Tag Archives: Huffington Post

Tales of two newspapers, one rising, one falling

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 8.32.23 AMOn the East Coast, The Washington Post is in the midst of a revival that could return the storied newspaper to its former status as a serious competitor to The New York Times for national and international news. On the West Coast, the Orange County Register is rapidly sinking into the pit from which it had only recently crawled.

The two contrasting stories are told by the Columbia Journalism Review’s Michael Meyer, who writes about the Post in the early months of the Jeff Bezos era, and Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly, who’s been all over Aaron Kushner since his arrival as the Register’s principal owner in 2012.

First the Post, which has been the subject of considerable fascination since Amazon founder Bezos announced last August (just a few days after John Henry said he would buy The Boston Globe) that he would purchase the paper from the Graham family for $250 million.

Bezos’ vision, as best as Meyer could discern (Bezos, as is his wont, did not give him an interview), is to leave the journalists alone and work on ways to expand the Post’s digital audience across a variety of platforms. Meyer describes a meeting that Bezos held in Seattle with executive editor Marty Baron and other top managers:

Baron says he came away from the weekend in Seattle with a clear sense of what the Post’s mission would be in the coming year: It had to have “a more expansive national vision” in order to achieve the ultimate goal of substantially growing its digital audience. Baron brought this directive back to the newsroom, and the editors set about building a plan for 2014, a year managing editor Kevin Merida dubbed “the year of ambition.” At one point in the budgeting process, Bezos even admonished the leadership for not thinking big enough. “I think that we had been in the mode of sort of watching our pennies,” Baron told me. “We were just being more cautious at the beginning so he came back with an indication that we should be more ambitious.”

Among the more perplexing moves (to me at least) that the Post has made under Bezos has been to cut deals with more than 100 daily papers across the country so that paid subscribers to those papers would receive free digital access to the Post as well. Locally, the papers include the Portland Press Herald as well as Digital First Media’s papers, such as The Sun of Lowell, The Berkshire Eagle and the New Haven Register.

Journalistically, it’s a good deal for subscribers, since they get free access to a high-quality national news source. But no money changes hands. So how is it any better for the Post than simply offering a free advertiser-supported website, as it did until instituting a metered paywall last year? Meyer tells me by email that “the reason they are doing this is for customer data. A logged in, regular user is a lot more data rich than someone who just happens across your site from time to time.” He adds:

Data is the key difference between this program and just having a free website. And another key difference to my mind is psychological. The readers of partner newspapers feel like they’re being given something that would otherwise not be free. This adds value in terms of how they view their subscriptions to their home newspapers. And also adds value in terms of how they view the Post’s content. My guess is they will use the service more as a result.

And as Meyer writes in his story, “Anyone interested in seeing how consumer data might be used in the hands of Jeff Bezos can go to Amazon.com and watch the company’s algorithms try to predict their desires.”

aaron-kushner-orange-county-register-financial-crisis.9842609.87The story Gustavo Arellano tells about Aaron Kushner and the Orange County Register has become well-known in recent weeks, in large measure because of Arellano’s own coverage in the OC Weekly. Kushner has spent 2014 rapidly dismantling what he spent 2012 and 2013 building up.

As I wrote recently in The Huffington Post, it makes no sense to invest in growth unless you have enough money to wait and see how it plays out, which is clearly the case with Bezos at the Post and Henry at the Globe — and which now is clearly not the case with Kushner and the Register.

The Orange County meltdown was also the subject of an unusually nasty blog post earlier this month by Clay Shirky, who criticized Ryan Chittum of the CJR and Ken Doctor of Newsonomics and the Nieman Journalism Lab for overlooking the weaknesses in Kushner’s expansion. (Chittum and Doctor wrote detailed, thoughtful responses, and I’ve linked to both of them in the comments of a piece I wrote about the kerfuffle for WGBHNews.org.)

Arellano has gotten hold of some internal documents that make it clear that Kushner’s expansionary dreams were doomed from the start. He also paints a picture of a poisoned newsroom and offers lots of anonymous quotes to back it up.

“I wouldn’t say I got hoodwinked,” he quotes one former staff member as saying, “but it’s just another lesson of life: If it’s too good to be true, it is.”

I recently criticized Arellano for his overreliance on anonymous quotes, although I freely concede that I used them regularly when I was covering the media for The Boston Phoenix in the 1990s and the early ’00s. This time, he includes a clear explanation of why almost none of his sources would go on the record: fear of “reprisal or the endangerment of their buyout, which included a nondisclosure clause.” Given that, I think the story is stronger with the quotes than without.

