How Fairfax Media learned to stop worrying about disruption and embrace it


The year 2014 will see two game-changing events for digital content businesses.

Within the next few months, the global penetration of smartphones will overtake PCs to become the dominant computing device.

And much closer to home, the Australian mobile audience will overtake the Australian desktop audience sometime around July.

It’s a simple equation: More mobile devices equals more attention from mobile users and more disruption to other media, including our very own desktop businesses.

However, reader attention is monetisable and, as Fairfax Media already commands a lot of mobile reader attention, the audience migration should be good news.

But with mobile yields a fraction of desktop yields — which are in turn a fraction of print yields — are publishers headed in ever-decreasing circles?

The oft-quoted issue driving newspaper woes is the evaporation of the classified advertising model, the rivers of gold. One could be fooled into thinking that disruption visited news publishers only once with the arrival of the Web and the drying up of that river.

But disruption happened more than once in this industry. Disruption is happening on a constant basis, with wave after wave hitting our shores, and each blow has the potential to further erode.

First came the Web, which blew apart any notion of scarcity. Soon after came the portals and Internet service providers (ISPs), which so often were the homepage of many early users looking for a quick snapshot of news. Then came the classified pure-plays.

Then came search, which turned every article page into the homepage and questioned our ability to provide a curated experience.

Next came niche blogs that were only an inch thick but a mile deep on just about any passion you could think of. Then came the aggregators, which provided utility in aggregating all those little blogs back into one easy-to-find destination.

Then came social as a news platform, which meant the latest news was no longer fast enough and the audience wanted news right now.

All of these waves were no doubt discussed in the war rooms of every publisher watching the horizon for signs of attack.

The audience migration to mobile brings challenges, but it also brings enormous opportunities. New business models and new interactions will come to light. The potential for new mobile interaction models is simply mind-boggling.

Very early on with the desktop Web, the basic interaction model was set. One Web page had a bunch of links that took you to other Web pages. And that interaction model is still in place today across desktop.

But with mobile, no one can say with certainty what’s going to happen.

Will apps win over the open Web? They’re harder to produce, they cost more, and to operate in an app marketplace you are sure to find an intermediary between you and your customer.

Perhaps applications such as Google Now, which disrupts Web pages themselves by turning content into smaller packets, will become the dominant interaction models. Or maybe Siri will eventually predict what content we need and conveniently phone us to let us know.

Is this the beginning of the end for the Web page?

At Fairfax Media, we have vowed to stop worrying about disruption and instead focus on continual innovation. The formula working for us right now is as follows:

  1. Find the right problems to work on. All innovation is about solving real customer problems. When you speak to your customers on a regular basis, you invite critique and this needs to be the starting point.

  2. Crowd-source to solve problems. You do not have all the answers. Widen the idea funnel and invite a lot more people to suggest solutions to problems you are aware of.

  3. Get everyone on board. And I mean everyone. Innovation in a company cannot be a separate department. It needs to be everyone’s responsibility and include voices from people at all career levels.

  4. Make the scale-or-fail decision quickly. Too often we see good ideas stall because of no follow-through. The idea is merely a starting point, and the value of good execution also needs to be championed.

Publishers have had well over a decade of disruption and, as a result, have become pretty thick-skinned. Once guilty of excessively lamenting the passing of the rivers-of-gold era, Australian publishers have moved through the stages of grief and are now getting on with the task of embracing innovation and the myriad opportunities at our door.

This is going to be an interesting year.

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