‘Angry Birds': Lessons for the Future of Journalism?


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I've been rereading Katharine Graham's autobiography Personal History, which describes her role as publisher of The Washington Post in the 1970s when that paper played such a momentous role in national affairs. It's a fascinating book that I haven't dipped into for at least 5 years, and I've been forcefully struck by how very much has changed, and how quickly, in the world of publishing. In many ways the newspaper world of the 1960s and 1970s (and even the 1940s and 1950s) that Graham describes doesn't differ that much from the one I remember when I first worked in publishing in the early 1990s: display and classified ad-driven, with clear and well-defended roles for journalists based on decades of independent thinking and reporting, and plenty of distance between the business and editorial sides of the paper.

Particularly here in the U.K., 2012 was notable for the travails afflicting journalism driven by the News of the World scandal. But 2013 is shaping up to be just as disruptive, complete with convulsions that feel like a very long, drawn-out deathbed scene for old media.

In January, two stalwart U.K. High Street entertainment retail chains went into administration-HMV, an iconic music retailer that had been around since the 1890s, and Blockbuster Video. Their demise had been in the cards for some time, with both chains subject to intense competitive pressure from online retailers and streaming services of one kind or another. But it illustrates the point that there is still a way to go in the dramatic falling away of old media icons.

Booksellers and publishers are, of course, subject to many of the same pressures, but some are looking to shape their futures by pulling in expertise from outside the traditional publishing sector to help shape their futures in the new, post-disruptive landscape. Last autumn, for example, HarperCollins U.K. announced that it was appointing Nick Perrett-previously EVP at Jagex, owner of the online game "RuneScape"-to the new role of group strategy and digital director, hoping to capitalize on the potentially disruptive energy that he might bring to the organization.

With reports of very strong ebook sales in the U.K. during the Christmas period, and cross-generational demand for tablet devices and e-readers, the smart money could be on this sort of lateral appointment. At the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, much fanfare surrounded Rovio Entertainment's announcement of its first book app, Bad Piggies Best Egg Recipes.

Rovio Entertainment Ltd.'s "Angry Birds" app has been downloaded more than 1 billion times across all platforms, according to the company's blog, with 30 million downloads during Christmas week of 2012 alone. Speaking at Frankfurt, Peter Vesterbacka, Rovio's CMO, made clear that the Finnish company has considerable ambition for its book app and is looking for "millions of downloads." There are clear cross-promotion opportunities, and given this sort of volume-and its own history-the company does not need to worry about any legacy pricing issues.

But can any of this be applied to the newspaper business? In her memoir, Graham describes the dogged determination of old-school newspapermen. In a new book, Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age, C. W. Anderson looks at the news ecosystem in one particular city (Philadelphia) to explore how journalism is reacting to dramatic changes in the ways society consumes and creates news content. He identifies a variety of legacy systems and beliefs that have made news organizations behave in "deeply irrational ways" and argues that "the very cultural orientations that provide journalists with meaning to their work lives have also blocked newsroom evolution."

Of course there are examples of newsgathering innovation too. Late last year, a team of international researchers, under the auspices of Research Centre for Journalism, Media and Communication (COMET) at Finland's University of Tampere, released a study (SuBMoJour.net) of sustainable journalistic startups in nine countries. It included case studies, which delve into the business models of 69 companies. Evidence of new revenue sources was hard to find, according to the report, but the research did uncover new ways in which they could be combined or reconfigured "in new and interesting ways to make sites profitable in the long term." The team concludes: "[I]t is crucial to keep your costs low, team small and master many skills-including entrepreneurial thinking and building relationships with the advertisers from the start." It may be a far cry from the old-school newspapermen, but perhaps it contains the seeds of journalistic success for the future.