Posts about News

Murdoch’s law and the net

Here’s my interview with ABC News Australia and then my discussion with Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review about the fallout from Murdoch’s media law and pressure on the platforms in Australia.The discussion with Mathew occurs on Galley, CJR’s platform for dialog. I’m posting it here because Mathew got me to sum up my views in one place.

Mathew Ingram: Over the past year, Australia has become Ground Zero in the battle over payment for content, since that country is working on a mandatory code that would force Google and Facebook to pay news publishers for using even a small portion of their articles. Both Google and Facebook have threatened to pull some or all of their services from the country if the code goes through as planned, but at the same time, Google has been cutting side deals with larger publishers — not just in Australia, but in France, Germany and a number of other countries — to pay them for featuring their content in its Google News Showcase.

We’re talking this week with journalists and other experts about how we got here and where this whole phenomenon is likely to end. Our next guest is Jeff Jarvis, who is the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York, where he helped create the News Integrity Initiative (which is partially funded by Facebook). Prior to joining CUNY, Jeff was the president and creative director of Advance.net, the online arm of Advance Publications.

Jeff, thanks very much for doing this. Since we began this discussion series, there have been a couple of big developments, and I’d be interested in your thoughts on either or both of them: 1) News Corp. announced it has signed a deal with Google to be paid for its content, and 2) Facebook just announced that it is blocking Australian publishers from posting or sharing news, and blocking users in that country from seeing or sharing any news.

Jeff Jarvis: This is a disappointing day for the internet and for news in many ways.

First, Google: What Google’s payment to News Corp. demonstrates is that media blackmail works. Even if this is not a payment to pay directly for links, this is still a terrible precedent for the net and its architecture and ethic. No one, not Google, not you or I, should be pressured into paying for linking to content. That, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee told Australian authorities, breaks the web. I would have hoped that Google would have stood up for principle — that is for the open net. It’s a company; even I — author of a book called What Would Google Do? — should not expect too much of them. On the one hand, they are not paying for links per se. But they still paid the devil Murdoch. They caved.

As I wrote in Australia’s Crikey, I am also sorely disappointed in my old friends at The Guardian for cynically falling in league with the devil Murdoch. The Guardian was to be Australia’s guardian angel fighting him.

In the end, regulation that tries to take power away from platforms inevitably gives them more. In Europe, under the Right to be Forgotten, Google decides what we may remember. In Germany, under NetzDG, Facebook decides what speech is illegal, outside a courtroom. Now in Australia, Google decides which news organizations should get money. Small sites and startups will suffer for this is a power game; more money goes to the more powerful. I do not think Google cares much about news. There will not be much traffic to its News Showcase. The CPM cost of this — if we knew the amount — would doubtless be extraordinary. This is not a payment for news. It is baksheesh paid to Murdoch, demanded by his bagmen, the politicians in his pocket.

What also disturbs me is that news organizations, which lately turned from utopian in their coverage of technology to dystopian, never reveal their own conflict of interest in their coverage of the net and its current proprietors. The moral panic in media coverage serves media’s ends as this episode sorely demonstrates.

Let us be quite realistic about the use of these funds. It will not go to journalists. It will not improve news. It will go to the rapacious owners and hedge funds that control news companies.

Now Facebook: There are two interpretations. The positive one is that Facebook stood on principle, decided not to cave in to Murdoch’s blackmail (or not again as Zuckerberg already presented a check to News Corp’s Robert Thomson in New York a year ago), and defended the sanctity of the link on the net. The cynical interpretation is that news is a damned pain in the ass for Facebook and this moment allows them to return to a Facebook devoted to puppies, parties, and getting laid. We shall see. I worry, though, about what will happen when your Australian uncle Joe shares disinformation and you are not allowed to combat that by sharing news. I do hope researchers study the impact.

In any case, I am disappointed in the platforms for not adequately defending the principles and freedoms of the net. I am disappointed in news organizations that played along with Murdoch — just as we barely begin to come out of the nightmare he caused in the United States and just as he brings his Fox News-like poison to Australia with Sky News there and to the UK with a new news channel. This is when we in journalism should be shunning and shaming Murdoch and his cronies. Instead, news organizations danced with the devil. I hope the tune was worth the price of their souls.

