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


A New York Daily News truck heads out for delivery, 1978. (AP)
For most of the 20th century, any list of America’s wealthiest families would include quite a few publishers generally considered to be in the “news business”: the Hearsts, the Pulitzers, the Sulzbergers, the Grahams, the Chandlers, the Coxes, the Knights, the Ridders, the Luces, the Bancrofts — a tribute to the fabulous business model that once delivered the country its news. While many of those families remain wealthy today, their historic core businesses are in steep decline (or worse), and their position at the top of the wealth builders has long since been eclipsed by people with other names: Gates, Page and Brin and Schmidt, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Case, and Jobs — builders of digital platforms that, while not specifically targeted at the “news business,” have nonetheless severely disrupted it.
The precipitous fall of the industry that produces what we have come to call quality journalism — that is, independently reported, verified, branded information published or broadcast by institutions prepared to “stand by their stories” despite pressures from commercial or government interests — is hardly a fresh subject. Tens of thousands of articles, books, research papers, and documentaries have been devoted to the topic.

Tectonic Shifts in News:
A Few Good Reads

Post-Industrial Journalism (Tow Center for Digital Journalism)

Leading the Way to Better News (Geoffrey Cowan)

Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy (Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy)

Why Newspapers Matter (John S. Carroll)

Big News Forges Its Own Path (David Carr, New York Times)

Not surprisingly, the press hasn’t treated this story like just any other industrial disruption. With newspaper news jobs down by 30% in little more than a decade, this issue hits as close to home as possible for journalists. More importantly, some go so far as to argue the disruption is so profound that it threatens the future of democracy itself.

Reasonable people can — and do — debate whether the replacement of legacy media by new forms of information gathering and distribution — including citizen journalism and smartphone photojournalism, crowdsourcing, universal access to data and, of course, a world awash in Twitter feeds — makes democracy more or less vulnerable. Usually the argument is reduced to a couple of symbolic questions: Who’s going to pay for the Baghdad bureau? Who’s going to replace the watchdog function at city hall traditionally provided by healthy metro newspapers?

The arguments supporting the idea that the decline of quality journalism threatens democracy are frequent, familiar, logical, and voluminous, and they come mostly from either academia or people invested one way or another in the legacy journalism business.

As Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School (sponsor of this site) writes in his book Losing the News, The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy:

It is an article of faith among journalists that what they do is essential to democracy. Indeed, if one were to eavesdrop on a gathering of traditional journalists deploring the state of the news media, it would be easy to conclude that without high-quality journalism, American democracy would be hugely diminished. This is a view also shared by many nonjournalists of all political persuasions, even though these same people might also be very critical of the media. Despite their quarrels with the news, they recognize that reliable news is important. If news isn’t credible, it loses its ability to persuade. If news institutions cease to be trusted to be honest brokers of information, then disagreeable or politically unwelcome news will be dismissed as spin and bias. In such an environment, the argument goes, a genuinely informed citizenry is replaced with an anarchy of half-truths, misinformation, and propaganda.

Those arguing the other side tend to be many of the so-called disruptors — entrepreneurs engaged in building new digital-only news business models around aggregation, blogging, and low-cost newsgathering. One of those is Henry Blodget, founder of Business Insider.

There’s a big argument right now about what’s going on in the news business. There are two big different opinions. One is that news is dying. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. Who is going to do the hard reporting? Newspapers are caving in. How is the world going to police itself? That’s one. The other is what’s actually happening: The amount of news that’s being created has been increased by a hundredfold over the last five years. People are absolutely drowning in it. That’s the one I subscribe to.

Anybody with an opinion can tweet. They can blog, or they can go online…. In the old world through 1995, media organizations were the equivalent of a hydrant in the desert. They controlled the vital information flow. They had tremendous power because they were the gateway. Now, we are a hydrant in the ocean. Media organizations are often still coming at it from the point of view of “Wait, we get to choose what’s important. People should consume it because we say it’s important.” The point I’m making here is there is so much out there to consume right now that you actually have to build something that people like. People do not want to have to eat spinach because it’s good for them. They simply won’t. There are too many options.

