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Three business lessons on digital disruption from the NY Times

Thursday, 22 May 2014 | By Paul Wallbank

The New York Times is winning in journalism,” starts the newspaper's much discussed internal Innovation Report. Then in great detail it goes on to describe how the audience is being lost to upstarts like The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed.


Given the number of digital forests that have been felled discussing the report in the last week, it's not worthwhile giving an in-depth analysis of the study – particularly given Nieman Labs' comprehensive dissection of the document.


What does stand out though are a number of over-riding themes that apply to almost any business, not just struggling traditional media outlets.


Being digital first


A constant mantra in the NY Times report is about being 'digital first' – if you're thinking about that today, then you're probably too late in your industry.


Every industry is now digital: If you're designing widgets, you're doing it on CAD system; if you're selling real estate, you're listing online (one of the great killers of the old metropolitan newspaper model) and if you're selling doughnuts, you're placing your suppliers' order electronically and maybe 3D printing your icing patterns in the near future.


There isn't one industry that isn't being radically changed by digital technology.


Breaking down silos


One of the areas that's been most resistant to digital change, and yet is the most threatened, is management.


Silos within organisations are a triumph of management power and make it difficult for a business to be dynamic when it's necessary to negotiate with different fiefdoms just to change the colour of paperclips.


Those silos are fine when industries are cosy and there's little competition but when disruptors enter the market those management empires become a dangerous, and expensive, weakness.


The New York Times study spends a great deal of its pages discussing how to break down silos within its own organisation and this is something every business owner or manager should be exploring.


With modern communication, information management and workplace collaboration tools many management roles are no longer needed.


For smaller businesses, this is the greatest strength when competing against larger corporations as The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Business Insider have shown in stealing the market from The New York Times.


You need to be found


One of the toughest conclusions from the NY Times study is that the quality of content actually doesn't matter in the marketplace; The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed do an excellent job of taking the NYT's work, repackaging it and redistributing it in a way readers prefer.


That might be a transition effect – it's hard not to think that should original content creators like the NY Times be driven out of business then Buzzfeed will have to start employing journalists and Arianna paying her writers – however, right now gloss beats quality.


BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post are attracting audiences because their stories are easy to find online and their headlines almost beg you to read them.


For non-media businesses, the lesson is you need to be found; you may be the best restaurant, electrician or accountant in town but if you're on the 15th page of Google in search results for your industry and suburb then you're doomed.


The New York Times faces its own unique set of challenges, as do the publishing and media industries, many of the lessons though from the NYT innovation paper can be applied to many businesses.


Paul Wallbank is the publisher of Networked Globe, his personal blog Decoding The New Economy charts how our society is changing in the connected century.