A bad day for news. A bad day for the net.

Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. It does seem a little odd to me that Facebook has made so much of its commitment to quality news, and its desire to improve the information environment on its platform — Mark Zuckerberg gave a whole speech about his commitment to free speech principles — and yet an entire country has just been blocked from sharing or publishing news. Does that surprise you at all?

Jeff Jarvis: Facebook warned it would do this, so I was not surprised. They had already agreed to pay many companies for full articles for the News Tab (including News Corp.). I guess with this they said there’s no more blood to be squeezed from the stone. Even when they started News Tab, Zuckerberg said they were aware it would not get much traffic; it would be used mainly by news whales (as they call us) like you and me; I interpret that as him saying it would be unprofitable. So this may be Zuckerberg facing down the bully and saying: Enough already.

Or, again, it may be an experiment for the rest of the world. Let’s play this out a bit. I am reminded of the ridiculous front pages of Canadian newspapers last week: blank with the message, “you’ll miss us when we’re gone.” (What a statement of entitlement!) Well imagine a world in which Facebook declares the Australian move a success, making for a more pleasant user experience, and they decide to ban links to news throughout the world. [To be clear, they have not threatened that.] Will we miss them when they’re gone? I think we will.

I want to remind readers that Facebook was not started for news. Our readers took news there because we in our field did not provide the mechanisms for them to share it and discuss it with friends outside of awful comments sections. Twitter was not started for news; our readers, as witnesses to news, chose to share it there. Google was not started for news; our industry could not get its act together (see: New Century Network) to provide an overview of the news ecosystem. We could have started Next Door to allow our local readers to meet with neighbors years ago, but Silicon Valley beat us to it. Our readers deserted us because the net provided mechanisms we did not. And we did not because our colleagues in news have been too busy trying to find new ways to pay for old ways instead.

If I sound the grump today, good.

Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. It seems that the Australian government’s argument — and the argument made by governments in France and Germany, among other countries — is that while publishers have an easy way to not allow Google to index or use their content (the robots.txt file, etc.) they have no choice but to fork over their news because Google’s dominant market position makes it suicide not to do so. But at the same time, its dominance in advertising means the traffic it sends them is worth less and less. A Catch-22 if you will. Any truth to that argument?

Jeff Jarvis: They’re not “forking over their news.” That’s like saying if you take my picture you steal my soul. Publishers are benefitting tremendously from Google and Facebook sending them people — audience, users, potential members or subscribers, consumers, call them what you will. In any rational market, publishers would be paying platforms the way we used to have to pay newsstands. Only Google decided from the first not to sell links in search proper and thus they never created a market value for links. For platforms to do publishers this favor of sending them potential customers, they need to give users a preview with headlines or snippets. We all know that! Indeed, I did research years ago that found the larger the sample, the better the performance of the link; our content is our best ad.

Advertising is indeed going down. We made that bed, too. We in mass media created the attention-based advertising market that the platforms now also use, except they have more data so their ads perform better. I spent years trying to convince news publishers to create means to generate more first-party data with the mechanisms to store, analyze, and use it and I got nowhere because publishers insisted on relying on their old, mass-media ways: plain, old CPM.

And now that publishers are retreating behind paywalls, your argument on their behalf loses some oomph. Google started Subscribe with Google to help them with subscription campaigns, including giving publishers data about best prospects. Sampling is critical — it is the only way — to get subscribers. But now publishers are cutting off their noses to spite their conversion.

Mathew Ingram: Thanks Jeff. You and I both know how difficult things are for media organizations worldwide, including in Australia. Isn’t it better to have a flawed law that compels huge corporations to fund journalism in however roundabout a way, rather than have no one funding them at all?

Jeff Jarvis: Call me a cynic, but this won’t fund journalism. In many cases it will fund hedge fund owners. Have you seen any assurance from the media companies that the money they receive from Google will fund incremental work in reporting and investigation? There is no transparency on the amounts they receive. Will there be any transparency on the use of proceeds?