Arellano writes:

In retrospect, it seems obvious Kushner set himself up for failure, like a Jenga tower depending on every precariously placed block. He installed himself as publisher despite having no previous newspaper experience. A hard paywall — his most controversial move — was erected to force readers to buy the print edition in an era when online content is king. To justify that, Kushner plunged into a hiring binge that saw the Register sign up hundreds of employees even though it didn’t have the revenue to pay them. To fund his vision, the sales department was tasked with selling all those points despite an industry-wide decline in print advertising during the past decade.

It’s a sad, ugly moment for a tale that began so optimistically. As for whether this will prove to be the end of the story — well, it sure looks that way, although Kushner insists he’s merely slowed down. After two years of hiring binges and layoffs, the launch and virtual folding of the Long Beach Register, and the inexplicably odd decision to start a Los Angeles Register to compete with the mighty Times, Kushner is clearly down to his last chance — if that.

Disruptive innovation and the future of news

type_cabinets

Photo via ElationPress.com.

Previously published at Medium.

Toward the end of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen’s influential 1997 book about why good companies sometimes fail, he writes, “I have found that many of life’s most useful insights are often quite simple.”

Indeed, the fundamental ideas at the heart of his book are so blindingly self-evident that, in retrospect, it is hard to imagine it took a Harvard Business School professor to describe them for the first time. And that poses a problem for Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who recently wrote a scathingly critical essay about Christensen’s theories for the New Yorker titled “The Disruption Machine.” Call it the Skeptic’s Dilemma.

Christensen offers reams of data and graphs to support his claims, but his argument is easy to understand. Companies generally succeed by improving their products, upgrading their technology, and listening to their customers — processes that are at the heart of what Christensen calls “sustaining innovations.” What destroys some of those companies are “disruptive innovations” — crude, cheap at first, attacking from below, and gradually (or not) moving up the food chain. The “innovator’s dilemma” is that companies sometimes fail not in spite of doing everything right, but because they did everything right.

Some examples of this phenomenon make it easy to understand. Kodak, focusing its efforts on improving photographic film and paper, paid no attention to digital technology (invented by one of its own engineers), which at first could not compete on quality but which later swallowed the entire industry. Manufacturers of mainframe computers like IBM could not be bothered with the minicomputer market developed by companies like Digital Equipment Corporation; and DEC, in turn, failed to adapt to the personal computer revolution led by the likes of Apple and, yes, IBM. (Christensen shows how the success of the IBM PC actually validates his ideas: the company set up a separate, autonomous division, far from the mothership, to develop its once-ubiquitous personal computer.)

Clay Christensen in 2011. Photo (cc) by Betsy Weber. Some rights reserved.

Clay Christensen in 2011. Photo (cc) by Betsy Weber. Some rights reserved.

Christensen has applied his theories to journalism as well. In 2012 he wrote a long essay for Nieman Reports in collaboration with David Skok, a Canadian journalist who was then a Nieman Fellow and is now the digital adviser to Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, and James Allworth, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review. In the essay, titled “Breaking News,” they describe how Time magazine began in the 1920s as a cheaply produced aggregator, full of “rip-and-read copy from the day’s major publications,” and gradually moved up the journalistic chain by hiring reporters and producing original reportage. Today, they note, websites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, which began as little more than aggregators, have begun “their march up the value network” in much the same way as Time some 90 years ago.

And though Christensen, Skok, and Allworth don’t say it explicitly, Time magazine, once a disruptive innovator and long since ensconced as a crown jewel of the quality press, is now on the ropes — cast out of the Time Warner empire, as David Carr describes it in the New York Times, with little hope of long-term survival.

***

INTO THIS SEA of obviousness sails Lepore, an award-winning historian and an accomplished journalist. I am an admirer of her 1998 book The Name of War: King Philip’s War and American Identity. Her 2010 New Yorker article on the Tea Party stands as a particularly astute, historically aware examination of a movement that waxes and wanes but that will not (as Eric Cantor recently learned) go away.

Lepore pursues two approaches in her attempted takedown of Christensen. The first is to look at The Innovator’s Dilemma as a cultural critic would, arguing that Christensen popularized a concept — “disruption” — that resonates in an era when we are all fearful of our place in an uncertain, rapidly changing economy. In the face of that uncertainty, notions such as disruption offer a possible way out, provided you can find a way to be the disruptor. She writes:

The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.

