment comes disruption from new or lower-end products that fulfill jobs more in line with audience expectations. And by the time incumbents realize their flawed perspective, it is too late to recover.
Instead, they should rely on emergent strategy, bringing testable concepts to market more quickly with a willingness to fail. In “Seeing What’s Next,” Christensen and co-authors Erik Roth and Scott Anthony note:
When the functionality and reliability of products overshoot customer needs, then convenience, customization, and low prices become what are not good enough.
Well before their legacy counterparts, new sites embraced and experimented with aggregation and online story forms. Craigslist and Monster.com understood more quickly how to deliver cheaper, customized classifieds. And social media developed more convenient mechanisms for content discovery and sharing.
To survive in this environment, news organizations must become as experimental and nimble as the upstarts. They no longer have the luxury of lengthy content testing; they must push nascent products into the marketplace and iterate while learning from the audience.
With this framework, they can identify and fulfill the communication jobs to be done.
Uses and gratifications
Historically, mass-communication researchers have concentrated on the impact mass media have on the audience. In the Internet age, however, the power has shifted to the audience, as Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky, and other media scholars have noted.
As the traditional mass media weaken, the uses-and-gratifications thread of media research offers a more useful framework for uncovering the audience’s jobs to be done. Tapping into the long line of uses-and-gratifications research (as media scholars Esther Thorson and Margaret Duffy did with their Media Choice Model), we can focus on the primary communication needs — the “jobs” in Christensen’s parlance — that users want to satisfy: information, entertainment, connectivity, and consumption (shopping).
In the searchable, clickable world of the Web, it is so much easier for the audience to satisfy those needs quickly. In my content-creation classes today, I repeat usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s mantra:
In addition to the detailed insights offered by individual models, it’s healthy to remember that users are selfish, lazy, and ruthless in applying their cost-benefit analyses.
As we develop the next generation of news content, we must embrace the audience and its needs. Such a focus doesn’t mean we should shamelessly cater to all audience wants and desires. It just means we must consider the audience and the contexts of media consumption more completely as we develop our content, whatever form it may take.
Otherwise, our audience will selfishly, ruthlessly go elsewhere.
Note: This post originally appeared as a response to the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft.