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What the Story of Summly Really Tells Us About the Future of News

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"London lad, 17, makes millions selling app to Internet giant."

The story of Summly creator Nick D'Aloisio selling his business to Yahoo! for a reported £20 million is given massive prominence in every single UK newspaper this morning.

Last night's London Evening Standard splashed it all across the front page, celebrating the fact that Nick was planning to to buy himself a pair of Nikes and take his family out to a celebratory dinner.

This tale of bedroom entrepreneurship was yesterday's top-of-the-newslist no-brainer.

A terrific newspaper story.

No. Wait.

This is a terrible newspaper story.

A story that exposes a massive problem in the newspaper business and in doing so, sheds a little light on how things might... might... turn around for one of the world's most creative industries nevertheless staring at long-term revenue forecasts that would make a Cypriot banker's eyes water.

It's a story that reveals just how difficult newspapers have found innovating their business models -- even from their own home turf.

Deconstruct Summly, and the magic of its success is very simple and clear to see.

It's built around a very simple, bleedin' obvious insight: That long-form news is a pain in the neck to read on a mobile device and that, in any case, busy people on the go are more likely to want a quick snackable digest of the stories that interest them to keep in touch.

The technology behind the app is straightforward.

The design is slick and intuitive.

And, er, that's it.

There is nothing in Summly that any other app builder could not replicate and bring to market.
So for me, the real question in this story is why the UK newspaper industry -- one of the most competitive in the world -- left it to a teenager in his bedroom in Brighton to create a simple, intuitive news-based application that is today valued at £20 million?

I think part of the answer is in the question.

The UK newspaper market is fiercely competitive. It is, I believe, the highest evolution of print journalism in the western world.

But it's competitiveness is of an inward nature.

It is historically poor at looking beyond its own immediate competitive set -- other UK newspapers -- and when it does it usually sees danger, not opportunity.

In response to this problem, the phrase "start-up mentality" is fast replacing "digital-first" as the newspaper digital strategy cliché du jour.

But if by start-up mentality newspapers executives mean a different, more creative and agile way of thinking, they're barking up the wrong tree. Newspapers are already full of creative and agile brains. And no other industry has such an acute understanding of what its audience wants.

No, the problem is not a shortage of ideas.

The problem is a process internally that allows those ideas to germinate, to grow and, eventually, to become businesses in their own right. Even if, and this is the point that chokes many in the newspaper business, that means threatening the viability of existing products.
There is some precedent for this happening.

At the Guardian in 2000, they had the foresight to anticipate the catastrophic crash in education classified revenues, and set up a structure to build a new digital business from scratch.

They leveraged some of the advantages of a newspaper group, for instance access to audience, investment resource and relationships with commercial partners. But more importantly, they created a new business unit, separating themselves from the corporate structure so they could attack the problem on its own terms, unencumbered by the vested interests and entrenched positions of the core business.

It worked. The Guardian's education classifieds are today a strong digital business, profitable and scalable.

At the Daily Mirror (for disclosure, I was publisher of Mirror Group Digital until September 2012), they have recently created an innovation team whose goal is to build products that will help fill the gap left behind shrinking print revenues and the smaller digital revenues.
But the case of Summly exposes more clearly than any other, just how important it is to structuralise this liberation of thought and action.

Any one of Britain's newspaper groups could have developed a Summly killer back in 2011 when Nick D'Aloisio developed his idea. They had the audiences, the understanding, the marketing power. God knows they had the incentive.

But they didn't do it. I didn't do it. Why? Because it wasn't in their strategy.

It should be now.

A strategy that gives ideas a place to go, a process for them to develop, and an awareness that if you don't build it, some kid, aged 17 or so, will do it in his Brighton bedroom. That kind of thing is great for filling up column inches. It's less good for filling up the revenue gap.