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

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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.


Riptide Event at Boston University – October 26

Please join us at BU on Monday, October 26 at 5:30PM for a discussion of the Riptide project, including new interviews conducted by John Geddes, Ex-Managing Editor at The New York Times

We will hold two panels: One with the authors of the project; the other with four of the journalists who covered the changing business model of journalism over 30 years.

The Authors: John Geddes, John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan with Moderator Maria Barinska

The Journalists: Hiawatha Bray, Denise Caruso, Philip Elmer-DeWitt and John Markoff with Moderator John Geddes.

Location: The Trustee Ballroom, 1 Silber Way, 9th Floor

Reception immediately following at 7PM

Riptide is an oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology, 1980 to the present.

Vol 2 — The Tech Beat and Site Changes

Writing the second act, when you didn’t write the first is always a challenge but I got lucky on three counts.

The tech reporters I talked with were, as the interviews show, uniformly chatty, fun and open. Tom Silver, my research assistant, was a superb teammate. And I was able to develop some new storytelling wrinkles, giving readers tools that let the interviews be read horizontally, if you will, by topic. The results were so encouraging that we went back and applied the same tools to the interviews that were done more than a year before.

My approach was fueled in part by the need in this digital age to build trust in quality journalism’s reporting and newsgathering techniques and processes. The cacophony in our new ecosystem where anyone can be a publisher can leave even a well-informed audience at a loss as to who has a credible voice.

Last fall Richard Gingras and Sally Lehrman argued that this trust, at its best somewhat tenuous, is eroding at an ever-quickening pace. They founded The Trust Project to push for greater transparency and new initiatives including a wider promulgation of ethics policies, detailed disclosures about the expertise of the journalists involved and a fuller discussion of the reporting methodology used.

One place to start might be by building on that most basic and essential journalistic tool – the interview.

Too often we’re accused of cherry-picking interviews for the most salacious quote. Too often we’re told we didn’t give the full story. Too often it isn’t apparent to readers where information comes from. And we need to be prepared for a world in which a gain in the value of our brands comes from getting more “on-the-record.”

Within the next few years, instantaneous transcription will be widely available. Why not recognize that and begin to develop tools and workplace disciplines to exploit that development for the good of the craft and our common weal? It is something we should be doing now. One reason to do this is because so much of an interview is wasted. I’d argue 97% of any interview is left in the notebook, never viewed, seldom re-used. Isn’t there a better way to do this, enabling others to see what’s been said and have it used in various narratives, to provide greater depth and validation for the storytelling?

Of course, putting up gigabytes of transcribed interviews in the cloud is not the answer. We have to accompany those records with easy-to-use tools to allow readers to mine those transcripts, to separate the wheat from the chaff while leaving the chaff visible.

“Tagging” passages in interviews is a way to enable transparency in our reporting and create added value in how we present it. Additionally, the potential for involving our readers in the tagging process (or “TagTeam” in the words of one open-source aggregator) shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of yielding an involved and loyal following.

Tags aren’t new. They’ve been around for a decade or so and have been used on everything from recipe sites to video sites to being used by various blogs. They’re a bottom-up way to organize information across a site, a discipline or a body of work. They are best used to categorize broad themes rather than narrow specific bits of information like names or titles.

In this new digital age, we need to pair tagging more rigorously and intimately with journalistic endeavors if we’re going to separate our voices from the less disciplined ones around us. The skill of the interviewer, the willingness to disclose an interview’s contents and to show our primary source material is something that should yield a return on credibility and allegiance.

My colleagues and I produced this updated and expanded version of the Riptide project at Harvard hoping to model this idea by showcasing the interviews with new and more robust tagging and presentation techniques. The four of us talked to some great people and wanted to give you, our readers, a choice in how you can approach this oral history – you can wade, swim or dive in!

Yahoo, Marissa Mayer and the Future of Journalism

Nicholas Carlson’s piece in The New York Times Magazine this week attempts to answer the question: “What happened when Marissa Mayer tried to be Steve Jobs?” It’s a blistering critique, characterizing Mayer as a kind of Marie Antoinette among the digerati.

The story of Yahoo is an important one in the epic collision between journalism and the Internet. After all, Yahoo was really the first major disruptor, having licensed the Reuters newswire and created a free, fast, updated, Internet-friendly news service even before The New York Times started This set the stage for free news online. This story is told well by three Riptide interviewees, each of whom played a material role in Yahoo’s early years: Art Kern (an early Yahoo director); Mike Moritz (an early Yahoo investor); and David Graves, a former Reuters executive who helped broker the Yahoo News deal. For anyone interested in Yahoo, all of these interviews are worth a read.

Kern, in particular, identifies the central challenge that the company faced soon after it was founded:

…this question of, is Yahoo a media company or is it a technology company, was both the great opportunity for Yahoo and also it’s greatest millstone. By having to be both for so long, it slowed the company down in many, many, ways and we can come back to that. That was a central problem for the company. So, in any event, on the human being side no one intended for Yahoo to originate content. We were an aggregator. We saw ourselves as the place to kind of get this chaotic Wild West web thing organized for you.

This sums-up almost perfectly the central dilemma in news today: Journalism companies have historically viewed technology in a supporting role. Journalists are the stars. New age news companies like Buzzfeed and Vox elevate technology into a kind of co-starring (or, in some cases, even starring) status described well by Jonathan Glick in his very good ReCode post, The Rise of The Platisher. Typically, the purpose of this technology integration is to align with the dominant distribution platforms of our era: namely, Google and Facebook. But the result of this confluence has not been better journalism; on the contrary, it has been mostly viral nonsense.

Jonah Peretti, the king of this new realm, says something very interesting about Mayer’s schizoid tech/media strategy in the Carlson piece:

“I just think it is a strategic mistake to take on big media where they are strongest,” Jonah Peretti, the C.E.O. of Buzzfeed, wrote me in an email earlier this year, referring to her focus on stars, scripted shows and glossy content.

