Inventions and opportunities lost

I ran out of time this morning before I had a chance to praise Jack Shaffer’s piece about newspapers’ failure to invent the web and reinvent themselves. Talk about burying the lead: His best lines came in his kicker:

From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repurposing the copy, values, and temperament found in their ink-and-paper editions. Despite being early arrivals, despite having spent millions on manpower and hardware, despite all the animations, links, videos, databases, and other software tricks found on their sites, every newspaper Web site is instantly identifiable as a newspaper Web site. By succeeding, they failed to invent the Web.

As Adrian Monck points out, this is really just another chapter in the ongoing soap opera about the culpability of journalists for the state of journalism today.

Shafer is inspired by Pablo Boczkowski’s 2004 book Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers and I have in my hand his thick and thoughtful 2001 dissertation on the topic. He chronicles attempts by papers to figure out and adapt to new media as it (they) emerged, including the creation of’s Community Connection, which I lead and which died soon after Pablo wrote his treatise. It was one attempt among many to figure out the internet. And it’s one of the indictments against my tenure in online newspapers, for it was an attempt to be too controlling over the creation of communities. In my book, I quote Clay Shirky and Mark Zuckerberg as I learned that newspapers don’t create communities but might be lucky enough to serve them.

So there were many attempts by papers to adapt. There were many mistakes. Mine were among them. And so – to address Shafer and Monck – the question remains whether newspapers tried hard enough. Shafer says they may have tried but they barked up wrong trees.

I am accused by some of dancing on the graves of journalists’ jobs, of being happy that papers are dying. That’s not true. It’s a willful misinterpretation. If I have an emotion associated with newspapers’ fall – and I’m not sure I do – it’s anger and disappointment at what Shafer describes as papers’ failure to think past a world seen in their own image, to bring news into the future and give it adequate stewardship.

For every honest attempt to change that Shafer and Boczkowski talk about, I saw many more efforts to avoid and even torpedo change: newspaper editors and executives who told me that it was not their job to help this internet thing, to share content with the internet, to link to anyone else on the internet, to interact with readers on the internet, to rethink their procedures because of the internet, to teach new skills because of the internet, to promote the internet, and on and on. I saw too many direct attempts to subvert the future. That’s where the fault lies.

So Shafer’s quite right that newspapers failed because they couldn’t think past seeing the web as an extension of their past – they insisted in seeing the internet in their own image. But there’s more to the story.