Riptide: An Oral History of the Epic Collision Between Journalism and Digital Technology

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The Dot Com Bubble Burst: Blue line and left scale: Daily close of the Nasdaq Composite, 1995 to 2002. Maroon triangles and right scale: Estimated number of world Internet users in millions. For a time, these two lines moved in tandem — until they didn’t. Source: Nasdaq and IWS.

WIKIPEDIA (not in the report): “The very word ‘dot-com’ became a joke, a symbol of nothing more than an over-hyped future foisted on an honest industry by a group of Silicon Valley hucksters and their bankers.”
March 10, 2000: The day the dot com bubble burst.

The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson

Monday mornings have become either a time for dread or a time to sleep late. If news is coming in fast by measure of the e-mail offerings and the RSS feed is hopping, it can be a very busy time. Or, if the news is slow, with uninteresting stories I can’t get to to cover anyway, it can be quite ho hum.

Since I actually got up before the sun rise on this Monday morning, and the dog would not let me go back to sleep, and there was one very interesting e-mail with a link to check out, I spent the entire morning sipping coffee and reading a new report out from Harvard. A team of researchers at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and the Nieman Journalism Lab have produced an oral history on digital journalism from 1980s to the present called Riptide: An oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology….

Before I get to my criticism, let’s just say this is a noteworthy and valuable contribution to the history of this time period and hopefully people will take a look at it. Call it the first cut at history.

Since the index is sort of hard to find, here’s the direct link.

A Timeline of Key Events

The setup begins with this:

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.
Not surprisingly, the press hasn’t treated this story like just any other industrial disruption. With newspaper news jobs down by 30 percent 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.

A few of the best quotes to look for:

TIM BERNERS-LEE explains why he thinks it’s critical that we find new ways to pay journalists for their work online.

KATHY YATES explains her view that the successful transition of most newspapers to the digital world just wasn’t going to happen.

WALTER ISAACSON: “There was a phrase back then that ‘content is king.’ And we actually believed it … We should just get as many eyeballs as possible. That’s the way we’re going to make money. By aggregating eyeballs.”

MIKE MORITZ talks about the failure of most traditional media companies to appreciate that they should have shrunk to thrive in the online world.

…on Hypertext Markup Language (HTML): “This was the biggest, freest printing press the world had ever seen. Honestly, not since Gutenberg. Of course, as it turned out, that knife cut both ways.”

TIM BERNERS-LEE: “For a lot of people, you were interested in the First Amendment idea, that right to publish. In the early days of the Internet, people felt, ‘We have a distributed system. That means something which is not controlled by government or anybody else.’ That was driving a lot of people. That drove a lot of the excitement. Certainly, the early geeks were excited to be able to work together without asking anybody’s permission. Some of the initial publishers who realized, ‘Oh my goodness, I can start a newspaper just like that.'”

TONY RIDDER: “As you know…from being in the business, newsrooms get criticized for being liberal. But newsrooms are the most conservative organizations anywhere. They are so hidebound….”

MARTIN NISENHOLTZ: “The tide is basically the march of technology and innovation. The swimmers are the folks making the decisions, people like you, throughout this history…. No matter what decisions anybody made, the technology (the tide) was just going to overwhelm…. Is that true, do you think?”

“I do think it’s true.”

DOC SEARLS, COAUTHOR, THE CLUETRAIN MANIFESTO: “I date the Internet that we know now and that I think will exist for the fullness of time to 1995. [That] was when the perfect storm of ISPs [Internet Service Providers]; dial‑up access; the graphical browser especially, that was the biggest thing; domain names for sale…. All of those things together made it possible for anybody to publish, for anybody to run their own radio station, for anybody to run their own TV station, for anybody to do what the hell they pleased in a space that we’d never seen before — that put all of us at zero distance from everybody else. It didn’t matter where we were in the world. At something close to no cost at all, anybody could communicate with anybody. Anybody could run their own printing press, as it were. To me that was just fundamental … For a lot of us who are writers, we could all become Benjamin Franklin.”

MATT MULLENWEG, one of the founding partners of Word Press: “I feel, on the whole, blogs are probably more accurate, particularly in the long term. When I publish a blog post it’s not edited beforehand, it’s not fact-checked beforehand. But it’s my words, my name’s on it…”

ANDREW SULLIVAN: “…This great thing means I can write anything. No one can stop me anymore. This is a writer’s dream: for a writer to reach his or her readership directly without any publisher, editor, colleague, advertiser, having to pass those hurdles, let alone the fact checker and the copy editor….”