This begs the critical question: Can Yahoo be turned into the world’s largest Platisher? Because the clear implication of what Peretti writes is to take-on “big media” where they are weakest — and that’s in the tight integration of media and technology, not in the kind of dual personality that Mayer has crafted. Today, Yahoo is neither fish nor fowl. Let’s not forget that Peretti’s theory of quality journalism – a kind of subsidy model where the mass light pays for the quality heavy – is at the heart of his ambition. Couldn’t that work perfectly at Yahoo?

Cynics might argue that Jonah Peretti yearns to be David Karp. I disagree. I think his ambitions are much bigger. Regardless, the question remains whether Jonah Peretti might wind-up as Marissa Mayer’s Arianna Huffington. Ditch the two Google people, relocate the business to New York, put Huffington and Paretti back together again, move Eric Hippeau into the CEO seat and assign Ken Lerer to the lead director role. Okay, just kidding.

In truth, I think the Carlson article ended in exactly the right place. Quoting N.Y.U Professor Aswath Damodaran, Carlson summarizes as follows:

“Sometimes,” Damodaran told me, “companies have to act their age.” For Yahoo, embracing its maturity means settling for a business that earns close to $1 billion in profit every year. It has outlasted other formerly iconic Internet portals, from AltaVista to Excite, and even dwarfs more recent web sensations like Myspace and For a company that started out as “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” that’s not a bad way to grow old.

Yahoo was the original news disruptor. Clearly, in the end, it will not be its savior.




Could Business Information Services Have Saved Newspapers?

Early on in the Riptide project I suggested to John Huey and Paul Sagan that we develop a “sidebar” in the area of Business Information Services. My thought was that newspapers were among the early pioneers in this highly technical area – after all, The New York Times Information Bank was the precursor to the Nexis information service. My theory was simple: Had newspapers pursued this area in earnest, they might have accomplished two things: First, they might have developed more diversified revenue streams with which to support the journalism; and, second, they would have had the technical competencies inside of their companies to innovate in the search area. We started down this road by interviewing Bob November, the executive who lead The Times’s efforts in business information services in the 1980s. But with everything else we had to do, this area of the history was never fully explored. Nonetheless, November reminds us of something very important about The Times Company:

We were the first aggregator. Actually, with the information bank, we were the first people to think of doing electronic delivery of news information. But it was not full text. It was hard because the world was not very much attuned to getting electronic information. So we had the training and the technology.

Of course, As November reminds us, the business was sold off to Meade way before the web even existed. Meade was later sold to Reed Elsevier:

When Walt Mattson became the Chief Operating Officer, he decided that we would not be in the information business. We would be in the newspaper business. Therefore, we would make a deal with Meade. They would then offer the New York Times in full text.

Don Graham and Chris Schroeder also touch briefly on the Washington Post’s efforts with their Legi-Slate division (sold in 1999), but the full history goes unreported. Ditto with Gordon Crovitz and his mention of Dow Jones Information Retrieval and Telerate. In the end, the question of whether the pioneering work in this area could have lead to businesses that would have helped subsidize quality journalism is never answered — instead, these businesses are now run by companies like Reed Elsevier or Wolters Kluwer. Now, fast forward 18 months… About two weeks ago, an email came from an ex-HR executive at Knight-Ridder named Steven Stein. Stein, it seems, had a very similar instinct to mine. It is captured in his email, which he’s given me permission to reproduce here:

I am writing to add some additional texture and information to your Riptide project pertaining specifically to the Knight Ridder (KR) company history. I have watched many of the interviews and read the transcripts of the KR interviews and there is one significant and noteworthy gap in the history that is not referenced in the interviews with Tony Ridder, Cathy Yates and Roger Fidler.

As background, I worked for Knight Ridder (KR) from 1983 to 2005, about a year before KR was sold to McClatchy. I was VP/Human Resources at the corporate office in San Jose when I left the company. During my KR career I served in a variety of senior human resources roles in both the corporate office and in what we called the Business Information Services (BIS) division. The BIS division was based in New York City and was a significant operating group that Tony Ridder eventually sold for about $1 billion. Tony then used those proceeds to purchase MORE newspapers (Kansas City, Forth Worth, etc.) during the 1990s when Tony became CEO after Jim Batten’s untimely death. I was part of many strategic planning sessions over the years and was part of the corporate move from Miami to San Jose that Tony referenced in his interview. I also worked in New York City for KR for several years in the BIS group as head of HR. I worked closely with Tony, Cathy and Roger over the years. More on this BIS division below.

In the KR interviews you have conducted I did not see any mention of the BIS group and the role this division played in the KR history. Briefly, the creation of the BIS group was the vision of Jim Batten who had a clear view way back in the early 1980s (when he hired Roger Fidler) that the future of traditional print was going to change dramatically as technological advances evolved. Over several years, through acquisitions and internal growth, the BIS division grew to a few thousand people and reached a valuation of about $1 billion dollars, collectively. It was not highly profitable, but it was growing and employed the kinds of people — engineers, programmers, digital journalists, entrepreneurs, database technologists, early-stage Internet experts, etc. — who were few and far between in the newspapers. It also was testing — and using — some of the new business models that were emerging such as paying for information rather than using advertising supported models.

At the time of the sale, the BIS division — which was a global business — contained a few distinct operating and “branded” companies: (1) Dialog Information Services (based in Palo Alto, CA) which was a proprietary information company that sold electronic information to various corporate customers. (2) Knight Ridder Financial (KRF). KRF was a news and financial information company that sold electronic news and financial information to banks and other financial institutions. KRF competed with Bloomberg, Reuters and other world-class news organizations. (3) Technimetrics, a NY-based financial information services firm. (4) The Journal of Commerce, which was a specialty transportation print publication that is referenced in the Roger Fidler interview.

