Commentary

Media Pros Unleashed: Disruption Drives Innovation

In January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight. It was about 11:30 in the morning, and I was a reporter at a daily newspaper in New Jersey. The time of day was significant because it meant that if we hustled, we could get the story into the afternoon edition of the paper.

The editor actually yelled "Stop the presses," which made sense, since the presses were downstairs. Then another reporter and I started pecking out the story on manual typewriters, each taking turns writing a page while the other listened to reports on the radio or took local reaction from colleagues working the phones.

The copyboy tore the pages from our typewriters and ran them to the typesetters in the next room. When our paper hit the stands at 4 p.m. that day, we had a locally produced story on the front page.

Skip ahead to January 2009. US Airways flight 1549 lands in the Hudson River at about 3:30 in the afternoon. No longer in the newspaper business, I learned about the landing a few seconds after it happened, through Twitter. I immediately went to NYTimes.com and NY1.com, but there was no news for several minutes. By the time the print newspapers came out the next morning, I already knew all about the story, including first-hand reports, photos and videos.

We all know what happened between 1986 and 2009. Disruption and innovation, innovation and disruption. Technology drove new ways to produce and consume media and media companies tried desperately to stuff those new ways into old models while upstarts from the outside drove innovation.

Now, with the ubiquity of mobile, the rise of the social grid, and the uptake of connected devices, we are entering a new period of media disruption, and once again it promises to cause considerable pain throughout the industry. This time around though, add a new class of challenger to the mix. In addition to the tech-driven upstarts, here come the displaced media pros, the high-level editors and publishing executives who were let go from their big media jobs. Call them "The Formers" - former editors, former publishers, former sales directors. The Formers are talented, motivated and connected. They have an insider's understanding of their former employers' vulnerabilities and view those vulnerabilities as opportunities. Forced to fend for themselves, The Formers are using the very tools of the disruption -- social networking, mobile, connected devices -- to find one another and to ally, often across great distances.

Just a few of the higher profile companies championed by members of The Formers include C-Change Media, Open Road Integrated Media, WorldCrunch, and First One Digital Publishing. These start-ups spring from Formers of respectively BusinessWeek, Harper Collins, Time and Simon & Schuster.

There are dozens more, some well-known, some still under the radar. Each has his or her own twist, but they share a willingness to do the thing that big media has been hesitant to do -- acknowledge that they are just one piece of a connected media landscape by embracing content created by others. This is where the next wave of media innovation is coming from, media pros unleashed.

It didn't have to be this way, but when the Internet bubble burst in 1999, established media let out a giant sigh of relief and settled into a 10-year period of stasis. It read the crash as validation of the old order and sought to consolidate the innovations into models that were understood by them. Meantime, the culture raced on.

Most of the so-called innovations that came from traditional media during the next 10 years were just slight variations on well-established themes, attempts to force those cultural changes into what's most comfortable for the industry. And, of course, those attempts largely failed.

Media companies are paying heavily for those 10 years of stasis. When the economy turned downward, it gutted them of talent. Those who kept their jobs are simply hanging on. There the story is one of managing risk -- and that story leads to consolidation and aborted initiatives. The ranks of the survivors are so depleted that there's little time for creative thought. No, the innovation is taking place elsewhere, often by the very people who were let go.

In a world without stability, the ideas The Formers once viewed as risky don't look so risky. This dynamic is inspiring a surge of creativity and collaboration, and is once again putting traditional players under pressure that they seem unprepared to face.

Perhaps it's borne of necessity, this storming of the gates, but it is a willful act and a powerful one. Disruption leads to more disruption; innovation happens where it has to. And when the disruption gets personal, it lays your values bare and challenges them. We've often heard the bromide "do what you love because life is short." That has it exactly wrong.

That's the frenzied response of somebody fighting against disruption. The right response is "do what you love with an unprecedented level of intensity because life is long." That's how you embrace disruption.

Go find one another; make something great. Life is long.

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