Opinion

Letter from the editor: The man who saw tomorrow’s disruption

The author in conversation with Clayton M. Christensen at Harvard University on February 27, 2013. Nieman Foundation
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Newsrooms, like so many other workplaces, were hit hard by the financial crisis of 2008. I was working as an editor for a division of Canwest, Canada’s largest newspaper and broadcasting company at the time, when it declared bankruptcy the following year. By 2011, I felt the way many journalists felt at the time: exhausted by an ever-increasing workload, frustrated by the lack of risk-taking in my newsroom, and confused by the bleak prospects of an industry that—a decade and a half into the internet era—still couldn’t right itself.

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Eager for a break—or a way out—I applied for a Neiman fellowship, a nine-month program at Harvard University, with the intention of learning MBA-speak. Journalists, I felt, needed to regain control over their own destinies, and I wanted to be a part of that solution.

I got the fellowship. Sitting in a packed Harvard Business School classroom at the beginning of the fall semester, I met professor Clayton M. Christensen, a six-foot-eight gentle giant with a beaming smile who would go on to change my life. Christensen had become a marquee name at the business school because of his research into what he described as “disruptive innovation.” Students, executives, government, and military personnel flocked to his lectures for the privilege of hearing him speak about how inexpensive new technologies slowly bled the life out of once-formidable companies. 

Christensen died last week at 67 of complications from leukemia. He was a generous and understated man who foretold the future by seeing business dynamics with unusual insight. As time passed, the world took up his ideas with a little too much enthusiasm and too little nuance, turning “disrupt” into a generic Silicon Valley buzzword. But thanks to Christensen’s work, CEOs understand what’s coming at them—and we in the news media have a better chance than we otherwise would of trying to save the industry we’ve made our careers in.

***

Speaking to our class for the first time, Christensen (“Call me Clay,” he would later insist) searched his brain to unlock his vocabulary. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I had a stroke, and sometimes I can’t find the right words.

He had gone through intensive speech therapy after the stroke, which had happened the previous year. When I took his class, his soft, slow, and methodical cadence only enraptured his students even more. A leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christensen commanded the classroom with both confidence and humility in the way that only a preacher can. I had expected a business-strategy course called “BSSE: Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise” to stick to the gospel of finance, but what I heard, like so many others before me, was far more prophetic.

Christensen’s theory of disruption posited a consistent pattern across industries: New entrants to a field establish a foothold at the low end of the market with a product that is “cheaper, faster, and good enough,” which then eats away at the customer base of incumbents by leap-frogging tech and lower profit margins. Craigslist did to newspapers’ lucrative classified-ad business what mini mills did to the titans of the steel industry. 

According to Christensen, once you understood how to interpret where your company sat in the arc of disruption theory, you could then predict where it would end up next. Financials, he would preach, are a snapshot in time, telling only about the recent past. They cannot tell you what’s going to happen. That’s why companies, industries, and even entire geopolitical systems can be most vulnerable when they’re at their most profitable. This conclusion might seem obvious in hindsight. But when Christensen published his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, the revelation launched him into the upper echelon of business and academia

Influential business figures such as Steve Jobs, Intel’s Andy Grove, and Michael Bloomberg all credited Christensen’s work as being hugely influential in their strategic thinking. His many co-authors would go on to illustrious careers of their own in consulting, tech, philanthropy, and media.

I knew none of this when I sat in his class, feeding off his every word. For years, I had felt like there was no path forward for journalism, and here was someone arguing that, in fact, there was—if the industry could reinvent itself quickly enough to get ahead of what was coming. You just had to trust a theory. 

His outlook and his theories gave me hope for journalism, and I wanted to spread them. I wasn’t the only one—or even the first. A group of publishing executives had launched a project six years earlier called Newspaper Next that worked with Christensen and his consulting firm, Innosight, to release a dire warning in 2005 that the newspaper business was in peril, and would require massive transformation. The project, recounted by digital-journalism guru Steve Buttry on his media blog five years later, “presented tools and concepts for newspaper companies to focus more clearly on meeting the needs of their communities with multiple products doing valuable jobs for businesses and communities.” It never gained traction. “We guided some innovative projects. But the default settings of the newspaper industry were too strong for anyone to embrace the thorough organizational transformation that N2 championed.” Buttry wrote.

