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.

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  • Jeff,
    Just wanted to pick up on your comment concerning emotional responses to the paper’s ongoing commitment to operating imagining a world in their own image; I absolutely agree… How can the continuing ignorance of industries, including the print industry as described above, not incite anger? Unfortunately, there are a number of industries, particularly in the UK, which continue to bury their heads in the sand in the desparate hope that the Internet will simply pass them by. I find this hugely frustrating…

    I fail to understand the logic behind the mentality mindlessly supporting industries which instigate their own downfall. The only reason these industry even begin to experience failure is that they begin to lose their competitive edge. More often than not, this is brought upon themselves. Whilst I have nothing against these industries, I find it incredible that they continue to ignore obvious electronic developments, attempting instead to energise their reader base into resisiting the inevitable future. Why not simply focus their efforts on regaining their competitiveness?

    How can we not be frustrated by these failings?


  • invitedmedia

    “did the internet cripple the auto industry? hell no.”

    hell yes!

    the cost of a new car is so f’in inflated because no one has allowed market forces to take the dozen or so deadweight links out of the sales chain.

    who needs ‘dealers’ nowadays?

    i mentioned “nearly 1000 completed vehicles simply gathering snow” the other day when we past a SINGLE ford factory. extrapolate that over the entire number of detroit3 mfg’s and their “network” of dealers and you’ll have a quite a number of unsold hoopdies!

    JIT (just in time) delivery of parts is mandatory in the industry today (mostly supported by computer programs), but once the iron is built, the company(s) have them “on hand” for roughly 70 days before they are sold (that days-to-sale figure is bound to rise!).

    why can’t i order the specific car i want online and have it delivered?

    there’s probably $10k in cost savings there.

    as for those who say corp. execs. “don’t get it”, i disagree. they get it, but it’s more convenient to actually build their approach to the future (internet) to fail so they can say to their shareholders at their annual meeting “see, that damn internet thing is not going to work”. which might explain why mr. jarvis was canned from way back when.

  • invitedmedia

    suggest what you will… the production line moves the same speed with JIT parts going in. it can move at the same speed with JIT delivery (or built-to-order).

    wonder where a ton of the gmac bailout $$$ are going? floor planning the zillions of cars parked on lots throughout the us.

    how’s that for econ 101, a-wipe?

  • I love the whole piece because it brings forth a more complete nuanced view far improved from the “we spoke, they ignored” storyline – which – as a participant – you know.

    It would be great to hear some personal reflections of your time back then Jeff.

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  • Shafer’s piece is a good take on the newspapers’ fundamentally defensive approach to the new medium, but I have to take at least mild issue with one of his points:

    “It’s a tribute to newspapers and their keen sense of the future that they quickly determined that the online services would never attract the masses they desired.”

    No, actually, they missed a big lesson because they weren’t paying attention. Having been at CompuServe, and knowing a lot of AOLers, it was no mystery to us at the time that the core attraction for early users of the online services was communications. If a newbie started using e-mail, bulletin boards, chat, and user generated file libraries – in other words, all the things we now lump under ‘community’ – they were likely to be a long term loyal customer. Reading published content did not predict user retention.

    The papers and other MSM going online thought that Content was King. It wasn’t, it was bait. Consumers might sign up thinking they were getting sports scores, breaking news, stock prices and homework help online, but the operators knew they had to be switched over to community functions as the core value. (That may sound bass-ackwards today, but imagine the marketing costs of trying to convince Joe and Jane Doe they should pay for e-mail and chat when they didn’t yet know what it was.)

    The value proposition hasn’t changed from old style online to the Internet. Community and communications are still the core values, which is an idea Jeff’s being trying to get across here for a while. The newspapers walked away from online without ever figuring out that fact, or how they fit into such a world.

  • I.F. Stoner

    Tim Oren said: “Community and communications are still the core values..”

    Well put, and this goes to the heart of the problem JJ underscores. The arrogant [email protected] at MSM simply tried to graft their old echo-chamber models onto the web with disastrous results. “We went to Ivy League schools…we are reporters and therefore smarter than you…we’ll answer your comments or complaints when we are damned good and ready…we are really the players behind the newsmakers…we don’t care what you [the reader] think”…

    Let me illustrate with a true story:
    a wire service reporter friend calls me in tears after the New York Times totally garbled her copy on their web site. It made a hash out of a newsmaker’s quote and worse, had her byline, though she had nothing to do with the bowdlerized copy. She called the NYT three times and got automatically dumped into a condescending voice mail. She emailed the web editors at the time whose Outlook generated generic auto-replies. Meanwhile her source is screaming at her, threatening her with libel suits for something she didn’t publish.

    It took THREE DAYS for the NYT to do someething. And what did they do? *poof* down the memory hole, they just removed the page. No explanation, no apology, no trashline for correction, no polite note of apology: nothing. Just liuke CNN’s phony Gaza video this week, it simply disappeared. Thank g-d for Google cache and Wayback.

    The MSM wants all the benefits of instant news from the web, but fails to acknowledge that there is a concommittant responsibility to be responsive to all readers with just as much speed and transparency.

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  • JOtisJr

    What’s tragic and dispiriting is that the same spirit of “it’s not our job to understand this Internet thing” *still* prevails in many established media operations. For the past year, I’ve been listening to newsroom managers and our online editor explain to reporters why they can’t have their email addresses posted online and why, furthermore, no comments are allowed on the two or three blogs we’ve rather timorously started. Their argument is that allowing the audience to interact to freely with newspeople would just be too messy, too fraught with possibilities of saying the wrong thing. Of course, the layoffs and letting the world go on by — not messy at all.