Having recently read The Innovator’s Dilemma, it’s worth pointing out that the discussion Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias are having about the decline of newspapers is a classic illustration of the principles Clayton Christensen laid out a decade ago. Internet news is a classic disruptive technology. At its outset, it was simple, dirt cheap, and in many ways inferior to established journalism. But it improved over time, and once it began to rival traditional journalistic outfits in quality around the middle of this decade, the “dirt cheap” part of the equation began to dominate. When your competition can produce a roughly comparable product for a small fraction of the cost, your days are numbered.
But here’s the really important point that Christensen made that is often missed in these kinds of discussions: it’s often close to impossible for an organization built around an older technology to retool for a new, disruptive one because their cost structures just don’t allow it. The New York Times is an expensive place to run. It’s got writers, editors, typesetters, delivery trucks, an ad sales force, a big building, travel budgets, and so forth. In order to recoup those costs, they have to make a certain amount of revenue per unit of output. The institutional structure of the New York Times makes it almost impossible for it to produce news the way TPM Muckraker or Ars Technica do. The need to make payroll and cover their rent makes it almost mandatory for them to focus on their traditional core competencies because even as those markets shrink they still offer better margins than the emerging businesses.
Matt’s suggestion of launching NYTList a decade ago illustrates the point well. It’s true that in the long run this probably would have made the Times more money. But in the short run this would have been a truly wrenching transition. At a time when other papers were enjoying fat margins from their classified business, the Times would find more and more of its classified customers switching to the new version. It would have had to start laying off the classified staff and trimming other parts of the budget to cover the lost revenue. And it would have been a huge gamble. It was far from obvious in 2000 that Craigslist would be as big as it has become. So yes, theoretically an enlightened NYT manager could have foreseen the growth of Craig’s List and countered it. But in practice doing so would have required super-human foresight and determination, and an extremely deferential board of directors.
Christensen’s conclusion is that the only way to avoid this grim fate is to spin off an independent subsidiary that can pursue new markets without worrying about fat profit margins or cannibalization of existing product lines. GM’s spin-off of Saturn in the 1980s is a good example of this model. This is still an extremely difficult thing to pull off. It takes a CEO with the foresight to see what’s coming and the political capital within the firm to shield the spin-off from the parent company’s politics. I’m not aware of any high-profile newspaper firms that attempted this, but I’m not sure we can really blame the newspaper managers. It’s a really hard thing to pull off. Christensen was only able to find a handful of firms—in any industry—that pulled it off successfully, and the CEOs who did it almost all said that it was one of the most difficult things they did as managers.
Companies are not big people. They change much more slowly than individual people do. And anyone suggesting that a firm should do things in a new way—even the guy at the top—is going to face strong pressures from traditionalists who want to continue doing things the old way. And in the short run, the traditionalists are almost always right. The old way of doing things is almost always going to be more profitable in the short run. So although I think those who predicted the newspaper industry’s decline are entitled to a certain amount of smugness, I think it’s absolutely not fair excoriate the managers who failed to move more decisively to address the problem. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it’s easy to come up with scenarios that would have turned out better. But from an ex ante perspective, these trends were far from clear, and the people making the decisions were under tremendous pressure to continue the status quo.