May 18th, 2022


Disrupting the News

Laura Hollis

By Laura Hollis

Published Dec. 15, 2016

The Closing of the American Mouth

Susan Glasser published a powerful piece for the Brookings Institution last week. Titled, "Covering politics in a 'post-truth' America," the essay reflects on the changes to journalism over the past 30-plus years, and Glasser wonders aloud what the election of Donald Trump says about the state of journalism today.

Hers is one of dozens — perhaps hundreds — of recent editorials and articles about the proliferation and impact of "fake news." The overwhelming tone of these pieces is one of concern, if not outright panic. Everyone needs to calm down. Faux news is good news, at least from one perspective: that of disruptive innovation.

We can all agree that the internet has been a disruptive innovation. Information that is disseminated via the internet is, therefore, also disruptive. Glasser references disruption throughout her essay, in fact. But, I respectfully submit, she doesn't seem to see how it's playing out here.

A lot of people think that some whizzy technology is all that's required for something to be disruptive. But that's an oversimplification. Truly disruptive innovations happen when a new technology coincides with widespread public dissatisfaction with the old ways of doing things.

By way of example, Betamax and VHS recorders transformed the movie industry (dragged kicking and screaming) because the consuming public wanted more control over what they watched and when they watched it. On the music side of the entertainment business, Napster's peer-to-peer file-sharing technology gave the public the choices that the record industry had refused to provide.

It's worth noting two other aspects of disruption.

First, the initial iterations of a disruptive innovation are often really poor quality. It takes numerous attempts, fits and starts over years, before the innovation reaches the level of quality that a majority of consumers expect and demand.

Second, those who've grown fat and happy doing things the "old way" will resist the "new way" with everything they've got — even when the "new way" turns out to be better for them . (Disney was one of the plaintiffs who sued Sony to try to stop the sales of Betamax recorders. Thank goodness they lost. Can you imagine Disney today without the obscene revenue streams generated by videocassettes and DVDs?)

And the music industry's reaction to MP3 file sharing is the stuff of legend. Yes, it's true that Napster infringed copyrights, and that a lot of artists (Metallica most notably) joined with the record companies to fight the unauthorized and unlicensed copying. But in general, artists loathed much about the old recording industry: the oppressive contracts, the deceptive accounting, the glad-handing executives and cookie-cutter A&R guys, the radio station payola. For their part, the public hated the inflated prices and the fact that it was impossible to buy one song instead of an entire album. Napster tapped a vein. If the technology got ahead of the law and the business model, well, such is the price of progress. As we say in entrepreneurship, sometimes it's the second mouse that gets the cheese; iTunes has made everyone happy, and a lot of people rich.

Why was the major media ripe to be disrupted? As Glasser herself said:

"...on January 17, 1998, at 9:32 on a Saturday night, Matt Drudge's website first leaked word of the blockbuster scandal that was about to engulf President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky... (O)ver the weeks that followed, the internet drove a Washington news story as it never had before: The Drudge Report had proved beyond a doubt that the old gatekeepers of journalism would no longer serve as the final word when it came to what the world should know."

And that right there was the problem. The media's view of itself as "gatekeepers" of information, coupled with an overwhelmingly left-wing political perspective and a serious lack of competition, meant that over the past few decades they have moved from news to selective reporting, and from selective reporting to advocacy. The press worries about censorship under Trump, but they have censored things that they didn't think "the world should know" for decades. Half the country was left behind, and they resented it. (If the press marvels that Trump's sexual boorishness didn't do him in, they need look no further than the "it's just sex" defense they offered President Bill Clinton, who was impeached not for sex in the Oval Office, but for lying about it under oath. That's called "perjury.")

When the internet and social media mixed with this sentiment, the results were explosive.

But as is the case after all such "explosions," things will calm down and sort themselves out. The world of news and information after disruption will be different and, if past is precedent, better. Widespread dissemination of information via the internet — and particularly social media - is still very much in its infancy. As such, the quality (which in this context means "accuracy") is, shall we say, inconsistent. Traditional journalists warn that the public will be content to insulate themselves in an echo chamber. But the press frequently underestimates the public. And it was the press, not the public, that was sealed in an echo chamber of its own making. Because the quality of information is ultimately determined by its accuracy, the public will demand accuracy.

And the next generation of disruptors will provide it.

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Laura Hirschfeld Hollis is on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches courses in business law and entrepreneurship. She has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, community service and contributions to entrepreneurship education.