On the national level, the owners of the big legacy news businesses have fought fiercely against the disruptors, often with the effect of a frustrated ocean swimmer flailing against a fierce rip current. They have waged legal battles over “fair use”; they have lobbied against anti-competitive behavior; and in many cases they have yielded to the current, creating substantial digital advertising businesses with hundreds of millions in revenue dollars of their own. And at least three big news players — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Financial Times — all have built emerging models that rely substantially more on consumers paying for their digital products than merely relying on digital advertising. Other legacy news businesses — CNN, Fox News, CBS’s 60 Minutes to name three — also continue to operate with highly profitable margins.

Was there some “original sin” that unleashed this fierce tide of disruption — say, the decision by so many original news sites not to charge for content?
But with each digital click upward in Moore’s Law (processing power) and Metcalfe’s Law (network power) the tide of technological disruption has only risen, washing many of the legacy swimmers further out to sea, or at least diminishing their financial prowess. The summer of 2013 saw two particularly seminal events that highlight the acute situation legacy journalism companies find themselves in today: The Boston Globe sold for a mere $70 million to the owner of the Boston Red Sox (after once selling to The New York Times Co. for $1.1 billion), and The Washington Post Company stunned the journalism world by selling its iconic newspaper to one of those very names we mentioned at the outset: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The choice of the riptide metaphor — or the rip current to be strictly accurate — is deliberate. The recommended survival technique against a rip current in the ocean is to quickly move sideways outside the current, but that’s been easier said than done in the news business, just as it is in the open sea. We chose the metaphor to represent what happened to the news business: When successful, pre-digital players who had learned to swim out to sea and return safely with confidence and regularity found themselves over time confronting a stronger and stronger force that made it more and more difficult to get back to shore. And just like a school of swimmers caught in a real riptide, even some of the best-prepared and forward-thinking media companies were swept away no matter how hard they tried to survive.

These exponentially increasing digital building blocks have enabled generation after generation of wunderkind engineers to develop fresher ways to deliver, receive, and share information, much of it directly in the wheelhouse of the old news businesses — not just news, but display advertising and distribution and, most devastating to many newspapers, classified advertising.

In some cases, a disruptive force has been aggregation (think The Huffington Post or Google News), while in others it has been disaggregation (Politico is only about politics; is only about cars). In the case of classified advertising the disruption was almost just a stray bullet; programmer Craig Newmark basically set out seeking a way for people to share information about local events, not kill an industry. But none of these new content creators is really the big winner, in spite of their ability to chip away at consumers’ dependence on legacy media. They are mostly small players. It is the platform providers — Google, Facebook, and Twitter, in particular — with their engineering prowess, massive audiences, viral networks, deep data, and grip on the prime demographic targets for advertisers that have captured enormous shares of the revenue once flowing to the old media companies. (If you’ve never done it, try Google’s free Google Earth tool to view the company’s own sprawling California headquarters campus some time. Or better yet, take a look at the nearby facilities of Facebook, a company launched only in 2004 that took over the former headquarters campus of Sun Microsystems at what’s now called 1 Hacker Way, Menlo Park.) Also, as advertisers increasingly use automated “programmatic buying” to target specific audience segments on the web, general news providers are losing the core proposition of their traditional businesses — that is, serving as intermediaries between their audience and the advertisers wanting to sell them things.

One point that now seems clear: The news business had no shortage of visionaries who could imagine the future. As you will see over and over in this compilation of recollections going back many years, numerous editors and business executives in the employ of legacy news media companies set out to harness new technologies that would revolutionize the delivery of news. But (to get out of the sea for a moment) they were rewarded more as pioneers (who are often the first to perish) than as settlers (who eventually claim the new land).

