The glory of a thought process, as illustrated by John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is leaving BusinessWeek to start a new business (not exactly a newsflash, I know). I generally don’t care much if a bigwig leaves a position to venture out on his or her own. That happens all the…

John A. Byrne is leaving BusinessWeek to start a new business (not exactly a newsflash, I know). I generally don’t care much if a bigwig leaves a position to venture out on his or her own. That happens all the time. But Byrne is different. BusinessWeek, for all its financial trouble, has a phenomenal web presence, and much of that was built under Byrne’s watch. He’s also a guy who inherently understands the power of direct communication with the audience. Just take a look at his Twitter feed. How many editors engage like that?

And then there’s this …

In a blog post announcing his new venture, he articulates the beliefs that guide his thinking about digital content:

I have three fundamental beliefs that inform my thinking: 1) Print advertising will never come back. There are just too many options for advertisers today and too much pressure on rates. Sadly, success in print will be measured in single-digit declines, forever. 2) Online advertising will never offset those declines nor save print. There’s far too much competition online and far too much available inventory; and 3) Users will not pay for content, unless they’re convinced it has immediate and tangible value. Very little journalism meets that standard today. Do we really need 57 versions of a story on Bernie Madoff pleading guilty?

That’s a beautiful paragraph. Here’s why:

  1. He’s dead on.
  2. It illustrates the type of structural thinking that turns vague ideas into real businesses. We need more editors and publishers who work this way. Big ideas and grand plans cannot stand on their own. They have to be crammed into a structure — a mental furnace that burns away assumptions. Otherwise, all you’ve got is brain-based vaporware. That useless, fluffy business school nonsense that gets retweeted, and buzzed, and expanded into book form. We’ve got enough of that.

I speak from experience with this structure stuff. I used to wander aimlessly through the “future of content” world, distracted by shiny new things and influenced by flavor-of-the-week thinking (I once thought micropayments were totally going to happen … ugh.) But six months ago I decided to map out my own structure for all this digital disruption business. The result is this. I have no idea if it has any value as an actual business model, but the writing process forced me to hone and articulate the thousands of rants and opinions brewing in my head. Now, when I’m confronted with a new idea or perspective, I can feed it into this structure and quickly examine the various angles. It’s helped me tremendously. I’ve got my footing now.

Fear = Epic Fail

The disruption sweeping across the content industries tends to whip the fear up in media folks. Newspapers are dead! Newfangled gadgets are killing predecessors! Free is locked in bloody conflict with pay! “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…

The Science of Fear, by Daniel Gardner The disruption sweeping across the content industries tends to whip the fear up in media folks. Newspapers are dead! Newfangled gadgets are killing predecessors! Free is locked in bloody conflict with pay! “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!

It’s all a bit much.

That’s why I find the reasoned perspective in Daniel Gardner’s excellent book “The Science of Fear” so refreshing. For example, the following excerpt objectively traces the genesis of fear in just a few dead-simple sentences. Entire fields of rigorous academic inquiry have failed to define fear’s pathways so aptly:

But how do people choose which risks to worry about and which to ignore? Our friends, neighbors, and coworkers constantly supply us with judgments that are a major influence. The media provide us with the examples — or not — that Gut feeds into the Example Rule to estimate the likelihood of a bad thing happening. Experience and culture color hazards with emotions that Gut runs through the Good-Bad Rule. The mechanism known as habituation causes us to play down the risks of familiar things and play up the novel and unknown. If we connect with others who share our views about risks, group polarization can be expected — causing our views to become more entrenched and extreme.

Seems easy, doesn’t it? If we acknowledge bias and our own reactionary triggers, we can elevate analysis above the muck of fear. No more killing gadgets or dying industries. With a little reflection, we can view the issues at play within the context of what’s actually happening.