STEVE CASE: “I think it’s all about people. Thomas Edison famously said a century ago, ‘Vision without execution is hallucination.’ I think that was part of the problem.”

AUTHORS: “The dot-com crash and ensuing Web Winter hit the Bay Area start-up scene, not to mention the rest of the web business world, like a neutron bomb. But, to reiterate, that was all about the collapse of advertising and, with it, business models and valuations. The consumer never even blinked, and web usage continued to grow sharply. It was, in fact, an exponentially growing beast, far from the passing fancy that many traditional media executives had hoped it would be.”

AUTHORS: “There is one fact that is now indisputable in the history of what happened when the news business, and countless others, collided with the Internet. And that fact is simply this: Google changed everything.”

NICK DENTON: “It was revolutionary. Unfortunately, it was still sort of revolutionary in the newspaper world 10 years later. That was the extraordinary thing. The extraordinary thing was not that it was revolutionary then. The extraordinary thing was that it was still revolutionary and still sort of is now — that newspapers insist on rehashing stories that have been better covered elsewhere, instead of taking and moving the story forward. There’s still a huge amount of duplication in the efforts of the news industry.”

AUTHORS: “To many, the big question here is: What really happened to the news business? Maybe this is the simplest answer: Somewhere along the way, the advertising business left it in the riptide and made it to the beach.”

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: “In fact, there are lots of examples of online entrepreneurs that have started news and information businesses. But the report also found that, when it comes to news in particular, while the distribution costs may be a lot less than they are historically, it still costs money to report the news. Reporters don’t work for free, nor should they. The business models to generate revenue to pay for reporters, even on the Internet, are not where they need to be to support a robust reporting operation.”

AUTHORS: “To the extent that news remains advertiser-supported, a different kind of church/state relationship may be evolving — one where the boundaries may not be as clear.”

DICK COSTOLO: “The benefit that the journalists have over the technologists is their ability to do these in-depth, content-rich analyses and essays around things.”

MIKE MORITZ: “I think, on the whole, that media and forms of journalism that have something original to say, have their own content, have stuff that’s really proprietary and have their own voice, as opposed to distributing the wire services or being warmed-over versions of stuff that you can find all over the place — I actually happen to think that they have a far brighter and better future than they ever did … Most of the existing media companies who don’t have their own content will go the way of the dodo. No doubt about that. There will be a few that are able to engineer a leap over this gulf. But we all know the industries where the makers of horse carts or locomotives weren’t the leaders in the next form of transportation. It’s no different in the media business.”

MICHAEL KINSLEY: “I think it’ll all work out.”

My two cents: I think Kinsley is right in a way. I think it will work itself out, but there are significant dangers ahead.

Here’s the most important one and the crux of my criticism of the report, which is severely incomplete. The word democracy in this report is defined by the authors basically as capitalism. And as I have written in the past, they are not one and the same thing. Democracy is thrown into the introduction and apparently the authors concluded before they even started that financially successful news organizations are critical for democracy. That is true, by the way.

But they never really address the real questions about the future of democracy. I will deal with this in more depth in my book on the subject that will be out at least on Kindle this year. Suffice it to say here that there is no doubt people are and will continue to find successful models to make money off of news content on the Web. That is not the issue. The question is, what kind of content?

Sensational news will get covered, as will local news, sports, entertainment, ad nauseum. These guys are worried about city hall coverage. Who cares? That will get covered. The big news organizations now in existence and making money on the Web are already supplanting the tabloids of old with coverage of everything sensational. Social networking programs like Facebook and Twitter are already amplifying that beyond any reasonable person’s most wild expectations.

The question is: Who is going to get in people’s faces and ask the tough questions and connect the dots? A computer programmer? For all the talk in recent years about “speaking truth to power,” a phrase you won’t find in this report, by the way, that is what is critical to the future of democracy.

Allot of really big, important news is not being covered now. How will it be covered in the future? The successful mainstream media outlets are not doing that now with all their billions in profits. Somebody needs to be thinking about that. I am. I don’t see that being addressed at Harvard or anywhere else.

With all the power of the search engines and the aggregators and all the other new technology, the most important stories that really matter for the future are being buried under a mammoth pile of manure. Most people won’t see them or be able to find them. Not as long as we simply rely on computer programming code to determine what gets defined as big news based on people’s “likes.”

The news that people want will get covered. What about the news that people need? Does anybody care?

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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