As you know, my friend, I get hives at the notion of government interference — even if well-intentioned — in speech and particularly in journalism; it’s very American of me. In the Australian case, we have politicians negotiating on behalf of publishers who should be watchdogs with their focus trained on these very officials. We also have big institutions — platforms and government — deciding which news outlets should get money and which should not (see: France).

And I return to the question of entitlement. If countries want to get more tax revenue from companies, should they target a particular industry: the net? If they decide to do that, who is to say that news should be the beneficiary? Why not instead benefit the communities news has harmed, lo many generations? Why not instead fund education or health care or internet access for the poor? Why fund hedgies?

Finally, I fear this money will only delay the inevitable at news companies: that is, death. We have seen that comfort only makes news companies lazy in their ways. Yes, we need to sustain journalism. But entitlement, protectionism, and blackmail are not sustainable models for that future.

Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. We are just about out of time, so one last question. It’s really easy! I definitely agree with you that news companies have blown a lot of opportunities over the years when it comes to the internet, and publishers have lined their own pockets instead. And I might even agree that the Australian code is a back-door way of funding journalism, when an outright tax would be a fairer approach. But if none of these things were to happen, where would that leave the industry? What happens when tens of thousands of news outlets cease to exist or are so poor they can barely function? How do we solve that problem as a society?

Jeff Jarvis: For years, at Newsgeists and Perugia and other such chummy venues, I have told folks from Facebook, Twitter, and especially Google that rather than their money, I wish they would give us the attention, perspective, experience, and challenge of their best and brightest. I wish we would start not with what news was (God didn’t design the newspaper) but with what society needs: better information, yes, but also ways to connect communities, to make strangers less strange, to debate constructively, to listen to each other, to join in a respectful, informed, and productive public conversation. They consistently demurred and said, “Oh, no, we don’t want to be in the position of telling news companies what to do.” Instead, they gave us Instant Articles and AMP; they worked hard to find homes for what we already did rather than pushing us to rethink and reinvent journalism in a new reality to address society’s problems. They succumbed to the blackmail of our bullies and paid the biggest among us. That is no way to invent our future together.

The big lesson of the last four years and especially the last year for me in my nation is that journalism has failed us. The election of Trump — that that could happen — is evidence against us. The fact that #LivingWhileBlack and #BlackLivesMatter as well as #MeToo were revelatory and not long since reported in mass media is an indictment of us. That the inequity of health in this country in the face of pandemic had not been known and dealt with is our guilty plea. That to get traffic we allow extremists and nuts to set the agenda rather than the needs and lives of everyday Americans is an unforgivable sin. So pardon me but I do not worship at the altar of the pressroom. I want to see us reinvent journalism around old needs and new opportunities. I want to see us collaborate with other fields and disciplines: anthropology to explain communitIes, neuroscience and psychology to explain cognition, ethics and philosopHy to guide us, history and humanities to inform us. I have a long-term vision for journalism. I just fear I am too old to see how this will turn out.

Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. And thanks again for taking the time to talk about this with us — much appreciated. Interesting times we live in!

Jeff Jarvis: Thanks, Mathew. Always a pleasure.

Scissors and Murdoch’s cynicism

Just as he broke democracy, Rupert Murdoch is trying to break the internet with his protectionist legislation in Australia to force the platforms to “negotiate” and pay news publishers for the privilege of linking to them, giving them free marketing and audience.

Facebook is threatening to pull news out of its News Feed; Google is threatening to pull out of Australia entirely rather than break the net.

In researching the book I’m writing about the Gutenberg age, I’ve come to see just how cynical the Murdoch law is, for it conveniently ignores the roots of all newspapering, made with scissors and glue and each others’ content.

For about the first century, starting in 1605, newspapers were composed almost entirely of reports copied from mailed newsletters, called avvisi, which publishers promised not to change as they printed excerpts; the value was in the selecting, cutting, and pasting. Before them the avvisi copied each other by hand. These were the first news networks.

