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

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The Riptide blog

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.



June 20, 2014, 3:54 pm