Selling this forward-looking BIS group and losing all the engineering, technology and related digital talent was a significant loss for the overall KR enterprise in the view of many. While the acquired papers were well regarded and profitable, the sale of BIS and acquisition of MORE papers was a key — some would say, decisive — milestone along the road to the eventual sale of the company. For those of us who worked in the BIS group and remained with Knight Ridder, some of us (like me) made our way out to San Jose. However, most of the deeper technology talent was lost as the individual BIS companies were sold to companies that saw value in digital and electronic distribution. It is a little surprising that Roger, Cathy and especially Tony did not mention BIS at all in their comments

In hindsight the smart and not-so-smart moves are all much clearer. However, even during the times of some of the most critical change and obvious disruption (Craig’s list emergence, etc.) most of the newspaper people in KR didn’t really face up to the inevitable. Within KR there were many people at the most senior levels who DID see the future and we had plenty of outside consultants who advised us that our print-based franchises (especially high margin classified) would come undone once the digital age emerged more forcefully. We had plenty of compelling internal and external consumer research on the declining print newspaper reading habits of various aging cohorts, etc.

Stein concludes by recommending four former senior KR BIS managers who he suggests we speak with. No one can know whether “the path not taken” in business information services would have lead to a brighter future for newspapers. It is important to remember, however, that newspapers were pioneers in this pre-web, highly technical area well before others. Perhaps another Riptide Fellow will one day more deeply mine this question. For now, we thank Steve Stein for reminding us of this important part of the history.

Mr Penny-and-a-Half

Henry Blodget’s Riptide interview is one of my favorites. In a sea of mostly negative prognostications about the future of quality journalism, Henry stands almost alone as an unrelenting optimist. His argument, simply put, is that in a pre-Web world of distribution constraint, quality content was “like a hydrant in the desert.”  Few people had access to the means of production and those who did worked for companies with access to distribution. Choice was limited so producers had great leeway in product development. The Internet changed all that, providing a global distribution network and unleashing easy-to-use publishing tools like this one. As a result, says Blodget, quality content now flows like a “hydrant in the ocean.” We are awash in news from an almost infinite number of global sources, much of it of very high quality. For this reason, news providers can no longer force their readers to “eat spinach.” Instead, they need to work hard to entice readers with relevant and interesting content, structured for easy access. In a world of almost unlimited choice, the reader is king.

I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when Henry tweeted enthusiastically about Thomas Baekdal’s provocative piece entitled, “What if Quality Journalism Isn’t.” Baekdal uses the recently leaked New York Times Innovation Report, the first newsroom critique of its own digital practices, to question the core assumption that many in journalism, including the writers of The Times report, make: that the problem is not with the journalism, per se, but rather with the lack of digital savviness or competency in pushing it out to the public. In other words, according to Baekdal, The Times and others need to be far more self-reflective regarding core journalistic practices. Baekdal suggests that newspapers like The Times still employ a “supermarket” approach to the news in an era when “intent” (Amazon and Google) and “interest” (Facebook) provide more relevant, compelling and entertaining choices at much lower cost. Hence, newspapers like The Times publish a lot of stuff, but only a small sliver is of interest to any given reader. In short, it’s journalism for the pre-Internet age.

This argument brings me back almost 20 years, to the winter of 1995, when I was interviewing with Arthur Sulzberger to lead the unit that would be responsible for launching The Times web site. As I said in my Riptide interview, my feeling at that time (and today) was that “quality” was – in large part – a function of the user experience, and that – particularly in the dial-up world of the mid-90s – Yahoo was doing that best for exactly the reasons that Baekdal outlines. Putting a newspaper on the web seemed very limiting to me. I understood that The Times wanted to put its content online, but I had proposed that we set-up a separate R&D unit to develop something more genuinely native to the web. In my budget for 1996 (perhaps the most seminal year in digital media history), I had proposed an investment of roughly $3.5 million to both launch the web site and establish my skunkworks. The CFO at the time was adamant that we reduce our investment and announced to the gathered group that I was costing the company “a-penny-and-a-half per share.” For a decade hence, I was known on the executive floor as “Mr. Penny-and-a-Half.” Needless to say, the web site launched in January 1996, but the development team was killed.

Fast forward two decades to Thomas Baekdal’s critique. As I wrote recently in this blog post, newspapers have mostly followed what Clay Christensen describes as a “sustaining” approach to the web. For the most part, newspapers publish journalism almost exactly the way it appears in their print editions and surround it with advertising. In many cases now, they charge for it on a subscription basis, replicating the print business model. I’m not sure this is a bad thing.  At The Times, almost two million people now pay for the journalism, either in print, in digital, or in a majority of cases, for both. Every day, I find so much in The Times of interest that I literally do not have enough time to read it all. In contrast with Thomas Baekdal’s analysis of his interest in newspaper content, mine is that almost all of it is of keen interest. I suspect Baekdal’s reaction is much more typical than mine, particularly for the vast majority of newspapers. But The Times has never been a mass market product. And the journalism will evolve as digital ascends and print goes off into the sunset. In the end, The Times will succeed or fail based on the number of people like me who passionately embrace it. They are the only ones who matter. Arthur Sulzberger said as much in his Riptide conversation with Paul Sagan and me last year.

In retrospect, I’m not sure that my skunk works would have amounted to much given the culture of the institution. At one point early on, Steve Rattner, who was at Lazard at the time, even suggested we might acquire Yahoo. Imagine that. I’m pretty sure we would have ruined it.



HBS, the NYT and the Star System

My first post on the excellent New York Times article about business model disruption at the Harvard Business School compared the School’s attempts to sustain its existing economics with similar attempts at high-end newspapers like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. HBS has chosen to pursue what Professor Clay Christensen refers to as a “sustaining” approach, similar to the strategies followed by several large newspaper companies. In his tweet in response to my post, Jonathan Glick asked the question: “Is HBS the next NYT?”