The second approach Lepore pursues is more daring, as she takes the fight from her turf — history and culture — to Christensen’s. According to Lepore, Christensen made some key mistakes. The disk-drive companies that were supposedly done in by disruptive innovators eating away at their businesses from below actually did quite well, she writes. And she claims that his analysis of the steel industry is flawed by his failure to take into account the effects of labor strife. “Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable,” Lepore argues.

Jill Lepore. Publicity photo from her Harvard bio.

Jill Lepore. Publicity photo from her Harvard bio.

But Lepore saves her real venom for the dubious effects she says the cult of disruption has had on society, from financial services (“it led to a global financial crisis”) to higher education (she partly blames a book Christensen co-authored, The Innovative University, for the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, of which she takes a dim view) to journalism (one of several fields, she writes, with “obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings”).

Christensen has not yet written a response; perhaps he will, perhaps he won’t. But in an interview with Drake Bennett of Bloomberg Businessweek, he asserts that it was hardly his fault if the term “disruption” has become overused and misunderstood:

I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years. And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking — in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways.

As for the “egregious” behavior of which he accuses Lepore, Christensen is especially worked up that she read The Innovator’s Dilemma, published 17 years ago, yet seems not to have read any of his subsequent books — books in which he says he continued to develop and refine his theories about disruptive innovation. He defends his data. And he explains his prediction that Apple’s iPhone would fail (a prediction mocked by Lepore) by saying that he initially thought it was a sustaining innovation that built on less expensive smartphones. Only later, he says, did he realize that it was a disruptive innovation aimed at laptops — less capable than laptops, but also cheaper and easier to carry.

“I just missed that,” he tells Bennett. “And it really helped me with the theory, because I had to figure out: Who are you disrupting?”

Christensen also refers to Lepore as “Jill” so many times that Bennett finally asks him if he knows her. His response: “I’ve never met her in my life.”

***

CHRISTENSEN’S DESCRIPTION of how his understanding of the iPhone evolved demonstrates a weakness of disruption theory: It’s far easier to explain the rise and fall of companies in terms of sustaining and disruptive innovations after the fact, when you can pick them apart and make them the subject of case studies.

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They Posted Clickbait So They’d All Get Rich. What Happened Next Made Them Cry.

WGBH forum

From left: Raney Aronson Rath, deputy executive producer of “Frontline,” who introduced the panel: moderator Joshua Benton, Tim O’Brien, Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman. Photo by Lisa Palone via Twitter.

Cross-posted at WGBH News.

Have we reached the limits of clickbait media exemplified by The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed? According to three experts on Internet journalism, the answer is yes.

At a forum on the future of journalism held in WGBH’s Yawkey Theater on Wednesday, the consensus was that aggregating as many eyeballs as possible in order to show them advertising does not produce enough revenue to support quality journalism. Instead, news organizations like The New York Times are succeeding by persuading a small percentage of their audience to support them through subscription fees. (Click here for some tweets from the session.)

“One of the things that interests me is the end of the audience as a discrete category that can be treated as an aggregate,” said Clay Shirky of New York University. “Scale was the business model,” he said, describing the attitude among Web publishers as “‘At some point scale will play out.’ And it didn’t.”

As it turns out, Shirky continued, pushing people to “a hot new story” didn’t really matter that much. “What really matters,” he said, “is that there’s about 3 percent of that audience who really cares whether that newspaper lives or dies. We’re just at the beginning of that.”

Shirky and his fellow panelists — Tim O’Brien, publisher of Bloomberg View, and Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, moderated by Nieman Journalism Lab editor Joshua Benton — noted that the revenue model being pursued by the Times and others is essentially the same as the system that funds public media outlets such as WGBH, WBUR, NPR and the like.

O’Brien and Zuckerman disagreed over the need for mass media. O’Brien argued that the audience for an entertainment program can come up with ways of paying for it that don’t depend on attracting a larger audience. “We’re talking about different ways to finance passion,” he said.

To which Zuckerman retorted: “We’re not just talking about ‘Downton Abbey.’ We’re talking about news.” The challenge, Zuckerman said, is to find ways not just of funding journalism but of building enough of an audience so that investigative reporting at the local level can have enough clout to influence events.

Zuckerman also raised the issue of how news organizations do and don’t foster civic engagement, offering the example of the sudden closing of North Adams Regional Hospital in western Massachusetts. The closing put about 500 people out of work and left residents about 45 minutes away from the nearest emergency room.

Zuckerman praised the Berkshire Eagle’s coverage, but said the paper offered little sense of what the public could do. That, he said, would require “advocacy journalism” of the sort that makes traditional journalists uncomfortable.