In the United States, the Post Office Act of 1792 allowed newspapers to exchange copies in the mail for free with the clear intent of helping them copy and publish each others’ news. In fact, newspapers employed “scissors editors” to compile columns of news from other papers.

In his excellent book, Who Owns the News?: A History of Copyright, Will Slauter tells of a reader coming across Benjamin Franklin Bache, Ben Franklin’s grandson, in 1790 as he put together an edition of the General Advertiser:

There was a great heap of newspapers laying on the table, and on the floor all about you, and you had in your hand a large pair of taylors’ [sic] shears, and there you cut out of other papers as much as you thought would fill yours…. And that’s the way you make money, and then you grumble and tell us how difficult it is for one to be a Printer.

Editors did not complain about being copied because they would copy in turn. The only thing that drove them nuts was not being credited.

In 1902, The Charlotte News set a trap for an unsuspecting scissors editor at a competing paper. The News ran a story about a gang of anarchists from Vladivostok planning to kill “all the prominent rulers of the globe.” (And you thought Q was new.) Police arrested the leader, one Count Robhgien Ruomorf Laetsew. Said The News in a next edition: “If the erudite scissors editor of The Herald had read the ‘story’ carefully, he might have noticed the name of the illustrious ‘Count’ was more understandable when read backward,” as “We steal from our neighbor.”

Note well that the first copyright laws — the Statute of Anne in England in 1710 and the U.S. Copyright Act of 1790 — did not include newspapers. Said Slauter of Congress: “There is no evidence to prove that lawmakers considered including newspapers in the copyright statute and then decided not to, but there is every reason to believe that granting copyright to newspapers would not have made sense to them. Copying is what enabled news to spread….” Not until 1909 in the U.S. did copyright cover newspapers, though even then there was debate as to whether it covered news articles, for they were the product of business more than authorship and it was still believed that the sharing of news was beneficial to the formation of public opinion.

The telegraph changed newspapers’ collegial ways as proprietors formed competing news service and one, the Associated Press, tried and for a time succeeded in court to promulgate a “hot news” doctrine that said the AP could enjoin others from reporting the facts of an event while its story still had market value. This is antithetical not only to the logic of copyright — that it protects only the treatment of information, not the information itself — and to the principles of an enlightened society. In the hot news ruling, INS v. AP, Louis Brandeis dissented:

An essential element of individual property is the legal right to exclude others from enjoying it. If the property is private, the right of exclusion may be absolute; if the property is affected with a public interest, the right of exclusion is qualified. But the fact that a product of the mind has cost its producer money and labor, and has a value for which others are willing to pay, is not sufficient to ensure to it this legal attribute of property. The general rule of law is, that the noblest of human productions — knowledge, truths ascertained, conceptions, and ideas — become, after voluntary communication to others, free as the air to common use.

Let us be clear that even without free mailed exchange of newspapers and scissors editors, every single newspaper and journalistic organization still depends for its life on using the work and words of others. Imagine if newspapers started charging each other for repurposing their reporting. Imagine if sources refused to talk to newspapers without payment for their expertise and time.

Yet today we have publishers on high horses acting as if God granted them copyright and that it should extend even to quoting snippets for the purpose of discussing and linking to the news online, in the process sending news organizations audience and customers — again, for free. Germany has its Leistungsschutzrecht, or ancillary copyright law, which was going to charge the platforms for snippets but came to naught when the publishers chickened out; Spain its link tax, which forced Google News out of the country, hurting only the journalists and the public; the EU its Articles 15 & 17 of the Copyright Directive.

And Australia has its Murdoch law. Let’s imagine it passes and Google pulls out of Australia. Murdoch won’t be hurt; he owns half the news brands in the country; people know where to find them. Without Google and without news in social media, startups and small sites would be hard pressed to get a foothold in the market to compete with Murdoch. Murdoch becomes even more powerful. Coincidence? Hardly.

But Murdoch, as ever, has a larger strategy, trying to undercut what he sees as his competitor, the net, the world around. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, gave testimony to Australian legislators to remind them that “the ability of web users to link to other sites was ‘fundamental to the web’ and that the the proposed media code could break it because they risked setting a precedent that ‘could make the web unworkable around the world’.” Unintended consequence? Hardly.

