Disrupting the News

Susan Glasser published a powerful piece for the Brookings Institution last week. Titled, “Covering politics in a ‘post-truth’ America,” the essay reflects on the changes to journalism over the past 30-plus years, and Glasser wonders aloud what the election of Donald Trump says about the state of journalism today.

Hers is one of dozens — perhaps hundreds — of recent editorials and articles about the proliferation and impact of “fake news.” The overwhelming tone of these pieces is one of concern, if not outright panic. Everyone needs to calm down. Faux news is good news, at least from one perspective: that of disruptive innovation.

We can all agree that the internet has been a disruptive innovation. Information that is disseminated via the internet is, therefore, also disruptive. Glasser references disruption throughout her essay, in fact. But, I respectfully submit, she doesn’t seem to see how it’s playing out here.

A lot of people think that some whizzy technology is all that’s required for something to be disruptive. But that’s an oversimplification. Truly disruptive innovations happen when a new technology coincides with widespread public dissatisfaction with the old ways of doing things.

By way of example, Betamax and VHS recorders transformed the movie industry (dragged kicking and screaming) because the consuming public wanted more control over what they watched and when they watched it. On the music side of the entertainment business, Napster’s peer-to-peer file-sharing technology gave the public the choices that the record industry had refused to provide.

It’s worth noting two other aspects of disruption.

First, the initial iterations of a disruptive innovation are often really poor quality. It takes numerous attempts, fits and starts over years, before the innovation reaches the level of quality that a majority of consumers expect and demand.

Second, those who’ve grown fat and happy doing things the “old way” will resist the “new way” with everything they’ve got — even when the “new way” turns out to be better for them. (Disney was one of the plaintiffs who sued Sony to try to stop the sales of Betamax recorders. Thank goodness they lost. Can you imagine Disney today without the obscene revenue streams generated by videocassettes and DVDs?)

And the music industry’s reaction to MP3 file sharing is the stuff of legend. Yes, it’s true that Napster infringed copyrights, and that a lot of artists (Metallica most notably) joined with the record companies to fight the unauthorized and unlicensed copying. But in general, artists loathed much about the old recording industry: the oppressive contracts, the deceptive accounting, the glad-handing executives and cookie-cutter A&R guys, the radio station payola. For their part, the public hated the inflated prices and the fact that it was impossible to buy one song instead of an entire album. Napster tapped a vein. If the technology got ahead of the law and the business model, well, such is the price of progress. As we say in entrepreneurship, sometimes it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese; iTunes has made everyone happy, and a lot of people rich.

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To find out more about Laura Hollis and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.