That led to an observation by Shirky that newspaper editors are actually well-versed in telling their readers how to get involved when it comes to something like a theater review. Not only do readers learn whether the critic liked the play or not, but they are also told when and where it is being performed, how much tickets cost and how to buy them. But when covering a political story, Shirky continued, readers never learn how to make a donation or get involved.

Zuckerman said the problem is that news organizations don’t like to promote what-you-can-do measures when it comes to partisan politics.

By contrast, he added, news organizations have no issues with telling their audience how they can help after a natural disaster, explaining: “There is not a huge pro-hurricane constituency.”

Kushner’s latest cuts raise serious doubts about his strategy

Aaron Kushner

Aaron Kushner

Published earlier at The Huffington Post.

If you’re going to make an audacious bet on the future of newspapers, as Aaron Kushner did with the Orange County Register, then it stands to reason that you should have enough money in the bank to be able to wait and see how it plays out.

Kushner, unfortunately, is now slashing costs at his newspapers almost as quickly as he built them up. On Tuesday, Kushner announced that Register employees would be required to take unpaid two-week furloughs during June and July. Other cuts were announced as well. The most significant: buyouts for up to 100 employees; and one of Kushner’s startup dailies, the Long Beach Register, will more or less be folded into another, the Los Angeles Register.

Those cuts follow the elimination of some 70 jobs at the OC Register and the Press-Enterprise of Riverside in January — cuts that came not long after a year when Kushner’s papers, in a celebrated hiring spree, added 170 jobs.

Is it time to push the panic button? The estimable Ken Doctor, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, says yes, arguing that the latest round of cuts raise “new questions about its very viability in the year ahead.” Doctor may be right. But as I wrote at The Huffington Post earlier this year, I hope Doctor is wrong, given the promise of Kushner’s early moves.

In 2013 Kushner and his business partner, Eric Spitz, were the toast of the newspaper industry. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum hailed their print-centric approach and hypothesized that being able to scoop up the Register debt-free might enable them to succeed where others — including Tribune Co. and the Journal Register Co. — had failed. “Kushner,” Chittum wrote, “had the benefit of buying Register parent Freedom Communications out of bankruptcy — after newspaper valuations had already fallen 90 percent in some cases.”

Spitz, in a cocksure interview last October with Lauren Indvik of Mashable, mocked his competitors for giving their journalism away online, insisting that he and Kushner had a better idea.

“The key decisions they made — and they were the worst decisions anyone has made in my memory — they made 20 years or so ago. They took their core product, the news, and priced it at free,” Spitz told Indvik, adding: “I think 20 years later the amount of revenue you can derive from advertising is less than they thought. But the bigger problem they created is telling your customer that your product has no value.”

Unfortunately for Spitz and Kushner, there are few signs that their strategy of pumping up their print editions (even improving the paper stock) while walling off their digital content behind relatively inflexible paywalls has paid off.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media, paid circulation at the Orange County Register for the six months ending Sept. 30, 2011, before Kushner and Spitz took charge, averaged 283,997 on Sundays and 172,942 Monday through Saturday. The sale took place in July 2012. That September, paid circulation actually rose, to 301,576 on Sundays and 175,851 the rest of the week. But in September 2013 it dropped below pre-Kushner levels, to 274,737 on Sundays and 162,894 the other six days. (I am excluding what AAM refers to as “branded editions” — mainly regional weeklies published by the Register. The numbers combine print and paid digital circulation, which, in the case of the Register, is negligible.)

Kushner is a Boston-area native who made his money in the greeting-card business. Before his move to Southern California, he tried to buy The Boston Globe and, later, nearly closed a deal to purchase the Portland Press Herald of Maine. So it’s interesting to note that Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who eventually won the sweepstakes for the Globe, has taken a very different approach from Kushner, sinking money into an online-only vertical covering innovation and technology as well as repositioning the paper’s venerable free Boston.com site as a “younger, voicier, edgier” complement to the Globe. Soon the Globe is expected to unveil an ambitious website covering the Catholic Church in the hopes of attracting a national and international audience.

Perhaps the most important difference between Henry and Kushner, though, is the depth of their pockets. There are limits to Kushner’s wealth, and those limits are becoming apparent as he attempts to make his newspaper mini-empire profitable. Henry, a billionaire investor, can afford to take the long view. In that respect, he is more like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who announced that he would buy the Washington Post just days after Henry said he would acquire the Globe.

Ryan Chittum, in his CJR piece, called Kushner’s approach “the most interesting — and important — experiment in journalism right now.” It would be easy and facile to make too much of Kushner’s woes. He may simply have gotten ahead of himself, and is now buying the time he needs to make sense of what he is building. Then again, if Ken Doctor is right, the end of this particular newspaper story may be in sight.