And while it has been Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws driving most of this change, perhaps it is another law, Amara’s, which best describes the results. That law states, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Or, as Frank Rich put it in an April 2013 column for New York magazine: “We didn’t realize we were up against change so sweeping as the building of the transcontinental railroad or the invention of electricity [sic].”

Hyperbolic as that may sound, it probably isn’t an overstatement. And as such, it is a phenomenon worthy of a continual effort to understand its causes, its effects, and its possible outcomes. With that in mind, we created this oral history project — curated at Harvard by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy in conjunction with Nieman Journalism Lab — to document the experiences of a broad group of primary participants, some of whom were there at the beginning of the transformation (a time we judge to be some 35 years ago, long before the advent of the World Wide Web) and some of whom have only recently arrived but are profoundly affecting the force and direction of the current that is washing away the foundations of the legacy news media business.

Joining together as a team, we three Shorenstein Center Fellows decided to seek the personal recollections of a broad but select group of principals who faced the choices, made the decisions, placed the bets, and now have the benefit of hindsight as to how it could, or couldn’t, have played out differently. The original participants number more than 60 and could grow in time. In hierarchy, they range from the mighty: Eric Schmidt; to the defenders: Arthur Sulzberger, Steve Newhouse, Don Graham; to the disruptors: Arianna Huffington, Nick Denton, Jonah Peretti, Henry Blodget; to the artisans: Andrew Sullivan, Michael Kinsley; to the humbled: Jerry Levin, Tony Ridder; to the philosophical: Walter Isaacson, Steve Case, Gordon Crovitz; to the journalists-turned-capitalists: Mike Moritz, Will Hearst; to the scientists and academics: Tim Berners-Lee, Nicholas Negroponte. And many others in between: pioneers, martyrs, eyewitnesses, victims, conquerors. There were some players we didn’t approach, either to avoid duplication or because we simply lacked the time to reach everyone. We purposely chose to not interview the journalists and pundits who have covered this transformation over the years, although we believe this could be a worthy addition in the future.

We sought answers to many of the big questions. Was there some “original sin” that unleashed this fierce tide of disruption — say, the decision by so many original news sites not to charge for content? Or did the move by Reuters in 1994 to sell wire feeds to the upstart Yahoo — which would in turn give it away for free and soon become the world’s largest news service — create a current so strong that most traditional news providers forever lost the leverage to charge for digital content? Or was there some more primordial spark that guaranteed the inevitable disruption regardless — say the invention of URLs (universal resource locators) or html (hypertext markup language), which would allow any piece of content to be identified and transferred from anywhere in the world to anyone, anywhere on any Internet-connected device? Was the “news” ever really an unsubsidized business, or did it only appear so because it was conveniently bundled in newspapers and news magazines that offered numerous other amusements and services? Did the miscalculations of legacy publishing and broadcasting executives really change the course of history, or did they only matter on the margins? And, again, how serious is the threat of this transformation to the fundamentals of democracy? Is the net effect of the gains and losses wrought by digital media positive or negative for such traditional benefits of the news media as public service or civic welfare?

The answers and stories you can read and watch here are varied and, to us anyway, full of surprises. Like all oral histories, this compilation doesn’t represent cold, hard fact, but rather memory, with all its imperfection, psychological adjustment, and often, confusion. As such, the document as a whole is a Rashomon tale. Everyone may have seen the same sequence of events, but not necessarily in the same way. Many themes emerged repeatedly: The Innovator’s Dilemma, the cultural challenges of legacy companies, the mistiming of trying to capture the power of technological breakthroughs (often too early and sometimes too late), the tension between “paid vs. free” content, the failure of legacy media to appreciate the importance of engineering, the power of network effects if not the networks themselves. The interviewees expressed surprisingly little regret, or guilt, nor was there much finger pointing. But there are inevitable hints of nostalgia on the part of the old guard and fervor for creative destruction on the part of the new. On some questions, particularly the importance of institutional news media to democracy and the civic good, there is fierce disagreement.

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