'Riptide' project explains how legacy media got washed out to sea by digital currents

A massive oral history of the digital disruption of legacy journalism models, released Sunday, contends that big news companies made early, repeated and well-funded attempts to adapt to the digital era but have been overwhelmed by bigger forces.

The work, titled "Riptide," is likely to be controversial. Its authors -- John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan -- did the study as Shorenstein fellows at Harvard and have published it on the Nieman Journalism Lab site. They interviewed a group of 60 people, noticeably lacking in diversity.

There is very little "mea culpa" and a lot of "it made sense to us at the time" on display. While not elegiac, Huey, Nisenholtz and Sagan clearly tilt to the view -- well-articulated by Washington Post Editor Marty Baron -- that democracy is damaged as fewer professional journalists do what professional journalists do best.

But the authors are careful also to give attention to the viewpoint of the disruptors -- including some like Business Insider's Henry Blodget -- who make the case that a distributed and aggregated system of news works fine, and the withering of traditional journalism is thus no great loss:

There’s a big argument right now about what’s going on in the news business. There are two big different opinions. One is that news is dying. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. Who is going to do the hard reporting? Newspapers are caving in. How is the world going to police itself? That’s one. The other is what’s actually happening: The amount of news that’s being created has been increased by a hundredfold over the last five years. People are absolutely drowning in it. That’s the one I subscribe to.

Anybody with an opinion can tweet. They can blog, or they can go online…. In the old world through 1995, media organizations were the equivalent of a hydrant in the desert. They controlled the vital information flow. They had tremendous power because they were the gateway. Now, we are a hydrant in the ocean. Media organizations are often still coming at it from the point of view of “Wait, we get to choose what’s important. People should consume it because we say it’s important.” The point I’m making here is there is so much out there to consume right now that you actually have to build something that people like. People do not want to have to eat spinach because it’s good for them. They simply won’t. There are too many options.

To the extent that the report has a conclusion, it is fully embodied in Huey's Riptide metaphor, implying that right now there are scattered successes among newspapers and magazines trying to adapt, but the majority are flailing.

Predicting what will come next, the authors pretty much punt. The fifteenth and final chapter of their essay is titled "Time Will Tell" -- a wry nod, as I read it, to a classic cop-out for writers of thumb-suckers. And they give the last word to Slate founder Mike Kinsley and Nick Lemann with a vague optimistic thesis that this will work out somehow.

But that final chapter does harness some forward-looking insights from the interviews. I was particularly struck by Atlantic Chairman and Owner David Bradley's insights about what is wrong with pinning hope for saving journalism on rich patrons like himself. Doing less with less as revenues slide is a formula for disaster, Bradely argues, and finding a way to again grow revenues again is essential:

(It was) "deeply unsatisfying, to me, to keep putting out something that was failing against any commercial standard. But I also don’t think it’s a healthy thing for the enterprise. You end up with two bad things going on. One bad thing is that it can never grow. No matter how wealthy the fund is or the person is that’s going to subsidize it, there’s going to be a finite amount of money in the trust. It’s going to produce a finite amount of income. You end up creating an enterprise that operates at that level, and then the next year, when things cost more, it will operate at that level but a little more tightly squeezed and the next year a little more tightly squeezed.

David Bradley on his career journey and how he became an online publisher.

We saw that with The Atlantic, with [owner Mort] Zuckerman. He was genuinely generous with the enterprise, but he had a limit of how much he was going to spend on it, which was about $4 million in a bad year. The Christmas party had become a potluck supper, where everybody brings his own. They had not been able to afford the high-end writers. They had lost people like…Nick Lemann had moved on when the contract wasn’t competitive enough. They were increasingly publishing the works of academics who didn’t charge for the pieces or charged at a lower per-word rate.

One thing you end up with is a ceiling on the growth and a meaner and meaner culture. “Meaner” in the sense of tighter, financially. The other thing that happens is, they get whimsical and quirky. Since there’s no external standard to which you have to perform, you can publish whatever you want. You can report whatever you want. You can do the indulgences of the aggregate of your talent base.

There’s something really good about The New York Times waking up in the morning, going, “We’re not breaking the news we used to break. We’re being scooped by these people. Furthermore, we’re losing this talent. Everybody meet in the conference room at 8:15 because we have to figure out what we’re going to do.” Those kind of crisis moments which the for-profit sector forces on you relentlessly.

Bradley's solution for The Atlantic was to combine his own deep expertise in staging profitable events with former president Justin Smith's flair for digital innovations. The Atlantic has started growing again, keeping stars of its existing staff, adding many more and now creating new publications like the business site Quartz.

That option may be perfect for the scale of the Atlantic but not so adaptable to a metro newspaper. Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham, interviewed this spring before the sale of the flagship paper to Jeff Bezos, put it this way:

One of the questions that faces places like The Times and The Post, but I want to come back to local newspapers broadly, is…there any kind of a plus to a news organization in having really high-quality reporting and editing? I’m pretty sure the answer to that is yes, but we have not figured it out.

From the digital disruptors, the authors glean several insights on what's likely not to work for legacy media trying to adapt. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo suggests:

The benefit that the journalists have over the technologists is their ability to do these in-depth, content-rich analyses and essays around things. Instead, they’ve tried to optimize, in many cases, for, “We have to be the fastest and the first and the best distributors.” But the technology’s always going to be the fastest and the first and the best distributors. The technologists are going to be particularly bad at the in-depth analysis and the content and the thoughtful reporting….There haven’t been enough attempts to monetize that as opposed to trying to compete with the technologists at being fast.

And similarly, reporter turned venture capitalist Mike Moritz says: 

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.

These thoughts dovetail nicely with the big media story of the day -- how Bezos will try to transform the Washington Post and whether he will succeed. Like the authors, Bezos seems to see continued commitment to quality journalism, better integration of engineering into the legacy operation and patient experimentation as the likely path to a strong future. 

My sampling of an advance copy of Riptide focused on what it says about the present and future -- but that's really only a slice of the content. Both the authors' essays and the interviews devote heavy attention to a 35-year history of digital news efforts, reaching back to the days of teletext and Knight-Ridder's Viewtron experiment. You can read their synthesis or simply sample interviews -- in video or transcribed -- and in any order you choose.

It is worthwhile as a first pass at history and ought to be a resource for future scholars of this era, though the progression seems to be anything but linear. I am left wondering, for example, what the dominance of AOL in the late 90s says about the new cast of potent tech companies today. Could Google and Facebook be dimly remembered artifacts 15 years from now?

The conversation continues at a forum at Harvard University Monday evening (available here as a livestream). The authors will interview Tim Armstrong, former Google ad chief now CEO of AOL; New York Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger; and Caroline Little, a former digital executive at The Washington Post and the Guardian, and now CEO of the Newspaper Association of America.

This got me thinking: If you put Armstrong's digital advertising expertise behind a better content idea than Patch, drew on the journalism chops of the Times, and had NAA more fully repositioned as an explorer of the future, would that produce the outlines of a bright future for legacy journalism?

We'll see about that after the event. And time will tell.

(Disclosure: I knew Huey when I was in the magazine business in the mid 1980s just before he joined Time Warner. He also has served on Poynter's National Advisory Board).

Related: "Riptide is great -- but where's the diversity?"


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