On Greenwald, Kinsley is both right and wrong

Michael Kinsley

Michael Kinsley

A few thoughts about Michael Kinsley’s much-criticized New York Times review of Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide,” an account of his role in the Edward Snowden leaks.

Kinsley is technically correct in asserting that the government has — and should have — the final word when it comes to deciding whether secret information should be made public. Thus I part company with the likes of Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, who, in a post headlined “Michael Kinsley Comes Out Against Journalism,” fulminates: “Michael Kinsley does not believe that a free press should be allowed to [expose official secrets]. He believes that the decision to tell government secrets ‘must ultimately be made by the government.'”

It’s Nolan’s “should be allowed” that bears scrutiny. In fact, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the government may act to prevent secrets from being revealed if those revelations would cause a serious breach of national security. Here is how the Court put it in the 1931 case of Near v. Minnesota:

No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops.

The government may also prosecute both leakers and journalists post-publication, as a majority of the Court all but invited the Nixon administration to do in the Pentagon Papers case — and as Harvey Silverglate explains in this 2006 Boston Phoenix essay.

If you think about it, how could it be otherwise? It’s so easy to conjure up scenarios involving nuclear weapons, terrorism and the like under which censorship and prosecution would be justified that it’s not even worth the effort to spell them out (although Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes tried to do just that in Near).

But I emphatically part company with Kinsley over his sneering, dismissive tone, and his shocking failure to understand the role of a free press (or even a press that’s not quite as free as Hamilton Nolan imagines) in a democratic society. Because if the ultimate authority rests with the government, there are nevertheless times when leakers, individual journalists and the institutional press must stand up to the government and risk its wrath in order to serve the public interest. That’s what The New York Times and The Washington Post did in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War.

And I would argue that that’s what Snowden, Greenwald, Barton Gellman (curiously absent from Special Agent Kinsley’s arrest warrant), The Guardian and The Washington Post did in exposing the NSA’s practices.

I wrote more about the legal background for The Huffington Post last June.

Photo (cc) by the Aspen Institute and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Bezos’ bucks may re-ignite Post-Times competition

Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos

When Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post last year for the paltry sum (especially for him) of $250 million, newspaper observers hoped that it presaged a new era for the struggling daily. For now, at least, it looks like those hopes are becoming a reality.

The Post is ramping up. Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post reported recently that the paper has hired 50 full-time staff journalists so far in 2014, and that it is making at least a partial return to its status as a national newspaper — a status it had retreated from during the final years of Graham family ownership. Executive editor Marty Baron told Calderone:

We’ve talked a lot about the need to grow. We’ve said that in order to grow, we have to look outside our own immediate region and the only opportunity for growth is digital. We are looking at growth opportunities around the country.

Richard Byrne Reilly recently wrote in VentureBeat that Bezos isn’t quite the hands-off owner that he appears to be, taking a deep interest in the paper’s digital initiatives. According to Reilly:

With chief information officer and technology vice president Shailesh Prakash at the helm, Bezos is pumping cash into the once staid company’s IT infrastructure. Lots of it. The new leadership has put 25 computer engineers into the newsroom, helping reporters craft multifaceted digital stories for mobile devices.

The Post’s expansion is a heartening development, and it’s one we’re seeing unfold in Boston as well. Red Sox principal owner John Henry, whose $75 million purchase of The Boston Globe was announced just days before Bezos said he was buying the Post, has, like Bezos, shown a willingness to try to grow his news organization out of the doldrums into which it had fallen.

The Globe is making some interesting moves into video; has redesigned its nearly two-decade-old free Boston.com site while moving all Globe content behind a flexible paywall at BostonGlobe.com; has developed new verticals for innovation and technology (BetaBoston) and arts and entertainment (RadioBDC and BDCWire); and will soon unveil a standalone site covering the Catholic Church.

As for the Post, it’s notable that its comeback coincides with a serious misstep at The New York Times — the botched firing of executive editor Jill Abramson. Combined with the loss this week of the Times’ chief digital strategist, Aron Pilhofer, to The Guardian, and the release of an internal report criticizing the Times’ own digital strategy, it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that energy and momentum have swung from the Times to the Post. (To be sure, the Times’ new executive editor, Dean Baquet, enjoys an excellent reputation.)

From the Pentagon Papers and Watergate in the early 1970s until about a decade ago, the Times and the Post were often mentioned in the same breath as our two leading newspapers. Good as the Post was during the final years of the Graham era, budget-cutting allowed the Times to open up a lead and remain in a category of its own.

