Digital media: When disruption leads to innovation

What will the next big disruption for newspapers be? iPods and iTunes bolstered the music industry, and Amazon's ebooks launched the digital book business. This begs the question: What’s next for newspapers?

For years the newspaper industry has tried unsuccessfully to find a viable long-term business model. Kindles and iPads mark the increasing availability of new media that's disrupted the older print media industry. So maybe technologist and new media tycoon Jeff Bezos has the answer!

A website launched in 2007 called “NewspaperDeathWatch.com” lists the growing number of newspapers that have gone bankrupt. On the list are U.S. metropolitan dailies such the The Baltimore Examiner, Rocky Mountain News, Halifax Daily News and Kentucky Post. The ink-and-paper industry has been searching within itself for a new way to do business for so long. They should just give up.

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Thanks to Don Graham and Katharine Weymouth's forward thinking, newspapers have a chance to develop into something that no one can now imagine. Bezos’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurial spirit marks an historic and exciting transition. It is about time! 

The music industry was becoming totally complacent and refused to embrace digital formats. Piracy was rampant: people bought CDs, then copied them onto their computers and shared the music online. The labels lobbied and sued until they had lost the battle of public opinion. Then Steve Jobs delivered a platform — the iPod — that made digital music attractive, and the store — iTunes — that delivered it quickly and legally. This was the killer app that helped turn the tides on the "death of music," as the record lobby would moan, and the "starvation of all American musicians."

Similarly, Bezos created the first product that completely upgraded the book. He didn't think of the Kindle as a replacement for books, but as a platform that upgraded the reading experience. Not having to carry 20 books was a start. The form factor is now better and they are continually getting smaller and easier to read. Bezos said they might not be “perfected” until the 8th generation, but he continues to innovate and improve his killer app. And book sales are through the roof.

And now it's time for newspapers to follow suit. Condé Nast, a major magazine publisher, is changing the format of its hallmark products, like Vanity Fair, by making the digital copy preferable to the hard copy, but there's no killer app ... yet.

What an exciting time it must be for everyone at The Washington Post! After seven consecutive years of declining revenue comes a fascinating transition that will bring much needed disruption to a great American institution. A dying industry now might have some hope.