While newspapers and magazines are being written off as dinosaurs from a bygone era, forms of information distribution whose days have come and gone, what if the problem is deeper? What if the problem is the owners?
The management trap of disruptive technology is insidious because, like all good traps, it doesn’t look like one at first. It looks prudent and fits a corporate culture of conservative, data-driven management. But incumbents can’t recommend change because it would mean recommending something less profitable, less accepted, and less proven than what they’re already doing.
And that’s the trap.
Disruptors have no such inhibitions.
Two stories illustrate the issue.
The first comes from a blog post by Stephen Baker on the Numerati, a blog supporting his book of the same name. Entitled, “Business Week Can’t Afford to Stay with McGraw-Hill,” the post flips on its head the notion that corporations have to look at their assets and drop those that no longer contribute enough to the bottom line. Instead, assets have to look at their owners to see if they’re in a good home.
McGraw-Hill is not a safe home. The company, for all its merits, is slow and bureacratic, and it’s painfully short on innovation and creative thinking at its highest levels. This is hardly the outfit to remake a business for the age of Google and Wikipedia. We need owners with faster feet and bigger heads. It is true that it seemed to be a luxury over the last several years to be owned by a patient investor, one who loved the brand and swallowed growing losses. But looking back, this reduced the pressure to remake ourselves. A sharper and more tech-savvy owner . . . would not have greenlighted extravagent and ill-conceived tech projects.
Baker also notes that while it might seem safe for McGraw-Hill to shed Business Week and return to “its safer businesses, including books and credit ratings,” even those are under assault.
Being in a deep, warm tar pit only provides the illusion of the spa experience when predators are about.
The journalism in Business Week is often cutting-edge, and their columnists are excellent. But their model is hemmed in by a corporate culture that isn’t innovating to match trending preferences for information acquisition. The magazine is fine, but it’s an entry point. I want to share, save, and link out of articles. Where’s their iPhone app? Their interactive data? The Business Week brand is too severely defined by the print magazine to survive.
So now we turn to SEED Media, a company that currently publishes a troubled magazine also called SEED. The Magazine Death pool recently gave that very print magazine (SEED) a 10% chance of survival, noting that the August issue hasn’t yet mailed. But SEED the company is also a fast-moving, tech-savvy information entity.
However, SEED is sticking with SEED, at least according to a blog post from the company posted last Friday. It will publish the print magazine less often, and with more online premium content.
Sounds like the same tired line about how print will survive.
But what sets SEED (and SEED) apart is the size (small), agility (quick), and aggressiveness (strong) of the overall organization. And their branding is a nice accident, since the organization can leverage the SEED brand with or without the print. While they dabble in print, they’re exploring robust blogging platforms, data visualization, conferences, software, and digital media with other brands under the SEED umbrella.
They are moving quickly, thinking on their feet, and adjusting as they go.
They’re embracing disruptive innovation.
So what separates the Business Week from SEED? Is it the paper? The ink? The editorial? All three are very good.
The difference isn’t the magazines — it’s the owners.
While two magazines await the scythe from the Grim Reaper, one is at a company that has over-invested in a losing proposition, lacked innovation, and created a cautious culture that has looks safe but is surprisingly risky. The other magazine is at a company that will only invest in print as long as it makes sense, is aggressively pursuing a digital strategy on many fronts, has a brand that isn’t tied to one medium, and has owners with “faster feet and bigger heads.”
Ironically, but true to the theory of the management trap, that magazine isn’t Business Week.