It would be great for journalism and for all of us if Bezos, Baron and company are able to level the playing field once again.

Photo (cc) by Steve Jurvetson and used under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

A New Haven-centric view of Digital First’s latest woes

The Register in June 2013, shortly after a redesign.

The Register in June 2013, shortly after a redesign.

This article was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

The end may be near for one of the most widely watched experiments in local journalism.

Early today, Ken Doctor reported at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Digital First Media was pulling the plug on Project Thunderdome, an initiative to provide national and international content to the company’s 75 daily newspapers and other publications and websites. Soon, Doctor added, Digital First’s papers are likely to be sold.

Judging from the reaction on Twitter, the news came as a shock, with many offering their condolences and best wishes to the top-notch digital news innovators who are leaving — including Jim Brady, Robyn Tomlin and Steve Buttry. But for someone who has been watching the Digital First story play out in New Haven for the past five years, what happened today was more a disappointment than a surprise.

I first visited the New Haven Register, a regional daily, in 2009. I was interviewing people for what would become “The Wired City,” a book centered on the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news site that represents an alternative to the broken advertising-based model that has traditionally supported local journalism. The Register’s corporate chain owner, the Journal Register Co., was in bankruptcy. The paper itself seemed listless and without direction.

Two years later, everything had changed. Journal Register had emerged from bankruptcy and hired a colorful, hard-driving chief executive, John Paton, whose oft-stated philosophy for turning around the newspaper business — “digital first” — became the name of his blog and, eventually, of his expanded empire, formed by the union of Journal Register and MediaNews, the latter best known for its ownership of the Denver Post.

Just before Labor Day in 2011, Matt DeRienzo — then a 35-year-old rising star who had just been put in charge of all of Journal Register’s Connecticut publications, including the New Haven Register — sat down with me and outlined his plans. His predecessor had refused my requests for an interview; DeRienzo, by contrast, had tracked me down because he’d heard I was writing a book. It seemed that a new era of openness and progress had begun.

The openness was for real. The progress, though, proved elusive. For a while, John Paton was the most celebrated newspaper executive in the country, the subject of flattering profiles in the The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere. Media reporters were charmed by his blunt profanity, as when he described a presentation he gave to Journal Register managerial employees. “They were like, ‘Who’s the fat guy in the front telling us that we’re broken? Who the fuck is he?'” Paton told the CJR.

In 2012, though, Journal Register declared bankruptcy again — a necessary step, Paton said, as it was the only way he could get costs such as long-term building leases and pension obligations under control. After Journal Register emerged from bankruptcy in 2013, Paton’s moment in the national spotlight seemed to have passed, as media observers turned their attention to a new breed of media moguls like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (who bought The Washington Post), Red Sox principal owner John Henry (who bought The Boston Globe), greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner (who acquired the Orange County Register) and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (who launched a new venture called First Look Media).

Although Digital First’s deepening woes may have escaped national attention, there were signs in New Haven that not all was well. Some positive steps were taken. The print edition was redesigned. The Register website was the beneficiary of a chain-wide refurbishing. Nasty, racist online comments were brought under control, and the newsroom embraced social media. But larger improvements were harder to accomplish.

Among the goals Matt DeRienzo had talked about was moving the paper out of its headquarters, a hulking former shirt factory near Interstate 95, and opening a smaller office in the downtown. In 2012, the Register shut down its printing presses and outsourced the work to the Hartford Courant. The second part of that process never came, though. Just last week, the New Haven Independent reported that the Register had backed away from moving to a former downtown mall facing New Haven Green. Two months earlier, according to the Independent, the Register and Digital First’s other Connecticut publications laid off 10 people.

Neither development should be described as a death knell. The downtown move is reportedly still in the works. And the 10 layoffs were at least partly offset by the creation of six new digitally focused positions. But rather than boldly moving forward, the paper appears to be spinning its wheels. And now — or soon — it may be for sale.

One of the biggest problems Digital First faces is its corporate structure. Can for-profit local journalism truly be reinvented by a national chain whose majority owner — Alden Global Capital — is a hedge fund? People who invest in hedge funds are not generally known for their deep and abiding affection for the idea that quality journalism is essential to democratic self-goverance. Rather, they want their money back — and then some. Preferably as quickly as possible.

No matter how smart, hard-working and well-intentioned John Paton, Jim Brady, Matt DeRienzo et al. may be, the Digital First experiment was probably destined to end this way, as chain ownership generally does. I wish for a good outcome, especially in New Haven. Maybe some civic-minded business leaders will buy the paper and keep DeRienzo as editor. And maybe we’ll all come to understand that the best way to reinvent local journalism is at the local level, by people who are rooted in and care about their community.

