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

Author Archive

Riptide on the Road

With the launch of Riptide’s second essay by John Geddes, we went back out to talk about the project at a few events around the country. If we’re in your city, we’d love to see you.


Monday, October 26, 2015: Thanks to Boston University for hosting an event to probe more deeply into the theme of the latest addition to Riptide, the interviews that John Geddes recorded with the journalists who covered the digital revolution. We appreciated having four of those reporters – Hiawatha Bray, Denise Caruso, Philip Elmer-Dewitt and John Markkoff – join us at BU. Not to mention all the students and faculty who came with great questions and attended the reception that followed.

Thursday, May 28, 2015: Congratulations to John Huey on receiving the Elliott V. Bell Award from the New York Financial Writers’ Association. As part of the program, the four of us (including John Geddes) discussed the findings of Riptide in a panel moderated by Andy Serwer, editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Finance. Thanks to NYFWA and CUNY School of Journalism for hosting us, and the engaged audience for a thoughtful discussion.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014: Thanks to the Twitter News Team for hosting us at Twitter HQ in San Francisco for a discussion of our Riptide project. Special thanks to Twitter Head of News Vivian Schiller for convening us and participating in the discussion. Also thanks to Will Hearst and Matt Mullenweg, two Riptide interviewees, for joining the conversation in person.

Thursday, November 14, 2013 : Thanks to Medill for hosting Paul for two discussions of our Riptide project, one in Chicago and one on the Evanston campus that included a chance to talk about the past and future of news with all of the current class of journalism graduate students. Special thanks to the McCormick Foundation for co-hosting the luncheon at their downtown headquarters with a terrific group of local news executives, including some from both the Tribune and the Sun-Times. Chicago is a great news town (and Paul’s hometown) where the effect of the riptide on the news business has been felt like a cold winter wind blowing in off Lake Michigan at full force!

Tuesday, September 24: Thanks to the Paley Center in New York for hosting us for a discussion of Riptide and a panel that included Riptide interviewees Henry Blodget, Caroline Little, Sir Martin Sorrell and Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Thursday, September 19: Thanks to the M&E practice leaders at E&Y for hosting Paul in NYC for a discussion of the implications of Riptide on the future of news.

Sunday, September 15: A panel discussion in DC at the Newseum with: Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron, former AOL senior executive Ted Leonsis, former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, and NBC News chief digital officer Vivian Schiller. The event was open to the public with the purchase of a Newseum ticket and the video replay is now available. (Note: lighting in the Newseum studio improves about 10 minutes into the replay.)

Monday, September 9: Riptide launch event at Harvard Kennedy School. A panel discussion with three of our interview subjects: AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, Newspaper Association of America president and CEO Caroline Little, and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. The event took place in the Kennedy School’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. A video replay is available here.


The Washington Post Relies on Riptide to Explain the Forces that Forced the Paper’s Sale

When we started working on Riptide last winter, we hoped it would be a future resource for researchers and reporters alike trying to understand what happened to the legacy news business when it ran into the digital revolution. We had no idea it would be used so soon, but we’re glad it was available when The Washington Post set out to explain why Don Graham decided to sell the paper to Jeff Bezos this summer. When Graham declined to give an interview to his own paper, reporter Steve Mufson turned to Graham’s interview in Riptide.

As Jeff Bezos prepares to take over, a look at forces that shaped The Washington Post sale

By Steven Mufson, Published: September 27

On April 4, Donald E. Graham sat for a videotaped interview about how the Internet and digital technology had hammered and transformed the news business. Cradling a coffee cup emblazoned with the word “Washington,” Graham sat next to his desk, with three Herblock cartoons on the wall behind him and a photo of a young Warren Buffett on the table next to him.

Graham gave a classic performance, telling stories of bygone times in his disarming aw-shucks manner, dispensing compliments to colleagues and rivals while mixing in his sober, analytical view about the reporting-intensive newspaper business — and his failure to come up with a way to sustain it

“One of the questions that faces places like the [New York] Times and The Post is: Is there any kind of a plus to a news organization in having really high-quality reporting and editing?” he said at one point. “I’m pretty sure the answer to that is yes, but we have not figured it out.”

He added, “If somebody said to me there’s a way out for newspapers, but you’re going to have to lose $100 million a year to get there four to five years from now, I would sign up for it in a minute.”

But no one said that to him and unbeknownst to the three veteran journalists interviewing him that day for Riptide, a journalism history project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein center, Graham was trying to figure his own way out — of the daily newspaper business. Quietly, he was shopping around for a buyer, one without a political agenda but also one with a sense of stewardship about the paper — and pockets deep enough to buy the franchise and cover losses if necessary.

Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos ultimately agreed to buy the paper himself for $250 million, also acquiring El Tiempo, Express, the local Gazettes, and Robinson Terminal, including Robinson’s 23 acres of undeveloped land in Charles County, Md.

You’ll find Mufson’s entire story here.

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.

Who we interviewed

We started by identifying the institutions that we believed were central to the Riptide story — the change of news through the rise of digital technology, beginning around 1980. Then we sought to interview many of the key people at those institutions. At that time, they were, regrettably, overwhelmingly white and male.

Riptide was always intended to be an organic project that would be expanded over time with other voices exploring more and more parts of this story. That’s why we created it as a website. We welcome suggestions for voices or topics that could now be added to Riptide. Please feel free to post them below or send them to us here.


When we created Riptide as Fellows at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, we wanted to find out “what really happened” between the moment online services were first introduced into journalistic institutions in the late 1970s to today, 35 years later. We spoke to over 60 people who made the decisions and worked in the institutions that were a part of the digital disruption that we’re now so familiar with. Our hope is that Riptide will provide insight into the history of digital journalism; but as important, we hope that it will inform its future.

The Riptide blog is way to keep the conversation going. Frankly, we don’t know where this will lead. The three of us will post here, and we’ll invite others to do so, too. Our very first post, by the IAB’s Randall Rothenberg, argues that we made a mistake in not interviewing anyone from Bloomberg for the project. Bruce Sagan (Paul’s father), a prominent Chicago newspaper publisher, writes about business models in our second post. These posts represent just the kind of conversation we hope to continue to engender going forward.

Please feel free to reach out to us with questions and comments. You can reach any of us from the About page or all of us from the Feedback page.