Astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

I wonder sometimes if the future of our industry would be different if more media executives embraced the disruption caused by the advancements in society and technology with the free, unfettered, and open-minded spirit as the famous American cosmologist.

Unfortunately, to date that has not happened. Most publishers still live in a “Once upon a time…” world, which focuses on the past and “what was” as opposed to “what could be.”

It’s understandable that journalists are predisposed to reporting the facts as they occurred, but it doesn’t mean that their leaders have to live using the same backward-facing compass. In fact, as corporate executives, they should be living and breathing Peter Drucker’s characterisation of an entrepreneur: always searching for change, responding to it, and exploiting it as an opportunity.

But when one looks at the “who’s who” of publishing, one can’t help but wonder how these senior veterans — most of whom started at the bottom and worked (or inherited) their way up the corporate ladder — could ever envision a future with entrepreneurial eyes when they view digital disruption as more of a curse than a cure.

Disruption is a four-letter word, but not the one you’re thinking of. Yes, it’s hard, but it shouldn’t spell f-e-a-r. Instead it should be seen as a time of immense opportunity in the evolutionary process of every business.

Welcome it and exploit its potential, and you may find that “something incredible.” Ignore it or fight it, and it will bite you in the proverbial butt.

But how does the industry disrupt itself? Maybe looking back at how we got here will help move us forward.

So here we go, “Once upon a time newspapers lived in…”

The Period of Prosperity

In Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age, British reporter, editor, and head of journalism at City University in London, George Brock, claimed that more newspapers were killed by television since the 1950s than by the Internet. He further maintained that the second half of the 20th century was actually a period of long decline for newspapers.

Perhaps newspaper readership 50 years ago grew slower than the population at the time as a result of television replacing afternoon newspapers. But as I look at the evolution of newspaper publishing over the past half century and Brock’s assertion that “journalism has been forced to reinvent itself multiple times throughout its history and will do so again in this digital age,” I can’t help but think that journalism in the 21st century doesn’t need a reinvention; it needs an intervention.

The Dawn of Digital

Although the Internet didn’t really reach mass-market appeal until the late ‘90s, it was instrumental in modernising publishing starting in the late ‘70s. Newspaper publishing was optimised through computerisation, giving the industry new opportunities to streamline content creation, editing, layout, and distribution.

But it didn’t take long for the technological advancements of the day to turn the tables on America’s most iconic publisher who chose short-term greed over long-term vision. In 1983, The New York Times blindly sold the rights to all of its day-old electronic content to Mead Data Central, literally giving away its most precious asset to a company that would profit from it with libraries, legal firms, and consumers.

When the publisher finally figured out that digital content was the future of news, it no longer had control of the content it needed to fulfil that future. Fortunately for New York Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Sr., Dutch academic publishing company Reed Elsevier purchased Mead Data in the mid-‘90s, fortuitously allowing The Times to reclaim the electronic rights to its content.

But The New York Times wasn’t the only short-sighted media mogul in the mix.

The Washington Post was approached in 1998 by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs looking for capital. After “kicking the idea around,” Post executives decided to pass on the investment opportunity because it had other fish to fry.

That myopic move cost the company a piece of the largest advertising pie in the world – Google with a market cap of US$367 billion! Today, the US$250 million Post is owned by the founder and CEO of Google’s staunchest rival – Amazon.

Ironic?

What should have been the dawn of another reinvention for publishing as predicted by Brock turned instead into an Era of Errors.

Meanwhile, more garages spawned a new breed of entrepreneurs poised to change the world …

The Internet Age

It’s not that publishers didn’t try to make money off digital. They just couldn’t let go of the “pay to play” print paradigms that would never work with a new breed of digital news snackers not prepared to play by old school rules.

  • In 2010, News Corp invested A$30 million and more than 100 staff on Project Alesia, which was abandoned after one year.

  • Next came the “Pied Piper of Paywalls” and its extraordinary influence on the vast majority of dailies who danced to the tune, “What’s good enough for The New York Times is good enough for me!” Unfortunately, most publishers do not have the deep pockets or appeal of TheTimes and their passage into paywalls did not reap rewards with readers; and many backfired with advertisers.