Can Aaron Kushner go the distance?

Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.

Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.

This commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

Has Orange County Register owner Aaron Kushner run into nothing more than a bit of turbulence from which he can recover? Or do the layoffs he announced last week show that his plan to resuscitate the newspaper business by hiring more journalists and doubling down on print is fundamentally flawed?

I hope it’s the former — not just because I’d like to see him prove everybody wrong (including me) about the future of news, but because I’m planning to include him in a book about a new breed of media moguls who are using their personal wealth and smarts to innovate their way toward a brighter future. (News of the layoffs was broken by Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly, which has taken a jaundiced view of Kushner’s ownership.)

Trouble is, there have been hints previously that Kushner, 40, lacked the sheer financial firepower of Boston Globe owner John Henry or Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a little background on what’s unfolding in Southern California.

Kushner, who bought the Register in 2012 for $50 million, was the most celebrated new newspaper owner in the country before he was eclipsed in August of last year by Bezos and Henry. “Can Aaron Kushner save the Orange County Register — and the newspaper industry?” asked the Columbia Journalism Review last May. As CJR’s Ryan Chittum explained it, Kushner’s vision was based on:

  • Lavish attention to the print product, including more pages and an upgrade in the quality of paper.
  • A move away from free or even reduced-price content online, with Internet users paying exactly the same fees as print subscribers.
  • An increase in the size of the newsroom staff, as he added 140 journalists to the 180 who were there when he bought the paper.

Nor was Kushner content with pumping up the Orange County Register. Last August he started a new daily, the Long Beach Register. He bought The Press-Enterprise of Riverside. And in his most audacious move yet, he announced plans to start a Los Angeles Register to compete with the Los Angeles Times, once among the best newspapers in the country and still formidable. (LA is also home to a second paper, the Los Angeles Daily News.)

Then, last week, came a significant setback. Not everyone agrees on the figures, but Ken Bensinger of the LA Times reported that Kushner laid off about 35 people at the Orange County Register and 39 at The Press-Enterprise. Register editor Ken Brusic and other top editors left. Rob Curley, who had overseen digital initiatives at papers at the Washington Post and the Las Vegas Sun, was promoted to the top position.

“We are evaluating our cost structure for the next leg of our journey in terms of covering Orange County and LA County,” Kushner told New York Times media columnist David Carr, who noted that Kushner plans to plunge ahead with his idea for a Los Angeles paper without adding any staff. Carr wrote:

By amortizing the costs of all the journalists he hired over a bigger market, he can achieve savings in terms of production while adding marginal readers and advertising.

He clearly sees himself as a smart entrepreneur making bold bets. I see a man on a wire, with millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs at stake.

As for past hints that Kushner may not be well-heeled enough to play the long game, you may recall that, several years ago, he tried to buy The Boston Globe. (The Globe’s then-owner, the New York Times Co., apparently showed no interest, and Kushner later struck out on a bid to purchase Maine’s Portland Press Herald.)

Before Kushner gave up on his Globe dream, though, Katherine Ozment wrote an in-depth profile of him for Boston magazine. Among other things, Ozment attempted to show precisely how Kushner had made a fortune in the greeting-card business, his major claim to fame up to that time. What she found was a haze of acquisitions, layoffs and charges (which Kushner denied) that he was late in paying artists, sales reps and the like.

Eventually Kushner left his company after some sort of falling-out with the investors, though he told Ozment he remained part of ownership. “I had a vision for the business, and they had a very different vision, and they controlled the working capital, so we decided to move on,” he said.

Despite that possible warning sign, it has to be noted that the Orange County Register remains a much more richly staffed paper today than when Kushner bought it. In a memo to his staff published by the blog LA Observed after the layoffs were announced, Kushner wrote that he now has 370 journalists — uh, make that “content team members” — covering Orange County and Los Angeles County, up from 198 a year and a half ago.

An optimistic take would be that Kushner got ahead of himself and is now retrenching, but not retreating. No doubt we’ll know a lot more as 2014 unfolds.

Photo (cc) by CSUF Photos and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Ezra Klein and the problem with top-down control

Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein

This commentary was published earlier at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

What should a 21st-century news organization look like? A single entity, run from the top, with a common set of values? Or a loose network of related projects, sharing a brand and to some extent a mission but operating semi-independently?