This question is exactly right. What I didn’t mention in my first post is that educational institutions like Harvard and newspapers like The New York Times depend, in part, on a kind of symbiotic relationship between talent (employees) and these very prestigious institutions. When we think of Michael Porter, we think of the Harvard Business School, and vice versa. Similarly, when we think of Tom Friedman or Maureen Dowd or David Brooks, we think of The New York Times. Mention Bob Woodward and the Washington Post immediately comes to mind. Historically, the institution bestowed its prestige on people like Porter, Friedman and Woodward and, in turn, their identities grew together. In this context, the “talent” would almost always remain with institution until retirement, and in many cases even after, in a kind of emeritus status.

Interestingly, in The Times article, the Dean of Wisconsin’s business school, Francois Ortalo-Magne’, addresses this issue head-on:

Recently, a rival school offered one of his faculty members not just a job, but also shares in an online learning start-up created especially for him. “We’re talking about millions of dollars,” Mr. Ortalo-Magné said. “My best teachers are going to find platforms so they can teach to the world for free. The market is finding a way to unbundle us. My job is to hold this platform together.”

To that end, he has changed his school’s incentive structure, which, as in most of academia, was based primarily on the number of research articles published in elite journals. Now professors who can’t crack those journals but “have a gift for inspiring learning,” he said, in person or online, are being paid as top performers, too. “We are now rewarding people who have tenure to give up on research,” Mr. Ortalo-Magné said.

Mr. Ortalo-Magné spins out the possibilities of disruption even further. “How many calculus professors do we need in the world?” he asked. “Maybe it’s nine. My colleague says it’s four. One to teach in English, one in French, one in Chinese, and one in the farm system in case one dies.”

What is to stop a Coursera from poaching Harvard Business School faculty members directly? “Nothing,” Mr. Nohria said. “The decision people will have to make is whether being on the platform of Harvard Business School, or any great university, is more important than the opportunity to build a brand elsewhere.

“Does Clay Christensen become Clay Christensen just by himself? Or does Clay Christensen become Clay Christensen because he was at Harvard Business School? He’ll have to make that determination.”

This gets at the very heart of institutional coherency (“unbundling”) and is, in my view, the fundamental question that newspapers face as well. It’s true that the Economist has mostly never used bylines. This is the most extreme example of “the brand” subsuming all of the talent in the organization. But that’s an anomaly. In almost all of journalism “stars” are major attractions. Last year, we saw Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher take their AllThingsD team out of the Journal and almost instantly create a new brand around them called Re/code. I was told by an insider that their recent conference – the first under the new brand – sold out in 45 minutes.

This fundamentally changes the balance of power between institutions like Harvard and the Journal and the “talent” they depend upon to sustain their models. The “talent” now holds the power, and as Mossberg and Swisher prove, a new brand can be built overnight on the web. Perhaps Re/code is sui generis, but just as in academia, these fissures have only just begun to appear in journalism. We haven’t seen a wholesale rush of “star” talent out of places like The Times and the Post, despite high profile moves by the likes of Nate Silver and Ezra Klein, respectively. Nor have we yet seen it in academia.

But the two have striking similarities. And if the “sustaining” approach to their business models has a point of vulnerability, this is where it is in a post-advertising, consumer paying world. David Carr, himself an example of the phenomenon I’ve outlined above, wrote on all of this in his Times Media Equation column about Medium, the blogging tool:

I’ve always been struck by how digital disrupters care deeply about the quality of content that lives online. Even as they helped destroy the business model of traditional publishing, Steve Jobs of Apple, Eric Schmidt of Google and Craig Newmark of Craigslist were always harping on the importance of offering significant content that would enlighten readers.

I personally found Carr’s column to be ahead of itself with respect to Medium’s success. Good for Ev Williams for having charmed him. But fundamentally all the pieces are there. And despite Carr’s words about the traditional business model, that’s still where he earns his living. When Carr, Dowd and Brooks start earning their daily bread from Medium, we’ll know that the fissures have turned to earthquakes.

Christensen versus Porter and The New York Times

The New York Times is running a brilliant article today about the Harvard Business School and the emerging Internet technologies that might destroy its business model. In it, the authors turn to two HBS professors, Clay Christensen and Michael Porter, for views on how the School should transition to the digital age. Christensen, characteristically, argues that HBS exists at the high end of the market, and will eventually be destroyed unless it sets-up a separate digital operation to compete against the new companies seeking to disrupt its model. Instead, Harvard has elected to set-up a complementary business, one that is designed specifically not to disrupt the existing model. Their online approach, called HBX, is a kind of elite “Pre-MBA” seeking to teach liberal arts majors the basics of business. About this effort, Christensen says:

“What they’re doing is, in my language, a sustaining innovation,” akin to Kodak introducing better film, circa 2005. “It’s not truly disruptive.”

The HBX approach was championed by another HBS professor, Michael Porter, also very famous but less frequently mentioned by those living through disruptive innovation. Porter argues:

“I think the big risk in any new technology is to believe the technology is the strategy. Just because 200,000 people sign up doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.” Though Professor Porter published “Strategy and the Internet” in the Harvard Business Review in 2001, before the advent of MOOCs, the article makes his sternest warning about the perils of online recklessness: “A destructive, zero-sum form of competition has been set in motion that confuses the acquisition of customers with the building of profitability.”

The Dean, Nitin Nohria, seems to have sided squarely with Porter. He tells The Times:

“I do not believe our M.B.A. program is at risk.” He concluded that disruption is not always “all or nothing,” and cited the businesses of music and retailing as examples. “In the music business, all record stores are gone,” he said, while in retailing, “it’s not like Amazon has eliminated everything; after those debates, my feeling was that we’re going to be more in that category.”