Need I remind you that Rupert Murdoch is, as I said on the BBC, the single most malign influence in democracy in the English-speaking world. Yet even my old friends at The Guardian, caught up in their moral panic over the net, are aligning with the devil in his quest. Instead of collaborating with Murdoch I argue that we in journalism must clean our house and shame and shun Fox and SkyNews Australia.

Now Canada is threatening to copy Australia, with Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault announcing — on social media, no less —that “we stand in solidarity with our Australian partners” and that “when facing the web giants, we must stand united.” How about standing united for the future of the net, freedom of expression, a diversification of news oligopolies, citizens, and the public conversation?

Google and Facebook are starting to pay news publishers in other countries. But let’s be honest: As I’ve said before, that is the fruit of blackmail, of news publishers cashing in their political capital to threaten platforms with protectionist legislation such as that in Australia to get pay-offs. This is no strategy for the future; it is publishers’ admission of defeat in adapting to the net and building that future themselves. All this pay-off money will do is delay the inevitable fall of their businesses. This is a perspective you will not read in the news because it’s critical of news publishers. It is a conflict of interest never revealed. [My disclosure: Facebook has contributed to projects at my school around news disinformation and quality.]

If you want to portray this as good guys against bad guys and wish to paint big tech platforms as the bad please keep in mind that the force against them is a worse guy. But my concern here is not for Murdoch’s or the publishers’ perfidy, cynicism, and hypocrisy. It is for the future of the net, which depends upon links, neutrality, and openness to bring its power to all the people not represented and not heard in old, mass media. The net is the antidote to their monopoly power and now they are attacking the net.

I gave an interview for the ABC in Australia outlining my fears about Murdoch’s impact on the net. You’ll find a tenth of what I said here.

Attacks on the People’s Press

Donald Trump’s war on TikTok in U.S. and Rupert Murdoch’s on Facebook in Australia are not being seen for their true import: as government attacks on the people’s press, on freedom of expression, on human rights. 

In Australia, Facebook just said that if Murdoch-backed legislation requiring platforms to pay for news is enacted, the company will stop media companies — and users — from posting news on Facebook and Instagram.

Who is hurt there? The public and its conversation. The public loses access to its means of sharing and debating news. Never before in history — never before the internet — has everyone had access to a press; only the privileged had it and now the privileged will rob the people of theirs. Without the people’s press, we would not have #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #OccupyWallStreet and the voices of so many too long not heard. This is a matter of human rights. 

The Australian legislation is a cynical mess. It is bald protectionism by Murdoch and the old, corporate press, requiring platforms to “negotiate” with guns to their heads for the privilege of quoting, promoting, and sending traffic, audience, and tremendous value to news sites. It is illogical. Facebook, Google, et al did not steal a penny from old media. They competed. To say that Facebook owes newspapers is a white plutocrat’s regressive view of reparations; by this logic Amazon owes Walmart who owes A&P who owes the descendents of Luigi’s corner grocery who owes a pushcart vegetable vendor on Hester Street. Facebook owes news nothing. 

This is a case of outrageous regulatory capture on Murdoch’s part. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about news and informed democracy. He, more than any human being alive, has been the scourge of democracy in the English-speaking world. The Australian legislation aims to give money only to large publishers, like Murdoch. If Facebook makes good on its threat and bans news, then the news business as a whole will suffer but the largest players in the field, who have brand recognition — i.e., Murdoch — will gain market share over smaller and newer competitors. Murdoch will be even freer to spread his propaganda. This is an attempt by the old press to impose a Stamp Tax on the new. Facebook is right to resist, just as Google was when Spain imposed its Stamp Tax on links (and Google News left the country). 

Now to Trump’s war on TikTok. This, too, is a matter of freedom of expression. TikTok is, to my mind, the first platform to begin to make us rethink media and the line separating producer and audience, for TikTok is a collaborative platform where people do not just comment on each others content but create together. It is the one social network that Trump and his cultists have not managed to game. It is the platform that has enabled Sarah Cooper and countless citizens to mock Trump. So he hates it and wants to abuse his power to kill it. 