With the likely departure of Ezra Klein from The Washington Post, the management of one of our last great newspapers might be showing signs of preferring the former approach. Klein, who founded and runs the widely read Wonkblog at washingtonpost.com, is reportedly leaving for a new venture, as yet undefined. According to Ravi Somaiya in The New York Times, Klein sought an eight-figure Post investment in the new project. Klein already has his own Wonkblog staff, but clearly he has something much bigger in mind — perhaps an all-purpose independent news organization along the lines of Talking Points Memo. (Although it wouldn’t be called Wonkblog — the Post owns the name and will be keeping it, writes The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, who broke the news about Klein’s proposal last month.)

We can’t know everything that went into the decision. Maybe it came down to money. But Wonkblog generates a hefty amount of Web traffic — more than 4 million page views a month, according to a profile of Klein in The New Republic last February. “It’s ‘fuck you traffic,’” a Post source told TNR’s Julia Ioffe. “He’s always had enough traffic to end any argument with the senior editors.” Apparently, that’s no longer the case.

Significantly, the Times reports that new Post owner Jeff Bezos was involved in the decision to let Klein leave. Last September, shortly after announcing his intention to buy the Post for $250 million, the Amazon.com founder lauded the “daily ritual” of reading the morning paper — which led to some chiding by one of the Post’s own journalists, Timothy B. Lee. Despite Bezos’ well-earned reputation as a clear-eyed digital visionary, he appears to have some romantic notions about the business he’s bought into. And allowing entrepreneurs such as the twentysomething Klein run his own shop inside the Post might not fit with that vision.

What makes the likely Klein departure even more significant is that in 2006 the Post, under the ownership of the Graham family, allowed John Harris and Jim VandeHei to walk out the door and start Politico. Now, I have a lot of problems with Politico’s gossipy “drive the day” approach. But as Times columnist Ross Douthat has observed, much of the media conversation about Washington politics has shifted from the Post to Politico, threatening one of the Post’s franchises. It would have been enormously beneficial to the Post if Politico had been launched under its own umbrella. And Politico itself might be better.

So if the Post is reluctant to loosen the reins, are there any other news organizations that are taking a different approach? Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher walked away from their AllThingsD site at The Wall Street Journal and set up a new project called Re/code in partnership with NBC. Perhaps the most famous example is Nate Silver, who brought his FiveThirtyEight poll-analysis site to The New York Times a few years ago and then moved it lock, stock and barrel to ESPN. In that regard, I suppose you could say NBC and ESPN have embraced the network approach. To some extent you might say also that of The Huffington Post, as it combines professional journalists, unpaid bloggers (I’m one) and a dizzying array content — from Calderone’s excellent media coverage to the notorious Sideboob vertical.

Jeff Jarvis recently argued that Patch — AOL’s incredibly shrinking hyperlocal news project — might have stood a chance if AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong had taken a network approach. Rather than running cookie-cutter community sites from the top down, Jarvis asked, what if Patch had offered advertising and support services to a network of independent or semi-independent sites?

The problem with such scenarios is that media executives — and business leaders in general — are not accustomed to the idea of giving up control. Calderone reports that some Post staffers have long grumbled at what they see as “preferential treatment” for Klein, which suggests the depth of the problem. But entrepreneurial journalists like Harris and VandeHei, like Mossberg and Swisher, and like Silver and Klein have a proven track record.

Legacy news organizations need to find a way to tap into that success outside the old models of ownership and not worry about obsolete notions of employer-employee relationships. Reach and influence are what matter. And they are proving to be incompatible with the ambitions of young journalists like Ezra Klein.

More: After this piece was published at Nieman, Mathew Ingram responded at Gigaom with his own smart take.

Michael Calderone on what to expect from Carolyn Ryan

One of the first media pieces I ever wrote for The Boston Phoenix, in the mid-1990s, was on the shrinking Statehouse press corps. Among those I interviewed was a young reporter for The Patriot Ledger of Quincy named Carolyn Ryan.

Ryan went on to great success at the Boston Herald, The Boston Globe and The New York Times. She was recently named the Times’ Washington bureau chief, and Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post has written about what to expect. An excerpt:

Ryan … has managed large reporting staffs in New York and Boston and is known inside the paper as a fierce competitor who sets high expectations. Such attributes can benefit the the Times’ Washington operation, which appears to be stepping up efforts against Politico and others in driving the political conversation of the day. Ryan may help ward off the complacency that news outlets long at the top of the media pecking order can sometimes fall prey to.

Quite a rise for Ryan, a hard-working, talented journalist. She deserves this moment, and I have no doubt she’ll make the most of it.