This argument played out throughout our Riptide interviews. Almost everyone we interviewed mentioned Clay Christensen and his ideas when discussing their own experiences with digital journalism. Interestingly, no one mentioned Porter, and in hindsight and with the benefit of this article, I wish they had. As Nohria states, it really isn’t “all or nothing.” But that naturally begs the question: are newspapers more like record stores or retailers?

The Riptide hypothesis is: Both. As we suggested repeatedly, the journalism is greatly sustained by the web and associated digital technologies. Never before have so many people around the world experienced, and enjoyed, New York Times storytelling. But the advertising is like record stores. Classified advertising, and – increasingly – high-end display have experienced a “dollars to pennies,” value destruction, to quote Jeff Zucker. That’s what makes the business of quality journalistic transformation so difficult to manage. You are managing both disruptive and sustaining situations at the same time.

Ultimately, The Times, the FT and the Wall Street Journal seem to have chosen the Michael Porter path. They’ve created high-end, sustaining extensions of their core models and priced them to largely complement one another. This is in sharp contrast to the “digital first” methodology followed by CEO John Paton at Digital First Media. Admittedly, the road is much tougher for large metros like Paton’s, stuck in their local markets and unable to attain the kind of global scale of the New York Times. But in the end, either The Times and others following the sustaining path will be like the specialty retailers able to thrive among the behemoths, or like record stores, pulled under by the Riptide.

The Great Unwatched

The trend of analog marketing dollars becoming digital dimes supporting online content isn’t abating. Earlier this week, David Segal in The Times literally undressed the online video ad market and discovered – wait for it – that marketers may not be getting everything they’ve paid for when placing video ads onto online sites.

One of the most egregious examples, a company selling products described as “mom related” found some of its videos ads were appearing on pornographic websites. Of course, not all ads get played in the wrong places and many brands get great value by using online video spots. But as we explore in Chapter 11, The Advertising Rollercoaster, “Somewhere along the way, the advertising business left it in the riptide and made it to the beach.”

What we meant is that plenty of marketing dollars moved online – and the pull of video ad dollars is helping to continue that trend – but much of that money is no longer going to support online content, especially news sites. We wrote, “Moving ahead, however, it will certainly take significant innovation to alter the strong current of digital advertising away from print and, as audiences continue to migrate online, eventually away from television as well.”

It seems that innovation in the news business – even in video – is still getting pulled out to sea.

Will evolving rules around net neutrality further hamper creating new models for news?

It’s difficult to miss the current debate over what’s known as net neutrality, or the rules that govern how the Internet works. Last week the New York Times proclaimed, “F.C.C., in a Shift, Backs Fast Lane for Web Traffic.” The proposed changes may have implication for all online businesses, and the news business will not be exempt.

Until now, the F.C.C. has maintained that all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must allow Internet traffic to move back and forth without discrimination based on who owns or who’s requesting the content. (ISPs are the companies that connect you to the Internet at one end of the “pipe” and content providers to the other end.) Now the government is considering allowing ISPs to created paid fast lanes that would allow some content to get to users faster and more reliably than other content.

The fear among critics of this idea is that innovation will be stunted because larger, well-established entities will gain control over the fast lanes and new market entrants will be forever disadvantaged. Proponents, naturally, say this is a long overdue fix to an imbalance in Internet economics and no one will be harmed unilaterally.

As an excellent summary in The Atlantic netted it out, this debate isn’t about neutrality, it’s about determining “where innovation actually begins and what the government should do to encourage it.” I suspect that will be true for new online models for news.

While I’d prefer the government play as small a role as possible in the evolution of models for news, it shouldn’t be lost on us that what gets decided about the future of net neutrality may have a big impact on which business models will be viable for journalism, and which won’t have a chance of succeeding, no matter how clever or innovative.

Publisher as Platform – A Perspective from Jonathan Glick

Jonathan Glick, the founder and CEO of Sulia, wrote a terrific piece on the idea of publisher as platform for Recode today. (Full disclosure: I am on the Sulia Board of Directors.)

Glick begins with a useful little trip down memory lane. He reminds us that for the past decade or so, publishers and platforms have remained distinct:

In the post–America Online era, Internet media brands divided themselves into platforms and publishers. Platforms enabled some mix of discovery and communication, whereas publishers made content.

Google quickly emerged as the main platform of this era, and when the Web 2.0 startups came along — Digg, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, YouTube, Reddit, etc. — they followed that Google model. Nobody did both, and there were a lot of strong reasons for this separation.

I might take some exception to that with respect to Yahoo, but they have mostly flailed around at bridging the gap. Now, Glick argues, a whole new generation of companies (Glick calls them “platishers” – an amusing, if awkward, designation) have arisen to bridge this gap. These include the folks at Gawker, Vox, Buzzfeed and Medium.  Glick does a great job explaining – succinctly – what these folks do in a modern publishing context:

The combination of mobile’s small screens and programmatic ad buying has made it clear that successful consumer properties need to have enormous amounts of traffic, and ad units that are essentially content.

The platisher addresses both of these requirements. First, by leveraging partners and users to create content, the platisher can grow much faster than it can by relying on only the newsroom. Second, by enabling marketers to create content, it will be faster to sell, worth much more, and perform much better than banners. And, ideally, the editorial DNA of the platisher — insightful curation, unique content, differentiated brand — makes it a more desirable place for an influential creator or a brand-conscious marketer to publish than just a plain ol’ tech platform.

The other thing he does is confront the engineering issue that is so front-and-center throughout Riptide. As a reminder, many of our interviewees argued forcefully that the publishers missed the boat principally because they lacked engineering talent. The corollary was that tech companies wouldn’t get into content.  According to Glick:

You might notice that most of these reasons were reasons for tech companies not to do content, more than the other way around. But it’s also true that media companies internalized these views and accepted that they should be technology adopters, not inventors. Partner with platforms; don’t try to compete.