If TikTok goes because of government fiat, so goes Sarah Cooper’s ability to criticize the man who killed it. What could be a clearer violation of the First Amendment? Why is no one screaming this? It’s because, I think, the old press still thinks the meaning of the “press” is a machine that spreads ink. No. The internet is the people’s press. It is a machine that spreads power. 

Keep in mind that none of these platforms was built for news and their lives would all, frankly, be easier without it and the controversy and advertiser repellant it brings. Facebook was built for hookups and party pix. The people decided to use it to share and discuss news. Twitter was built to tell friends where you were drinking. The people decided to use it to share what they witness with the world, to discuss public policy, and to organize movements. Google was built to find web sites, not news, but it added the ability to find news when the people showed they wanted that. YouTube was built to stream silly videos. The people decided they would use it for everything from education to news. TikTok was built to lip-sync music. The people decided they would use it to mock the fool in the White House. 

In every case, media could have built what the platforms did. They could have provided people a place to share what they witness and discuss public issues; instead, they provided dark, dank, neglected corners in which to comment on the journalist’s content. They could have provided a place for communities to meet, gather together, to share, to assemble and act. They did not. They could have provided a place for creators to collaborate but instead they care only about their own creation. News media blew every opportunity. Their publics— their readers, viewers, listeners, users, customers — went elsewhere to take advantage of the power the internet offered them. Platforms shared that power with the public. Publishers did not. The platforms owe the publishers nothing. The publishers owe their publics apologies. 

Now, of course, cynical Murdoch and his media mates found an ideal foil in Mark Zuckerberg because, these days, nobody likes Mark, right? Why is that? In part, of course, it’s because Mark is incredibly rich and not terribly telegenic and because he cannot control the bucking bronco he is riding. But it is also because of media’s narrative about him: that he is suddenly the cause of societal ills that have been around since man learned to talk. Please keep in mind when you read media stories about Facebook that even if subconsciously, reporters are writing from a position of jealous conflict of interest. Murdoch, more than any publisher this side of Germany, has sicced his troops on Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the internet, which they believe has robbed them of their manifest destiny and dollars. 

Necessary disclosure: Facebook has funded projects related to disinformation and news at my school, some of them reaching an end. I receive nothing personally from Facebook or any technology company, other than free drinks at the conferences they hold to help the news industry. I am accused of defending Facebook, though Facebook does always not make it easy to defend and I’m often critical of it. What I am defending is the internet and the power it gives citizens at last. What I am defending is the people’s press. 

I would like to hear First Amendment lawyers and scholars in the U.S. and human-rights advocates the world around defend the people’s press from attacks in the Philippines, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Hungary, Turkey, Belarus, Brazil — and in the United States and Australia. 

None of this is new. Every time there is a new technology that enables more people to speak, those who controlled the old technology — and the power it afforded — try to prevent the people they see as interlopers from sharing that power. It happened when scribe Filippo de Strata tried to convince the doge of Venice to outlaw the press and the drunken Germans who brought it to Italy. Princes tried to grant printing monopolies to allies. Popes and kings and autocrats of late banned and burned books and the people who wrote them. England had the Stationers Company license and censor authorized publishing. Charles II tried to close coffeehouses to shut off the discussion of news in them. American newspaper publishers tried to have new radio competitors banned from broadcasting news. Each time, eventually, they lost. For speech will out. 

Teapot and lid. Left side is marked “America: Liberty Restored” and right side is marked “No Stamp Act.” 2006.0229.01ab.

The history of print, media & journalism in 45 minutes

Here is a video I made for all our incoming students at the Newmark Journalism School about the history of media and journalism. In years past, I’ve had the high honor an opportunity to brainwash the entire incoming classes in orientation, giving them some context, history, and theory of journalism. It is usually a string of all-morning discussions. But what with COVID, it was decided that this year, staring at my face for three hours straight would be inhuman, and so I recorded the substance of each session as a video for later discussion.

