Business disruption is the norm, says Wired UK Editor David Rowan (with video)

We need to reframe the conversation around journalism and business models for news, without just talking about ‘digital’ and ‘paywalls,’ said David Rowan, editor of Wired UK, at the World Editors Forum in Bangkok. Wired is about the future, about people who are changing the world, about startups and entrepreneurs, and Rowan said he hoped to channel some of that mindset to “explain why we need to think bigger.”

by WAN-IFRA Staff | June 4, 2013

As an example of the new generation of entrepreneurs, he cited Elon Musk, who has ambitions to go beyond electric cars (Tesla) and solar power (Solar City) to travel to Mars. He mentioned Matternet, which is trying to create a physical Internet using drones, and the Khan Academy, which aims to help anybody learn what they want, when they want.

Every sector is being remade by software, Rowan said, quoting Marc Andreessen, and by access to hardware. The democratisation of technology means that people can now build their own drones that fire weapons, and traditional human roles such as journalism and translation can now be automated.

Exponential advances in technology will continue, Rowan said.

He stressed the importance of focusing on mobile devices, pointing out that there are three times as many people getting smartphones delivered every day now as there are babies being born, and that global tablet sales have overtaken desktop and notebook PC sales. “You have to see mobile as your biggest opportunity and understand how it’s changing people’s behaviour,” he said. Research shows that people check their mobiles an average of 150 times a day.

Rowan showed videos of frustrated babies trying to swipe and click on print magazines to show that the next generation might have fundamentally different expectations.

“There is as much demand as ever for journalism to hold the powerful to account, but the business model is under massive challenges,” Rowan said. News organisations have value, but they need to find a way to subsidise that value. Conventional advertising is less and less capable of providing this subsidy, and advertising will not be the future for most of us, he said.

He suggested some alternative revenue streams that news organisations could look at (conveniently, many begin with a ‘c’):

  • Commerce: deals of the day, for example.
  • Conferences: Wired organises several profit-making events a year.
  • Consulting: helping other people organise events, for instance. “People are more willing to pay for something that’s scarce – expertise and guidance – than they are for a one-page ad,” Rowan said.
  • College: for example, Condé Nast has a college of fashion and design.
  • Community funding: for instance, musician Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign raised $1.2m so that she could go on tour. See her Ted Talk here.
  • Creative agencies: several news companies have done this, including Axel Springer and Le Monde.
  • Cruises: Associated Newspapers realized that it was getting all the advertising for cruise companies, so it decided to start selling its own cruises.
  • Co-partner: for app development, video services, etc.

You must not be afraid of failure, Rowan said. He advised delegates to take another lesson from startups: If something doesn’t work, don’t see it as a failure but as a chance to ‘pivot’ and change strategy. Plenty of companies have done that successfully, he said, such as Bic, which went from just making disposable pens to all sorts of disposable items.

“Business disruption is now the norm – we can’t relax,” Rowan said. We need to keep looking at what startups are doing, and keep talking to 16-year-olds about their media habits. Exponential organisations iterate quickly, have scalable processes, use the crowd, go global and have a real mission, he said.

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