McGuire on Media

Newsonomics is the Business and Future of Journalism textbook I sought

When I started teaching the Business and Future of Journalism course at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in the fall of 2006 I was out there on an island without any decent textbooks. It was clear I was inventing the class without a net. There were classic newspaper management texts, and there were newspaper economics books. For my intentions, those texts were stodgy and profoundly stuck in the past.  I needed reading material that analyzed the media meltdown and spun things forward in a meaningful way. 

That meant I had to find it on my own. For the first four years of teaching the course I used scores of contemporary Internet readings and several books related to disparate elements of the future such as The Long Tail, Wikinomics, The World is Flat and What Would Google Do? Each year I changed the Internet readings to keep up with the breakneck pace of change, but there was never any cohesive binding agent to hold the class together.

Until now. Who knew the answer to my bleating complaints would come from an old competitor. Ken Doctor was Managing Editor at the St Paul Pioneer Press when I was editor in Minneapolis. Ken is a fine newspaperman and was a tough competitor. He has clearly reinvented himself for this Schumpeterian moment in which we all live. He’s come out on the other side of the tumult, stronger, faster and even more accomplished.  He’s been consulting and blogging since leaving Knight Ridder Digital, and reinvention suits him well.

The day in late January I received a copy of Ken Doctor’s Newsonomics in the mail, I realized that Ken had something special. The book finally gives focus to the people seriously interested in thinking about how the news has changed from a successful business model to content desperately searching for a model that will allow it to survive. Three hours after receiving the book I made it one of the three books my class needed to read this semester.  Within a couple of weeks, after I spent some quality time with it, I concluded the book will be the spine of the first month of the class next semester.

My students appreciate the aptness of Doctor’s book, too. One student began her class report advising other students to read the book because “it  really is closely related to our syllabus.” Ken has been able to capture the essence of the radical upheaval in the news business at the same time he built a construct to look at future changes. He accomplishes that neat trick by developing 12 laws he argues have shaped the changes in news we are seeing every day. He argues those 12 laws also offer students, entrepreneurs and media executives a way out of the current morass.

The book is readable, easy for students to grasp and full of tangible examples of media struggles. He organizes his material around his 12 laws which makes the book easy to follow and even easier from which to teach. Consistent with modern design, Doctor effectively uses Newsonomics101 boxes to provide effective sidebars to the text.

Doctor does not shy away from tough, insightful pronouncements. These are some of my favorites:

“We are at the end of the beginning versus the beginning of the end of this particular news revolution”

“We will end up getting the journalism that individuals and society will pay for.”

“We don’t so much get the news as the news gets to us.” I have been calling this the “news ether,” and it is especially relevant to my students. They know “stuff” but they have no clue where they got that “stuff.” 

In talking about newspaper purchasers of recent years Doctor offers this gem:”They all thought they were buying distressed companies that had been mismanaged. What they neglected to see is that they were buying into a distressed industry.” 

There are lots of things to love about Newsonomics. I think Doctor’s Digital Dozen point is provocative as hell. I did think he defined news a little narrowly, and his distinction between the news business and journalism strikes me as a little strained.

I think the book offers a nice primer on start-up business models. While his chapter about “Itch the Niche” is not novel, it is very well done and it resonated particularly well with my students. I don’t want to be a spoiler, but I also love Doctor’s comparison of newspapers to the U.S. Postal Service. Clever.

The best part of a fine book for me is the last chapter. Ken calls it Mind the Gaps. He indicates that those gaps between established media and upstart media may actually be crevasses, but he forcefully advises journalists where they have to hustle to get close to competitive. 

Certainly, I quibble with some characterizations in the book and I am convinced that Ken simply does not do enough with advertising and the future directions it needs to go.  A media CEO friend of mine was impressed with the book but found it “journalism-oriented.” I gave my friend a hard time about that and said something like “so what’s the problem?”

While I see the CEO’s point, I think Ken Doctor’s success with this book is his ability to respect journalism and journalists while calling them to the ramparts to fight the business model war of their life.