In this one, I start with movable type and cover a half-millennium of history, up through the creation of the newspaper, steam and the penny press and mass, the telegraph and broadcast.

I made other videos about the business of journalism and the role and goals of the journalist that I’ll post later.

Stop. Stop the presses.


At the end of an exceptional first week for our new program in News Innovation and Leadership at the Newmark J-school, the students — five managing editors, a VP, a CEO, and many directors among them — said they learned much from teachers and speakers, yes, but the greatest value likely came from each other, from the candid lessons they all shared.

When I first proposed this program about four years ago, I suggested it should offer a smorgasbord of courses to be taken at will. Then I was fortunate enough to recruit Anita Zielina, the ideal news executive, to create and run it. She said (nicely) that I was wrong and that the program had to revolve around a tight cohort of students sharing their education together. She was so right. This week, I watched this group build trust, respect, and empathy — and a common store of knowledge and insight … as well as exasperation.

Next Saturday in Philadelphia, the Tow-Knight Center at Newmark, will take part in the first meeting of an international gathering of product leaders in the news business. Our involvement grows out of one of a handful of communities of practice my colleague Hal Straus has been running for a few years, bringing top product, audience, commerce, and talent-and-inclusion executives in New York together to share — and sympathize — with each other. Aron Pilhofer at Temple and Damon Kiesow at Mizzou generously offered to include us in a collaboration to build a national product organization whose aim is to answer the question, “How do we make news organizations more audience-oriented, data-driven, and product-focused?” In short, how do we save the news business?

These people — like the Social Journalism students I wrote about so proudly last month— are our innovators. They will be our leaders. But they are frustrated by the state of the business and, of course, now and then by their bosses. They see the imperative for change; they have ideas; they are eager to run. But where? What frustrates them — and, in fairness, their bosses — is that the solutions are not evident and thus finding them requires risk, experimentation, failure, and investment of capital we do not have, capital we can acquire these days only from others who bring their own goals and agendas. Does this mean it may require letting some institutions burn to the ground so a radically new journalism can be built from the ashes?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about Gutenberg and the birth and long progress of printing toward its eclipse in our age of digital data and connectivity. And so this morning I came across an article by Otto Fuhrmann, a book and Gutenberg historian and former director of graphic arts at NYU, in the 1926 edition of the Gutenberg Gesellschaft Jahrbuch (Gutenberg Society Yearbook). He wrote about the New York Club of Printing House Craftsmen in a lovely evocation on the value of sharing in our field, which we used to call printing.

“The times are not so far distant when every foreman or executive jealously guarded his technical ‘secrets’, in the mistaken idea that by doing so he would make himself indispensable to his employer,” Fuhrmann writes.

So it was quite natural that the younger element should find out that a business can be run without secrecy, as long as the essential facts are recognized and dealt with. A friend working in a competitor’s shop did not cease to be a friend just because his employer did not like the other employer. And the men [sic*] who had the same or similar problems to meet in the actual running of their employers’ businesses found that an exchange of views and ideas benefitted them without hurting their employers.

It is true that employers first frowned upon the very idea to have their foremen meet other foremen…. However this prejudice is gradually disappearing, in the same measure as the spirit of cooperation and fair dealing, instead of the old method of slamming a competitor, is growing. Naturally, a large city like New York was the best place in which to inaugurate the craftsman idea, and it succeeded as it deserved.

Indeed.

Fuhrmann attributes its success in part to “a gradual change in business ethics that has taken place in the last 15 years.”

This change is signified by the word “service”. It meant, fundamentally, a complete change from the old standpoint of the producer or seller that the customer had to take the goods as they were offered, or do without them. The technique of advertising became more refined, and instead of forcing goods on an unwilling customer it became a fine art, all over the business world, to find out what a customer wanted and to satisfy his desires…. Developed to the n-th degree, “service” today often means anticipating the client’s wishes…

There is nothing new. I have been arguing for years that we should see journalism not as the manufacture of a commodity — content — but instead as a service. Here is Fuhrmann in 1926 arguing the same for printing. And that is the argument made by product people (though I’ll contend that their self-anointed label is a misnomer, for their craft is all about understanding customers’ needs and desires so as to serve them; they don’t make products so much as they serve people).