And yet, despite this bevy of biases, this now appears to be changing. It’s not just Medium and Gawker. A flurry of well-funded media founders are ignoring the schism and plunging into ambitious projects that embrace the platform as a concept. Suddenly, we have lots of … yes, platishers.

Interesting, in Glick’s analysis, not a single legacy media company is mentioned. No one. Is this an oversight? After all, companies like The New York Times Company now have hundreds of developers. Lots of interesting tech projects are in the works. Can publishers like The Times become platishers?  Should they?

Finally, I wish Jonathan had made some comment about quality. In my recent blog post summarizing David Carr’s recent piece on “platishers” I noted that Carr ended with a question about whether “platishers” could bridge the quality gap. I used Buzzfeed and Business Insider as examples of  companies trying to do that. But I said in the end that no one could yet touch the legacy folks with respect to sheer editorial “muscle.” Will “platishers” get there?

I’d  love to hear Jonathan’s views on these two questions.

The Bubble’s beside the point (Part II)

Today, The New York Times reports a “major expansion” at the Washington Post. We spent a lot of time interviewing folks at the Post for Riptide. We went back to their earliest online investments in things like LegiSlate, the proprietary online business to business service covering government legislation. We talked to the family scion, Don Graham, as well as Alan Spoon, who was instrumental in setting up Washington Post Newsweek Interactive (WPNI), and Chris Schroeder, who ran LegiSlate then moved over to be WPNI’s first President. We spoke with Caroline Little, Schroeder’s successor and now the CEO of the main newspaper association, the NAA. Even though we decided early on to focus exclusively on the business-side leaders (hence, our desire to see others come in and focus on new interviewees across the broad spectrum of disruption in journalism), we did interview Marty Baron, the executive editor of the Post.

It’s worth reading Baron’s interview as a backdrop to The Times story. I’ve known, and worked with, Marty for many years and respect him enormously, although he can be a prickly business partner at times. He’s a great defender of quality journalism and has worked tirelessly during an era of newsroom downsizings to sustain the kind of journalistic “muscle” required to hold the Big Boys, from the priest abusers in the Catholic Church to the Governor of Virginia, accountable. Now, according to The Times, he’s about to add a lot of strength to the Post’s newsroom.

The Post will introduce several initiatives this year, Mr. Baron said in a memo to his staff on Wednesday. There will be five new politics reporters as well as photo editors, data visualization specialists, news desk staff and web designers. It will add a breaking news desk and a Sunday style and arts section, as well as a revamped Sunday magazine that will be “bigger in dimension and in the number of pages, with a new design and a range of new features.”

In the context of the Riptide, of course, we’d want to explore how this new investment will ultimately pay for itself. My post yesterday summarized three reports on how new entrants like Buzzfeed and Business Insider are rapidly gaining audience and advertising share from the incumbents. We asked the question, can these new players, by applying the techniques of the tech-driven web, build a bridge to the kind of quality investigative reporting that newspapers like the Post are known for? Can they develop the economics to do that?

Jeff Bezos seems to be betting that his newsroom investment will revitalize the sagging fortunes of a once great paper. There are only three ways that he will get there:

1. He can simply run the Post as a philanthropy, absorbing whatever losses he runs as a rounding error against his billions in net worth. If you like this approach, read David Bradley’s Riptide interview. Bradley, the chairman of Atlantic Media, makes a compelling argument that running a place like the Post as a charity is a road to ruin. And I don’t think that’s what Bezos has in mind. He will accept losses, maybe for a long time, but there will be a path.

2. He can go big, chasing Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post for 100+ million monthly users.  And that’s just a start. That’s an interesting path, but one that will require Baron to adapt himself to the rules of the web jungle. If you look at the practices that many of the larger new entrants have followed, they will be anathema to Marty. Not all of them, of course, but there can be no compromises when it comes to this path. Either you play or go home.

3. He can chase The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. These guys are betting that there’s a big enough paying niche on the global stage for the kind of high quality journalism they offer. Arthur Sulzberger discussed this model with Paul Sagan and me at some length. This would be the most natural course for the Post, but it’s no slam dunk. To support the kind of newsroom that Marty runs, he will need at least a million subscribers to pay him a decent subscription fee each month. He’ll also need to give the kind of people willing to pay for The Times and the WSJ a reason to subscribe beyond “quality journalism.” The Post has a unique niche in American politics, and they could build on that, but there is vast competition in that space.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what happens at the Post. I’ve been excited ever since I heard that Bezos had agreed to acquire it. He’s one of the great entrepreneurs and business leaders of our time, right up there with Steve Jobs. That’s why I’m also hoping that the very next interview that gets done for Riptide is with Jeff.



The Bubble’s beside the point

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times all ran articles this week on the rapidly changing digital news landscape. All explore whether the recent funding of several digital news startups might be creating a bubble in the Internet news arena.

First up was David Carr who used Ezra Klein’s announcement that he’s moving over to Vox Media to make the point that Klein’s move is less about escaping old media than “going toward something else.” That “something else” is a native entity that is “optimized for the current age.”  Carr likens places like Vox to the cable programmers who turned entities like CNN (fondly known as the Chicken Noodle Network back then) into “big businesses today.” He writes that places like Vox, HuffPo, Buzzfeed and others “will eventually mature into the legacy media of tomorrow.”

Carr puts a stake in the ground around one huge question explored in our Riptide report: That legacy providers never really embraced technology as central to their transformation. He writes: “In digital media, technology is not a wingman, it is The Man.” This was a major theme in our report and goes back to the earliest days of digital media.  Eric Schmidt was perhaps most direct when he told us that you can’t innovate without engineers, and that legacy news companies simply don’t have them in any quantity. Cathy Yates, an early leader at Knight-Ridder Digital, disagreed. It was the underlying culture, not the talent issue, according to Yates. She told us she hired plenty of engineers, going back to the very beginning of web publishing. In my view, the bridge between these two perspectives was built by Will Hearst. Hearst agreed with Schmidt, but added the crucial thought that legacy media businesses and their boards have never placed deeply technical people in key leadership roles. So even if there’s a CTO or CDO sitting at the table, the essential strategy and direction is run by folks who don’t have the technical fluency to make the crucial decisions about the product portfolio. That can’t work in this rapidly evolving environment.

