Monday, April 07, 2008

"Today's value-add is tomorrow's commodity": sustainability through adaptability

The world changed, says Kevin Guthrie, when we began to use the same tool to search for "fish and chips in Torquay" and "acute lymphoblastic leukaemia". The speed of innovation and the growth of new products is "unimaginable" (cue lots of stats about growth of Hotmail, Facebook, YouTube etc). But if what goes up must come down, do we need to plan for a fall? "Today's value-add is tomorrow's commodity" - organisations have much less time to leverage competitive advantage of innovations.

Newspaper publishing can be seen as similar to scholarly journal publishing; similar competitive landscape, economic model, editorial infrastructure. In the digital era, circulation began to decline but revenues were not immediately adversely affected. But stock prices for news companies are now falling (42% in 2007) and ad revenues are falling - even online ads are in slowdown (accounting for less than 10% of newspaper revenues). The marketplace if shrinking/consolidating, and newspapers are limiting their remits (less coverage of "exurban" news) as they cut staff. A grim picture is painted and signed off with some depressing quotes ("Newspapers are f*ed", Buzzmachine).

What happened? Competing channels, substitutes - consider these from our perspective; the same pressures are there in scholarly communication, for example RePEc vs traditional economics journals. Every open-access-idealist start-up tries to use an online advertising model but of course the more ad inventory there is, the less value there is for each platform. With this diminishing revenue base, smaller players will be unable to operate - leading to fewer, larger newspapers.

There are signs of hope: extraordinarily niche local players do seem likely to survive (what could libraries do locally that other organisations can't?); there is "still a lot of money [in the newspaper industry] and what is required is strategic change, not giving up the ghost" (Chris Anderson, Wired). We need to embrace the digital era and improve our processes. We never thought Google would have the impact it has, and we are no longer insulated from change. Publishers continue to have important roles but these too have changed, though still valid for "credentialing" (brands as a stamp of authority for the tenure process).

Despite the similarities, newspapers are different. They are more commercial, more entertainment-related. Scholarly publishing supports a mission-based activity (advancing knowledge through research) and is more tightly connected to its audience. It will be protected from the perils afflicting newspapers by the core value that it adds. We need to embrace technology to strengthen this core. It will become appropriate to outsource non-core functions and to collaborate more effectively through investment in shared resources. The focus needs to be on users, their needs and their preferences - not on "how things have been" but on "how things are going to be".

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