Fuhrmann notes that he is writing about his craft in a time of deep disruption. The Linotype had been patented only 40 years before. Rotary presses and dry stereotyping came about the same time. Paper made from pulp came not long before. Thus the business of publishing changed greatly, becoming a mass medium. In the shop, all these technologies spread and robbed the craftsman — whose heritage was in centuries of hand composition and hand presses — of their sense of control of their art.

The increasing mechanization tended to lower the skill and to narrow the range of the individuals in the printing business. It came to the point where specialization made it hard to find good all-around craftsmen. So it can be seen that the time was ripe and the background prepared for an attempt to bring the essential factors in our industry together for frank discussion and study of their problems.

What was needed, says Fuhrmann, was for executives to have a full understanding of every technology of the industry — “he must know enough about paper, engraving, electros, binding and finishing processes” — and perspectives from other fields. “That calls for real men of no mean calibre; and, of course, the man with the greatest fund of knowledge and resourcefulness will be the most successful one.”

And so, the club. According to Fuhrmann, monthly meetings began with dinner and entertainment to provide “a good antidote against the tension and the strain of business work and furnish a background for good-fellowship.” The building of a cohort, in our modern tongue. “We particularly lay stress upon the educational feature,” with guests and lectures. And they had an annual dinner dance. (There’ll be no dancing in Philadelphia.) The club, together with other trade associations — the New York Employing Printers’ Association and the Typographical Union — operated well-equipped schools for compositors’ apprentices and “a training course for foremen in the science of modern business management,” with employers “glad to pay the entire amount of tuition, knowing that the benefit to the foremen would ultimately redound to the firm many times over.”

And so, we attempt the same today in our rapidly changing field with meetings and communities of practice and training of journalists and managers. The difference is that from 1926, printing qua printing grew, tremendously so. Its methods and means changed significantly, which had considerable impact on the product and the profession. But it was still printing.

Today, we are leaving the business of printing and text, of content and publication, even of authoring and storytelling. But, let’s be honest, we still refuse to admit it. So the solutions talked about in classes and conferences are all incremental, aimed at getting bosses and boards to allow us to change what we have done enough to keep doing it, to save what we knew rather than start on what we don’t yet know.

Stop. Stop the presses.

The death of the newspaper has been often foretold. Yes, they are still around us. But I must ask to my Twitter peril, are they better off dead than in the hands of hedgies who milk every last drop of ink, sweat, and blood from the end of the diminishing tribe of (pardon me) craftsmen of our field? Are we better off if they die so newspapers and magazines and broadcast channels are not reinvented but journalism can be?

I take full blame myself for not being radical enough in seeking new definitions of journalism. But even that confession is hubristic. For perhaps these definitions are not new but only new to us. Perhaps they should come from other fields — anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, design, philosophy — to help us envision an entirely new service to the public and its conversation. We who have the luxury and privilege of time and salary in universities should reach out to other fields to seek new expressions of society’s goals and problems and new ways to meet them using the new tools at hand.

So when all the young leaders we are gathering above who are eager to run and ask “where?” we should be ready not with answers, for we do not have them, but with audacious suggestions: Try here, try there. Try using the tools of the net and data and listen to the public we serve in new ways. Try understanding how people make decisions individually and together (even against their self-interest) and how to improve what they decide. Try listening to, valuing, and serving the people and communities who were long ignored and left unserved by our old industry, mass media. Try using the tools of connectivity to enhance the public conversation. Try new measures of value based not on our products but on how we help people improve their communities and lives.

And when they try and fail — as they must — we should offer support, convincing their bosses and boards or new funders that there is promise in this direction or that, but only if we explore. Along this journey — which I believe will be long, generations or even centuries long — we need to provide the means to bring together these brave new leaders not just to teach them what we know (so they may challenge it) but also to enable them to teach each other, to share.


* I will apologize for the sexist language of the period and then leave it unchanged and unremarked upon as it presents a picture of a past.