So while publishers continued to try and put the toothpaste back into the tube, one young visionary after another stepped up to the digital diamond to capitalise on the chaos brought forth by the World Wide Web.

Mobile Mania

With the move to mobile, the industry once again failed to capitalise on new disruptive opportunities.

  • In 2011, News Corp launched its much-hyped tablet newspaper The Daily, investing close to US $80 million in what Chairman Rupert Murdock called “a bold experiment in digital publishing.” Sadly it folded less than two years later.

  • The New York Times launched a number of mobile apps, including TimesSelect (which lasted two years) NYT Opinion (The Times scrapped it last fall), NYT Now (which failed as a paid service and is now free), and the $US585-a-year, mixed-review Times Premier app.

Despite the fact that the majority of readers will never pay for news, media executives continued to chase subscription revenue. Meanwhile the Titans of Tech focused on growing massive audiences through socially or algorithmically curated news, which they then monetised through mobile advertising.

Last year 67% of mobile display ad revenue was monopolised by 5 companies — none of which were news organisations.

The Era of Entrepreneurship

As media brand equity fades and big monetisation opportunities slip through publishers’ fingers as fast as their stories hit Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles, it’s hard to imagine a prosperous future for an industry that has spent the last 25 years failing to “reinvent itself” as it did in the past.

But what’s interesting in these “interesting times” is that the foundation upon which publishing was built and flourished since the 16th century is the talented pool of journalists and editors who have chosen to make kings instead of being one themselves. Perhaps it’s time for that to change.

Survival of the Finest

Except for the rare few who have risen to the ranks of a Nate Silver, many journalists are still considered replacement parts in an engine that’s about to throw a rod. Most are treated as disposable commodities that can be replaced as easily as printer ink.

So it’s no wonder that while high-tech, financial services, health-care, construction, retail, hospitality, professional services, and other industries are all working hard to make the “100 best places to work” list, not even the most respected publishing houses in the United States have made the grade.

Looking at the publisher-journalist value equation:

  • If you remove the publisher from it, what will happen? Journalists may temporarily lose the funding for investigative reporting, travel, etc., but capital can — and will — come from other sources.

  • If you subtract journalists, what do you end up with? Commoditised wire services.

And while most publishers can’t compute a future without a newsroom, the exodus of journalists has already started and non-traditional funding sources are standing by ready to make treasures out of what publishers are trashing.

  • Google is investing in News Lab, an initiative to empower innovation at the intersection of technology and media, creating a new platform for “media entrepreneurs.”

  • Apple is hiring journalists for Apple News (curation is just the beginning).

  • LinkedIn relaunched Pulse, looking for it to become the world’s first personalised business news digest.

  • Big brands are luring journalists away from newsrooms.

  • News aggregators are introducing channels to help journalists/columnists expand their audience, grow their professional brands, and showcase/monetise their content/opinions. 

The potential benefits for journalists to become entrepreneurs are enticing, including the:

  • Opportunity to grow brand equity for themselves rather than their publishers.

  • Freedom to create content without editorial interference.

  • End of native/brand advertising assignments.

  • Elimination of legacy baggage: printing, distribution, unions, etc. 

Today we are fragmenting newspapers and re-aggregating their articles in an exciting new social and mobile world — a world of which traditional publishers are unfamiliar. But it’s a world where journalists can become masters of their own domain.

It’s not easy being an entrepreneur, and not all writers will thrive as content tycoons. But the tools and technology are there for many of them to capitalise on their talents and the opportunities digital disruption brings to their profession.

It’s intervention time.

We all remember Alexander Graham Bell’s famous slur, “America is a country of inventors, and the greatest of inventors are the newspaper men.” Although his intention was to malign, the fact is that there have been many great visionaries in publishing that have propelled the industry forward over the past centuries — entrepreneurs like the young inventor William Bullock, who designed the roll-fed rotary press.

But where are they now?

They’re definitely out there, but you won’t find them in the hallowed halls of legacy media headquarters because their “outside the broadsheet” thinking makes them misfits in mainstream media. Which is exactly why the publishing powers-that-be need to start finding, recruiting, and investing in these young renegades of reformation and launch a whole new breed of publishing pioneers ready to create a future of “something incredible” instead of falling victim to Sagan’s law of evolution: “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”

If it were me, I’d start knocking on a few garage doors.