An oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology, 1980 to the present

A project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

The Riptide blog

A thoughtful critique in paidContent

Mathew Ingram’s thoughtful article in paidContent on this project raises the question of whether we, the authors, seek to absolve industry leaders (and, by extension, ourselves) of responsibility for the sad state of economic affairs in much of journalism today. By calling the project Riptide, he asserts that we are likening what happened in the news business to a “a powerful and largely unforeseen force.”

This gets right to the essence of the project, for Riptide is not a history of journalism, or even web journalism, but an inquiry into “what really happened” when digital technology met journalism starting almost 35 years ago. As Ingram points out we spoke to the business leaders of many of these institutions, as well as some of the disruptors. And by naming the project Riptide, Ingram correctly asserts that we’ve concluded that the Internet is a kind of force of nature, just as the industrial revolution was in the last great transformative era. Buggy manufacturers did not fare well.

In his 2009 essay, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, Clay Shirky wrote, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” We wholeheartedly agree with this. But as large metro newspapers (among other news businesses) continue to decline, we have not yet seen a financial model that can support the robust reporting and editing – the journalism – that these communities require. Julius Genachowski, former FCC Chairman, mirrors this view in his interview with us.

The case of Knight Ridder is an excellent example. Knight Ridder first invested in interactive technology in the early 80s, when it fielded the largest videotex service in the U.S. It developed the first newspaper R&D lab under Roger Fidler, who we interviewed. It invented the Mercury Center and became the first news provider on AOL, before Mosaic. Knight-Ridder was among Netscape’s first customers. It followed the advice of Clay Christensen and broke out a separate digital operation under Kathy Yates, who we interviewed. It was a driver behind CareerPath, and after that failed, worked with the Tribune Company to create two highly successful real estate businesses — CareerBuilder and Classified Ventures. Despite all of this, the company no longer exists. (It was sold to McClatchy in 2006.)

Ingram correctly points out that Kathy Yates grew frustrated with the newspaper culture and eventually moved on to pure web startups, including and CBS Marketwatch. And maybe this was due to a failure of leadership or imagination on Tony Ridder’s part, just as it may have been Don Graham’s failure at the Washington Post that lead to its recent sale to Jeff Bezos for $250 million.

We don’t think so. Instead, we believe that the underlying economics of the web are simply so different than the economics of analog media, that Jeff Zucker’s “analog dollars to digital pennies” (later updated to dimes) notion is the essential animating force of the Riptide.

But, as important, we are not nostalgic for the past. As Genachowski also points out in his interview and an important FCC report, the entrepreneurial community is hard at work innovating in all aspects of journalism, including local and regional reporting. To varying degrees, we all believe that solutions will eventually be found. But as we point out at the end of our essay, that will come after a long process of creative destruction.

In any event, we appreciate Mr. Ingram’s serious contribution to the debate.

September 15, 2013, 11:13 am

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