In times of change, make tires

Innovation is not a binary choice between the old and the new. The answer is often to contribute to evolution — by making parts that work in both worlds. 

I was a Knight fellow at Stanford University in 2008-2009. Two things were going on in media:

Newspapers were laying off thousands of reporters and editors.

And social media platforms’ user bases were booming.

You could almost see the flow from one to another, like sand seeping through an hour glass.

I was at Stanford to study changes in media. I ended up working with Howard Rheingold and others a great deal. My first quarter, I took a small class with doctoral students on the nature of change and innovation. The professor eschewed theory and “trend-casting.” He wanted facts. How had change happened before, and could those models be applied to the future?

The professor, Dr. William Cockayne, had me look at the transition from horse and buggy to cars. It would be easy, he said, to assume that everyone should have stopped making buggies and started making cars. But actually, of all the automotive entrepreneurs of the turn of the century, only Ford and Mercedes survived. All the others went under. The market was not established, and neither were the roads. Parts could not easily be made and replaced. In fact, the smart money was to stick with making buggies – except that they had no longterm future.

So what would you do: Make buggies, or make cars?

The answer is: Make neither.

The great business success in transportation from that age is rubber tires. Harvey Firestone, seeing the future as well as the present, aligned his fortunes with that of friend Henry Ford, while continuing to make tires for buggies. (Buggies needed more resilient tires than ever because of the changes in the roads.) He also made tires for bicycles. He could play everywhere.

Other entrepreneurs made seats with springs to absorb shocks on new roads, and lights because vehicles moved more quickly now. They weren’t addressing the central problem, but working around the edges — much as Levi Strauss did to market a new kind of pants to those trying to find gold.

So how did that apply to journalism? What were the equivalents of tires and seats and lights? The parts in my field were short stories, updates, photos, videos, graphics. They could play everywhere, be shared, go viral, plug and unplug.

This might sound obvious today, but I was studying this in 2008, before journalism had become so particlized. It still serves me today.

In times of change, make tires.