Technology, journalism and the disruption of business as usual

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Last week a couple of items landed in my Facebook feed that convinced me a lot of thinking about disruption in general, and the disruption of the newsroom in particular, is facile and just plain wrongheaded. 

Let's start with the facile first, a slide a friend shared on Facebook called "The Digital Disruption Has Already Happened." The slide listed examples of this premise including:

  • World's largest taxi company owns no taxis (Uber)
  • Largest phone companies own no telco infrastructure (Skype, WeChat)
  • World's largest movie house owns no cinemas (Netflix)
  • Largest software vendors don't write apps (Apple and Google)

Of course, some of the largest taxi license holders don't own cabs either; they have drivers who make use of their privileged plates. Skype and WeChat make use of, and pay for, bandwidth from traditional ISPs and telcos, who, along with governments, invested in Internet infrastructure years ago. And both companies have invested in servers and routers that can handle the digital traffic their services generate.

If you say that Netflix is a movie house, then you would also have to say the same for CityTV, CBC or any television network that shows first-run or old movies. It is a silly and useless comparison. 

The last one is the most egregiously wrong. Final Cut Pro, the iWorks suite, Aperture, Photos etc., are all Apple software products. The Android operating system, Google Maps, Google Play, Google Voice, etc., are all Google software products. If the point is that both have app stores that sell other people's software, that's true, but it was equally true of Egghead in the '80s and is true of Best Buy today. 

The point of the ill-considered slide was, I think, to demonstrate how many companies have been disrupted by agile upstarts attacking their fat, exposed underbellies. But it does so in a childish way that make the upstarts look like they are fuelled by fairy dust and magical thinking. Castles rise from the thin air of divergent thinking. 

But disruption is more, far more, complex than that. The Internet has been the great enabler of poster children of the gig economy. But so have investors high on the fumes from Silicon Valley. And so has the old business model stubborn to adopt new tech. But disruption sometimes just rides precariously on the backs of those same old institutions. News startups and aggregators come to mind. They depend, for the most part, on the hard, grinding work of news organizations that are failing badly now. 

That brings us to the second item that caught my attention last week. It was a piece titled "Journalism Education's Big Miss: Ignoring the Business Side." The author, Deb Wenger, argues that it is important that journalism students understand the business of news because they're in an industry fighting for its life and because many will be freelancers and need some business horse sense crammed into their heads. 

She suggests that the reluctance of some j-schools to include such courses or tracks comes from an "old-fashioned" idea of the wall between the business of the news and the news itself. 

Well, I'm hardly old-fashioned when it comes to thinking about news, and I have taught in a lot of j-school programs over the years. And, I think the last thing journalism students need is any more pressure to think about news as a business. 

A journalist's job is to report the truth, get under the skin of government, demonstrate fraud, corruption and excess in business, and question authority. And, to tell great, human stories in tight, accurate prose, audio or video. Full stop. 

If j-schools can instill those basics in their charges in the short time the students are in their care, they have done their job. When Postmedia hands its energy coverage over to CAPP, or head office dictates editorial support for a candidate, or reporters are required to write "native content" we see examples of journalists understanding the business of journalism and the folly of ignoring the wall, or worse, being complicit in its fall. 

J-schools do not offer MBAs. They should, instead, graduate the people who give MBAs ulcers and nightmares. In other words, they should be the real disrupters of business as usual.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Tsahi Levent-Levi/flickr

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