Will Launder’s Wall Street Journal piece (subscription required) explores the collapsing ad rates at many news sites. He also uses Klein’s departure as a hook, but goes in a very different direction from Carr. One of the sites he focuses on is GigaOm, which recently folded its paidcontent acquisition into the main site. Om Malik, GigaOm’s founder, spoke to us about the many differences between running a legacy operation and a startup. As a funny aside, he mentioned David Carr as someone who might not be affordable for most news startups. Perhaps that’s no longer true, or perhaps David might tradeoff some cash comp for equity, but Carr’s point seems to be that a thousand flowers are blooming, and some of them will turn into beautiful gardens. Launder seems much less sanguine. He closes with a quote from Jim VandeHei, a founder of Politico and another Riptide interviewee:

Mr. VandeHei suggests most investors seeking big returns would be better off betting their money on other sectors, like health care or energy, unless they are “passionate about journalism.”

This brings us to today’s piece by Henry Mance in the Financial Times. Entitled, “News groups face age-old problems with online startups,” the article discusses the increasingly difficult competitive environment for legacy news companies. While Mance mercifully leaves the omnipresent Ezra Klein out of this one, he does mention the omnipresent Buzzfeed, “the US-based website that wants its articles to be shared above all else.” With forecast revenues “of more than $100 million this year,” Buzzfeed is now moving beyond “simple entertainment” and is – according to the BBC’s James Harding – ‘muscling up to become a serious news machine.’ Buzzfeed’s history and strategy is discussed by it’s founder, Jonah Peretti, in our Riptide report, and this brings us back to Carr’s piece.

In the end, the question isn’t just whether successful news startups can satisfy the needs of venture capitalists. As Carr notes, the real issue is quality. Buzzfeed and others (including interviewees Henry Blodget, Arianna Huffington and Nick Denton) are trying to build this bridge. They are making important strides. But so far nothing quite replaces the three news organizations I’ve cited today in terms of sheer editorial “muscle,” to use Harding’s word.  Will that change? If Clay Christensen’s theories are right, it will — just read his Riptide interview to find out.




BuzzFeed, Vice and the next generation in serious news?

Noteworthy story in The Independent by Ian Burrell pointing out the investments being made at Vice and Buzzfeed to fund original journalism, including full-on investigative reporting.

The opportunity that both organisations have identified is to serve the so-called “millennial” audience of twenty-somethings who have supposedly turned their backs on mainstream news providers.

I’m not sure they’ve proven they can withstand the riptide that makes it so difficult for producers of original journalism to make money reliably, but these two built significant revenue streams first and now are seeking to enhance audience loyalty, which should only strengthen opportunities to make money.

“The media is a big place and we don’t need anyone else to fail in order for us to succeed,” he [BuzzFeed’s UK editor, Luke Lewis] said. “We have our own way of doing things and it would not necessarily work for any other publisher.”

Golden Age

Henry Blodget offered the most optimistic point-of-view among our interviewees with regard to the state of modern journalism. His basic premise is that there has never been more good information available to readers; that the web has, in fact, created a “golden age” of journalism. Bill Keller offers a more nuanced perspective in his New York Times column today, focusing specifically on foreign reporting. One of the issues, he suggests, is the growing role of freelance journalists:

The problem with the cutbacks in professional foreign coverage is not just the loss of experience and wisdom. It’s the rise of — and exploitation of — the Replacements, a legion of freelancers, often untrained and too often unsupported. They gravitate to the bang-bang, because that’s what editors and broadcast producers will pay for. And chances are that nobody has their backs.

He goes on to suggest that freelancers are often exploited, sometimes ripped off. In this context, he refers to a “freelancer in Yemen” and links to a page  to “name and shame” news organizations that don’t pay their freelance talent. The link points to a broken page, but more important, that journalist is Iona Craig. Iona can be found on a fascinating new “platform” called “Beacon” that is designed to help with some of the issues Keller identifies in his very good column; most importantly, the one about getting paid. Beacon may not be the ultimate solution to the Riptide, but it’s a step in the right direction.



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.

Another Take on the “Original Sin” of Publishers

We spend a great deal of time in the Riptide interviews and essay looking at what’s been called the Original Sin of the news business. That is, when news business owners (mainly newspaper and magazine publishers) decided to give their content away without charge on the Web. Our conclusion: It didn’t really matter because a few other entities with very different business models (namely Reuters and Yahoo) did it anyway and disrupted the news business. Recently, I had a chance to re-read Dick Tofel’s marvelous essay on the same collision of the news business and digital technology, and I was reminded that he presents a somewhat different take on this question, and it’s worth reading.

(Semi-Serious Disclosure: You have to buy it for $1.99 on Amazon, because Dick’s not giving this I.P away for free! Fully-Serious Disclosure: Dick and I work together at ProPublica where I’m on the board and he’s the President.)

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.

A view from a Chicago newspaper publisher (and Riptide dad)

When we embarked on the exploration that became Riptide, John, Martin, and I knew that how the news gets paid for and the evolving need for readers to pay for the news they consume would be a central theme. Even as we asked a few early readers to comment on the site, we got feedback on this issue — including from a newspaper publisher in Chicago who also happens to be my dad. Here’s what Bruce Sagan, longtime publisher of the Hyde Park Herald, had to say:

Thank you for this important and fascinating history of journalism and the Internet revolution. Or should I say, ‘Internet Tide?’

Your remarkable essay ends with the questions we are all asking: ‘What is going to happen next to the news business…?’ ‘How will accountable journalism be provided to a democratic republic?’ (We can assume that celebrity journalism will take care of itself.)

