Solving the Wrong Problem

simulpath2smBusinesses and institutions spend money to solve problems big and small, because it is in the solving of problems that products and services advance. As Clay Shirky pointed out in his 2010 speech to SXSW, however, a necessary part of this is maintenance of the problem being solved, for that is what drives the institutional engine.

“Curiously, an organization that commits to helping society manage a problem also commits itself to the preservation of that same problem, as its institutional existence hinges on society’s continued need for its very management.”

There would be no demand for automobiles, for example, if people didn’t have to solve the problem of getting from here to there efficiently.

Trouble begins when new solutions for those problems are developed, for the difficulty then becomes ensuring that old solutions are still required. Problem-solving shifts from meeting external needs to solving those that are internal, and the business model itself becomes the problem requiring solution. As Clayton Christensen has so brilliantly expressed in his work on disruptive innovations, by the time a company figures out what’s really taking place, it’s too late.

The internal combustion engine is the automobile industry’s solution, and it must protect it at all costs. Tesla is a disruptor offering a different solution. Who will eventually determine the winner? The people who have the original problem, not any industry currently solving it.

This paradigm shift is the scalpel with which mass media — broadcasting, newspapers, and the institution of journalism — is administering its own death by a thousand cuts. Our very future depends on how we respond, so let’s begin at the beginning and ask ourselves, what problem does media solve?

The answer is communications between humans, especially those containing information. The word is the plural of “medium,” which refers to the method of that communication, and it includes everything from one-to-one communications to that which is one-to-many, what we call “mass media.”

There are a great many disruptors today working on ways the solve the problem of communications between humans. Yet, not one is a traditional or “mainline” media company. They are too busy trying to solve the internal problem of how to stay relevant and continue to produce profits. The problem is their strategic focus has been diluted by self-protection.

In a fascinating NetNewsCheck article (Engagement, Personalization Emerging as Keys to Monetizing Mobile), we find The McClatchy Company offering its views on how to respond to one such disruption. Notice the underlying theme of status quo problem solving in these excerpts:

“Our mobile Web audience is mostly one-time visitors,” says Grey Montgomery, the company’s director of mobile initiatives, who added that only 1% of those mobile Web users are paying subscribers…

…He organizes mobile Web users into four buckets: one-time visitors; rare visitors, who come by only about twice per month; visitors who read until they hit the paywall; and subscribers.

“Our job is to level these users up,” Montgomery says. “We know how much each is worth to us on an annual basis, so we are looking now at how to apply marketing to get them to level up.”

McClatchy, which Montgomery says is engaged in a “big redo” of its digital product, has also been gathering data on how its app users behave. A November study of 1,000 users of the Charlotte Observer app uncovered big surprises. While 60% of users selected stories from the home page, only 6% used the navigation and only 2% swiped through sections to find something to read, Montgomery says. “The profound takeaway here is that if the content wasn’t on the home page, users never got to it.”

I’m sure McClatchy is doing what it thinks is in its best interests in this “big redo,” but leveling up users has absolutely nothing to do with the people who make up the mobile audience. They are being led today by disruptors who have their best interests, not McClatchy’s, at heart. Jay Rosen calls them “the people formerly known as the audience,” people who continue to want the problem of being carpet bombed relentlessly by advertising solved for them. This, however, IS the business model of McClatchy and other mass media companies, so there is a functional disconnect between media and many of the people who had no choice prior to the Net in avoiding whatever any media company put in front of their eyes. Like animals trapped in a cage who escape to freedom, they are never coming back.

Moreover, the “takeaway” that Mr. Montgomery describes as “profound” regarding the home page is actually very old news, and this is the issue when your focus is self-driven. One of the earliest Net solutions to the problem of communications between humans was the blog, with its chronologically scrolling home page and RSS feed to help people discover its content. Bear in mind that this solution did not come from anybody in traditional media; not even close. Blogs first came on the scene 20 years ago and hit their stride about 5 years later. I have been blogging for 13 years! The model continues to advance today through applications like Facebook, Twitter and hundreds of other new media companies, yet traditional media continues to press for its own presentation schemas.

Media companies of all stripes must continue their efforts to find profit and relevancy in what is by now an evolved space. We need to do so, however, with both eyes open and by exploring the disruptions taking place in the world of advertising, the communication of information about products and services available to humans. There’s a demand for that and problems with it that need to be solved. It’s currently a scientific adventure in data and targeting by data, neither of which are our specialties, but much of that is driven by an ad industry suffering from the same disruptive influences as media.

We’ve simply got to look beyond our own needs, for that is the path to a reserved seat at tomorrow’s media business table.