Parallel lives: media and telecom

I was lucky to get the chance to spend a morning last week at Bell Labs with a few editors and reporters from the Star-Ledger, and I was struck by the many parallels between the telecom and newspaper businesses.

The first and most obvious is the business turmoil each faces as an open, competitive, and distributed world overcomes their legacies as closed, monopolistic, and centralized businesses. In that sense, the telcos are farther along this trail of tears — not yet on the other side of the gorge, but perhaps able to see the bottom — and newspapers know this disruption and uncertainty lie ahead.

But more interesting are the parallels in the future. Telcos saw themselves as technology and distribution companies and newspapers as content and distribution companies. But it turns out they are meant to be networks, connection companies that put people together with the right people and relevant information.

Gee Rittenhouse, Bell Labs’ vp for technology integration, told us that newspapers have an advantage: locality. I agree. In fact, I say it is more than that: Locality is the essence of a newspaper. Sid Ahuja, a vp in charge of software and convergence, had a wonderful perspective about media and place. He talked about his childhood in a village in India that was not connected to the outside by technology. When broadcast radio came along, he said, it made people think outside their villages, as a nation. But now, technology brings us back together in villages, albeit often virtual ones. Newspapers, too, can bring us back to the villages once they don’t have to broadcast to everyone at once in print and can become more local online.

Rittenhouse talked about how telcos now must concentrate not on the plumbing but on the “higher application level.” Translated to newspapers, they need to concentrate not on printing but on enabling people to act. Ahuja, too, talked about the need to look at application networking atop the infrastructure of the internet. Google is such an application, he said. So should newspapers be, as they use technology to help people make connections.

They each talked about relevance and trust as ways to accomplish this for their networks. Ahuja spoke of the need for metrics and systems of trust to raise the value of the network (in, for example, an email network where 60 percent of the messages are spam, are untrusted). Well, won’t it be the job of newspapers to share trust, to find not only the facts and also the correspondents — professional or amateur — to rely on? And that doesn’t just mean editors deciding who and what are trustworthy; in lab speak, that won’t scale. They need to build rules engines and content handlers to make this happen, Ahuja said. And to do that, they must learn from the people, from the network. It means helping people to share trust among themselves. This is why both industries are trying to figure out how to work with social networks.

Bell Labs, of course, has learned how to innovate in an open-source world. They invented Unix there and saw its value increase with the contributions of people. Similarly, newspapers must find open ways to work with citizen journalists. [See also yesterday’s discussion at the hyperlinked society conference on the competitive, complementary, or destructive — take your pick — relationship of amateurs to professionals.]

Finally, from a business perspective, Bell Labs in particular has had to find new efficiencies as they downsized while, of course, continuing to innovate and invest. That is precisely what newspapers must do. When I last visited there many years ago, the pride in pure research was like that which I saw at the MIT Media Lab: almost a determination not to be practical. That has changed at both institutions, I hear. At Bell Labs, the scientists talked about how happy they are to both work in the long-term — in pure research without immediate business application or impact — and to work on current projects that bring their work to the market and give them feedback as a result. There is a new practicality and from what I could see, it’s energizing. In my last parallel, I’ll say that’s what news organizations must do as well: For too long, editorial staffs stood apart from the market and I say the market will give them the feedback they need. Bell Labs is doing this by reviewing the business potential of ideas and setting up incubators where mistakes and learning can happen apart from the risk-killers of big business. News organizations need to incubate new ideas, fail at it sometimes, and then bring the best to market.

The rest of the day was spent on higher science and even this had analogues in the media world. One scientist has studied how spiders make webs to learn how to improve networks. To way oversimplify the work, one lesson learned is that spiders make local measurements to get global information. Isn’t that what happens when Google, Flickr, or gets each of us to make local measurements, and that creates global information? Other scientists talked about quantum computing; see how I inserted this into Saul Hansel’s description of media as quantum mechanics yesterday.

There is good news in all this. We all sensed an impressive new energy and enthusiasm at Bell Labs. We walked through the halls where so many brilliant people invented so much incredible technology and some of the laboratories were empty except for stacks of old cabinets and desks. It’s smaller now. So will news organizations be. But Bell Labs has found ways to innovate, invent, and adapt to a new world. So must newspapers.