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The Next Big News Disruption

Anyone who works in media—and especially in news—can feel the change. Everything about this business, from the editorial content to the talent to the (restless) energy of virtual newsrooms, is growing more intense.

The pandemic is obviously a big part of the story. But there’s something bigger going on: a new phase of disruption as powerful as the last—if not more powerful. 

The last sea change, as I don’t need to remind most of you, was the business model disruption brought about by the internet. For as long as I’ve been in journalism, the big question hanging over newsrooms was how they could make up for lost print advertising revenue with digital advertising. It didn’t take long for them to realize they couldn’t, and the smart publications have been betting strongly on subscription revenue for the last five years or more. Digital ads are a part of the pie too, along with commerce, events and much more. 

While many brands are still reeling from this shift, I’d argue it has largely played out. Those who have weathered the great business model transformation will keep on chugging. Others who haven’t will keep trying and eventually sell themselves, combine with other weak players, pivot dramatically or vanish. 

But there is another change underway that is going to determine the next decade’s (or century’s) winners and losers. It’s related to technology, as is most disruption. And it’s the realignment of human capital in the news business. 

As an example, think about The Athletic, the subscription sports outlet that was on my mind this week amid a report they may sell themselves to The New York Times.

The Athletic, like The Information, is often credited as an early believer in subscription news. We were. We both charged for content others gave away for free, and we have stuck to the model steadfastly. 

But I’ve always been impressed with The Athletic for an additional reason: how they managed to lure and retain such great sports-writing talent. From day one that often overlooked fact has defined their success as much as their business model has. They saw an opportunity to disrupt how the talent market worked by giving top writers more freedom, excellent deals and more. 

And it was hard work. I once asked Athletic CEO Alex Mather why he hired a general counsel so early in the company’s history, and he said it was because of the need to manage and negotiate such important talent deals effectively. 

He understood and exploited weaknesses in how news talent is dealt with. Even that phrase is strange. We usually call people who make entertainment the “talent,” but that’s not how we refer to those who make the news. 

Today’s news talent isn’t waiting for a disruptive media company to come to them. They are disrupting themselves—quitting their jobs to start new newsletters, publications, side projects, podcasts, you name it. 

This is not a passing fad. It’s been developing steadily for a long time, and it amounts to a major human capital realignment in the news business that will ruin many news organizations and propel those smart enough to realize what to do about it. 

I have some thoughts about what the smart organizations should do to seize this moment. But out of respect for all the people on our team working on those projects (OK, and my competitive instincts), I’m not going to spill all the beans here.

I will say that I think the changes to the news business need to be more dramatic than virtually everyone realizes. They will challenge the very nature of a publication. 

And I think it is going to be much harder for news organizations to adapt because it affects their control over their product—their journalism—much more than the business model shift did. 

I see this tsunami heading for the news because I live it every second. But I suspect it will affect many, if not most, talent-driven industries over time as well. 

I’m curious what you all think. Let me know.

Jessica Lessin founded The Information in 2013 after reporting on Silicon Valley for eight years for the Wall Street Journal. She writes a weekly column about all things tech, media and the wild ride both industries are in for. She can be found on Twitter at @jessicalessin.