But that was before the financial crisis, before the internet, and before smartphones. I wanted to update Christensen’s work for a new generation of news publishers. I worked up the courage to ask him to collaborate. For reasons that I’ll never quite fully understand, he agreed. He brought in a colleague and co-author, James Allworth, who was just as kind and thoughtful as he was. Over the course of the next five months, we collaborated on applying Christensen’s theories of disruption to the business of journalism.

In the fall of 2012, it was published as a cover feature in the Nieman Reports. The response from the journalism community was profound. We conducted interviews; were hosted at the Nieman Foundation for a talk; and took the show on the road. I’ll never forget Clay’s child-like delight walking into 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan for a meeting with NBC News executives. To be a co-author with Clay was to forever be linked with genius—and with hope. In the depth of the recession in 2009, The New York Times, then owner of The Boston Globe, had threatened to shut down the venerable New England institution. Several years later, I met with the Globe’s new owner, John Henry, weeks after he’d purchased the paper from Times. Henry peppered me with questions about disruption theory and the article I’d written with Clay. I was then hired by the Globe to help transform its newsroom and digital operations.

Two years after the release of our article, The New York Times would publish an internal innovation report written by a group of young leaders at the institution, including its eventual publisher, A.G. Sulzberger. On page 16 of the report’s executive summary was a primer on Christensen’s disruption theory. 

The theory was not without critics—especially after “disruption” became an all-purpose term that tech entrepreneurs used as an excuse to eliminate workers, cut costs, and disavow institutional responsibility for what their products did to society. The backlash against Christensen culminated in a 2014 New Yorker article by fellow Harvard professor Jill Lepore, who challenged his work and its deployment in newsrooms in particular.  

For those of us who worked regularly with these theories, it was obvious that the people spouting “disruption” to raise capital or build their profile had never taken the time to interpret his work in the way it was intended. Clay admitted regret at choosing such a common word for this theory, telling The Boston Globe in 2015, “I just didn’t realize how that would create such a wide misapplication of the word ‘disruption’ into things that I never meant it to be applied to.”

***

Ultimately, Clay and I didn’t know each other all that well. But that one year of intense study and mentorship had a profound impact on my life, not just because of the intellectual work we did together, but also the lessons he taught about managing people. 

I struggled in most of the business school classes I took. Homework that would normally take an MBA student 20 minutes to comprehend would take me several hours. But Clay’s class was different. It was approachable—and he was approachable, always treating me with kindness and respect. 

In high demand, students were lucky to get 15 minutes with him during his office hours. Even so, I would come away enriched by his curiosity and generosity. Clay would ask questions about my life, my dreams, and my happiness. He was deeply interested in people and their relationship to the world. In 2012, he published a book that posed the ultimate question: How Will You Measure Your Life?

Clay believed that management was a privilege. That working every day with people and inspiring them to love their jobs was one of life’s greatest callings. While I’ve no doubt stumbled, I have tried to instill his values in every job I’ve held since.

Journalism’s economic crisis rages on. With fake news, the shuttering of local community newspapers, and vulture funds circling, worrisome signs abound. But Clay’s insights helped illuminate a path by which journalism can survive, even thrive. What a remarkable gift. In 2017, I updated the work he and I did together and used it as the foundation to launch the publication you’re reading now. After spending two decades in traditional media trying to fight off disruption, I am now living his theories from a new vantage point. 

Clay once confided in one of our office-hour chats that he’d wanted to be a journalist. The way he questioned assumptions, the way he interrogated data, and the way he asked what was possible makes him one of the best journalists I’ve ever worked with. People in our industry—as in so many others—will continue to see the future through his lens.

This column was first published in The Atlantic.