Among the commentaries from your interviewees, perhaps Tim Berners-Lee shows the way. We need, he says, a new payment protocol. We need an easy way to send money from the reader to the creators of accountable journalism.

His idea was along the line of voluntary action by the reader. That is probably an unreliable way to build a self-sustaining journalism enterprise. But if there was a new payment protocol that allowed easy payment for subscriptions, or a single copy or a single story (essentially the much-discussed idea in the industry of micro payments), readers could and would support the journalism they want.

It could be argued that the reader has always supported journalism with payment. The traditional view of newspaper economics has been that the reader paid a small fee and the advertising subsidized the journalism and the operation of the publishing company. But if you pull apart the operation of most newspapers in America, you can give a different kind of description.

At most American daily newspapers in the glory days before the web, the editorial budget represented only about 15 to 20 percent of the costs of operations. Thus 80 to 85 percent was spent on production, distribution, selling advertising, administration, etc. In most cases, the gross circulation income paid by the reader covered the cost of the journalism effort. The advertising paid for the ink and paper and trucks and production and distribution personnel.

And so all we need now is a system to create journalism that gets it to the reader without paper, ink, trucks, retail sellers, etc., and have the reader pay us the small amount they have always paid for their journalism. With that we probably do not need advertising to help us along.

Well, we know how to do the first part¬–something called the World Wide Web. The second part is a little more difficult, getting the reader to pay us. But we are learning how to do that. There needs to be a cultural shift; society must accept that payment has to be made for all kinds of news. News is not free.

And there will be a fierce fight over ‘fair use’ as the aggregators and the originators of content try to define copyright for another web abused industry.

But millions of Americans spend about a $1.00 a day or more on journalism products. Granted, they are not all looking for accountable journalism. Would many pay for accountable journalism on the web if it were required and easy?

Let us use your wonderful essay, Riptide. Here is a piece of real web journalism, a long form story about a very import issue in our society. It is well researched and it uses the web in its most inventive way, making it possible for me to dig deeper into the story itself by just clicking on a link (or many, many links) to find out more. Your story itself is an example of what web journalism can be.

And let’s assume that you are part of a journalism site and that it has subscribers who are interested in what this site produces. They pay for part of the cost of maintaining the news staff.

If I was not a subscriber to your news site but was told about the story by a friend (which would happen to me as I am a practicing journalist), and if I could get the story through a simple and easy payment protocol, would I pay a fee for it? And how many thousands are there like me and how much would that add to the income of the newsroom?

What if we had a system of subscribers, plus purchaser’s of just today’s ‘paper,’ plus the sale of an individual story. Could that support a local newsroom that covered city hall and read the school budget or maintained that proverbial ‘bureau in Baghdad?’

Time to find out. We need that new payment protocol.

(Maybe we should talk to the Department of Motor Vehicles in states that run toll roads. They seem to know how to get dimes and quarters and dollars from us in an automated and painless way. Journalism needs its E-Z Pass.)

Bruce Sagan, Publisher, Hyde Park Herald, Chicago, Illinois.

Randall Rothenberg: What about Bloomberg?

Even before releasing Riptide we heard from a number of people who felt that we missed particular players in the evolution of digital news. We explain in Riptide’s “About” section that we did our best to cover a lot of ground in only three months, the term of our Fellowship. We freely admit that we couldn’t cover everything and everyone. In part, that’s why we built Riptide on the web. We hope that others will fill in the blanks and update the corpus as new events occur. The IAB’s Randall Rothenberg, who interviewed Sir Martin Sorrell for us, was particularly concerned about our having neglected to interview anyone from Bloomberg. His post, below, explains why:

“Riptide” is an important contribution to the history of the practice of journalism, the business of news, and the effects of media — but it’s only a first step. I hope you go further, and explore some roads that were not on your early map.

For example, I believe you erred by ignoring the role Bloomberg played, especially as a test of the proposition you assume to be true but never explore in your document: Does news indeed have objective value?

The lack of attention to that question is, I think, a flaw in this first draft, as well as in the thinking of many news industry executives. It’s implicit in many of the “Riptide” interviews: Journalists and journalism executives believed news was valuable because news companies had always made money. Therefore, none of them felt compelled to investigate this fundamental presumption.

Bloomberg actually presented a controlled market test of this question. For many, many consumers, Bloomberg was their first taste of what later came to be called the Internet. Granted, it was a private network. But it offered them many of the benefits the IP-based Internet later would offer the world: copious information, services, email, community, community connectivity, and massive lollygagging opportunities. It was also the first large interactive company to offer a test of the value of news to paying customers — the first place where the value of news wasn’t just a matter of received wisdom or ideology, but a business proposition.

I realize Bloomberg was not a perfect test of this principle, by any means. They weren’t charging independently for “the news”; instead, it was an add-on to the company’s analytics services. But Mike Bloomberg, Tom Secunda and the other early Bloombergians felt the news was so essential to the company’s business that when Dow Jones threatened to pull DJNS off the Bloomberg terminals, they thought they had no choice but to start their own news service.

It’s also not a perfect test of the value of news because Bloomberg’s market was a B2B market; they believed their customers required the news because they made money from it. (Bloomberg was where I learned that beating the competition by a half-second on the news of a Bundesbank interest rate change could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to your customers.) But the same would be true of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and you’re not segregating them out of your narrative simply because they are business-news companies.

Net, I think Bloomberg was a crucial piece of the evolution of the Internet and news. Bloomberg provided a test of the value of news to an important consumer/customer base; it was an experiment launched by non-news people in a non-news company; and their test helped them in some way to grow to become one of the most valuable and influential companies in the news and information business. What did they learn, and is it more broadly applicable to journalism? Therein I think is an important part of this tale — the next phase of “Riptide.”


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.