'Active Inertia' Towards Doom

Last week, I said that I’d become radically dissident inside the newspaper industry. My friend, Steve Outing, commented about this in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits:

    But “radically dissident”? Given the hype to this, I was expecting a far more radical view. I mostly agree with his premise. To deny that what Crosbie projects is the future of the news industry is to have been not reading the tea leaves for the last decade. The change in the industry that Crosbie proposes will be a radical thing, no doubt. But thinking that this will happen isn’t so radical; it’s common sense. He articulates the vision where others have failed.

I was unclear on exactly what I am radically dissident about, so let me clarify. And my Publishing: Free-to-Fee column this week at ClickZ, plus some comments in a Journalism.co.uk article today about my work, point towards what I want to clarify.

There has been much discussion in the periodical publishing industry about two theories by Harvard professors. The first is Professor Clayton Christensen‘s Innovator’s Dilemma theory. It proposes that the best of conventional ‘good business practices’ can ultimately weaken established industries because those industries tend to ignore upstart technological innovation until it is too late and those new technologies overwhelm them. The second is a spinoff of that, Professor Clark Gilbert‘s Disruptive Technologies theory, which postulates that once established industries do respond, these industries manage their responses very rigidly, as if they were just like their core businesses.

Although those two theories are instructive, I don’t think they apply to to the periodical publishing industry, particular newspapers. Periodicals didn’t ignore upstart technological innovations such as the Internet; periodicals began publishing on the Web in 1994. Nor did periodicals manage their Internet subsidiaries very rigidly (at least not during the boom years of Internet growth, from 1994 until the recession of 2001). During those years, online periodical publishing subsidiaries were often managed fast and loose.

Instead, I think that the periodical publishing industry has been proceeding rather uncannily along a theory postulated by a third Harvard Business School professor, Donald Sull. He teaches that graduate school’s required first-year course, The Entrepreneurial Manager and researches how success breeds corporate inertia. Prof. Sull has found that when successful industries’ face big changes in their environment, they tend to respond not with paralysis but with what he calls active inertia — a tendency to persist in established patterns of behavior.

Unfortunately, the formula that might have brought an industry success during previous decades or centuries instead now in a changed environment brings decline and failure. Stuck in the modes of thinking and working that have been successful in the past, those the industry reacts to change by simply fine-tuning or accelerating its now outmoded practices. Rather than dig itself out of a hole, the industry just deepen it.

Faced with long-term declines in readership and the rise of new media and many other changes, the newspaper industry has reacted with attempts to fine-tune, tweak, or simply do online what it has always done — active inertia maintained in the face of change — rather than consider that what it has always done is decreasingly viable and that radical changes are necessary.

I’m bored of shovelware. I’m tired of attending most online publishing conferences, which haven’t fundamentally changed their programs since 1994. I’m dissident inside an industry that doesn’t actively commit to research & development, and that continues to deny most of the outside research and developments that threaten it. And I regret that I’ve come to the conclusion that the periodical publishing industry nowadays exists mainly to provide its employees and executives with the complacent inertial comfort of not having to change.

Does that make me radically dissident?

One thought on “'Active Inertia' Towards Doom

  1. Great post vin. I’m going to have to comment on it my First Draft but I need to think it through first. I can say this, though: I had breakfast this morning with the editor of a large regional paper and we talked about innovation and change in his newsroom. Inertia is exactly the word that came up — cultural inertia, not technological. This newsroom couldn’t be more digitally enabled, but the thinking remains hot tip — locked in.

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