Tag Archives: New Yorker

Disruptive innovation and the future of news

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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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Auletta chips away at the Jill Abramson story

Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson

Ken Auletta of The New Yorker keeps chipping away. This is fascinating stuff. The fickle finger of blame for why New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was fired shifts from chief executive officer Mark Thompson (OK, that was just a theory of mine) to new editor Dean Baquet. (And, of course, and always, publisher Arthur Sulzberger.)

And as Auletta points out, the big question still hasn’t been answered: “Why did the Times, which so heralded the hiring of its first female executive editor, terminate Abramson in such a brutal fashion?”

Photo via Instagram.

Jill Abramson, accountability and The New York Times

Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson

Previously published at WGBH News.

My two favorite stories about Jill Abramson both speak to her insistence on holding The New York Times to account. Those stories may help explain why she was removed as executive editor on Wednesday.

The first pertains to investor Steven Rattner, a friend of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. who was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission over a kickback scheme involving the New York State pension fund. (In November 2010 Rattner paid a $6.2 million settlement and accepted a two-year ban on some of his trading activities.)

According to The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, Abramson — then the managing editor, serving as Bill Keller’s number two — didn’t hesitate to green-light a front-page investigative report on Rattner, the Sulzberger connection be damned. “What better test is there for an editor than how they handle the publisher’s best friend?” Auletta quoted an unnamed Times source as saying.

To Sulzberger’s credit, the incident didn’t prevent him from naming Abramson to succeed Keller in 2011. But what may have created an irreparable breech was a second, similar story. In 2012, Sulzberger chose Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, to become chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. Before Thompson could begin, Abramson dispatched one of the Times’ top investigative reporters to look into whether Thompson had any role in the child-sex-abuse scandal whirling around Jimmy Savile, a once-popular TV host.

Both Thompson and Sulzberger were angry, reports Gabriel Sherman in New York magazine. A source was quoted as saying of Sulzberger: “He was livid, in a very passive aggressive way. These were a set of headaches Jill had created for Arthur.”

Now the Times’ internal top cop is off the beat. And Thompson, presumably, has a freer hand to enact his agenda — an agenda that is said to include, among other things, more online video and more native advertising, the term of art used to describe what used to be disparagingly referred to as “advertorials.”

Abramson’s successor and former number two, Dean Baquet, is now the paper’s first African-American executive editor, a not-insignificant milestone on a par with Abramson’s being the first woman. He is said to be a fine editor and a popular choice with the newsroom.

But given that Sulzberger’s own son recently wrote a report arguing that the Times isn’t moving quickly enough on the digital front, it might seem strange that Abramson’s successor would be someone regarded as even less digitally savvy than she. The likely explanation is that Thompson sees himself as the paper’s chief digital officer. Certainly Thompson does not lack for confidence. Less than a year ago he supposedly told a Times executive, “I could be the editor of the New York Times,” according to an article by Joe Hagan in New York magazine.

I don’t mean to play down any of the other reasons that have been given for Abramson’s abrupt and brutal dismissal. There is the matter of her brusque demeanor, described in detail last year by Dylan Byers of Politico. At the time I dismissed it as anonymously sourced sexism, but Byers is deservedly taking a victory lap this week.

Another factor was her complaints about making less money than Bill Keller did when he was editor, a story Ken Auletta broke within hours of Abramson’s dismissal. Auletta reported that Abramson even learned she made less than a male deputy managing editor when she was managing editor. The Times has denied all, although in language that makes it hard to figure out what, precisely, it is denying.

And then there is the incident that may have precipitated the final crisis — her reported attempts to hire Janine Gibson away from The Guardian to serve as a co-managing editor for digital without bothering to inform Baquet. Certainly that’s the angle that the Times’ David Carr and Ravi Somaiya play up in their own coverage of Abramson’s dismissal. (Other accounts say Gibson would have been a deputy managing editor, and thus presumably less of a threat to Baquet’s authority.)

Still, none of these reasons sufficiently explains why Sulzberger believed Abramson needed to be dealt with so harshly. She was all but hustled out of the building, treated like Howell Raines after he was dismissed for enabling a plagiarizing, fabricating young journalist named Jayson Blair. By contrast, the Times under Abramson’s editorship has been a journalistic success and has done reasonably well financially at a time when the news business has been imploding, as Matthew Yglesias explains at Vox. (Vox also takes the prize for the best Abramson headline: “Tattooed, puppy-stealing badass editor Jill Abramson out at the New York Times.”)

“I think what it says to us is there is still enormous challenges for women out there, for women who assume those key and influential roles in journalism,” Melissa Ludtke, a pioneering sports journalist and former editor of Nieman Reports, told Politico’s Anna Palmer.

I think it’s more complicated than that. It is nevertheless a fact that in the past few years Sulzberger has fired two of the highest-ranking women in the newspaper business — first Janet Robinson, creating the vacancy that Mark Thompson later filled, and now Abramson.

In addressing the staff Wednesday, Sulzberger referred to “an issue with management in the newsroom.” That’s not good enough. And it’s not the kind of accountability Abramson pushed for in covering the powerful institution that she worked for. I hope we’ll learn more in the days ahead.

BostInno acquired by Boston Business Journal’s owner

Chase Garbarino

For some time now I’ve been keeping an eye on Streetwise Media, a Boston start-up whose chief executive and public face, Chase Garbarino, has been trying to figure out new ways of reaching tech-savvy, city-dwelling twentysomethings.

First came Pinyadda, an attempt to meld journalism and social networking in a way that was supposed to be less serious and more fun than NewsTrust. Well, it may have been less serious, but it wasn’t less cumbersome, and Pinyadda went the way of all pixels.

Next, and more lasting: BostInno, a website that covers technology, city life and higher education for an audience that I would describe as young urban singles. Nothing too heavy, but it’s enjoyed some success. An old acquaintance, veteran journalist Mary McGrath, has been involved with it. A former student of mine had an internship there. Garbarino and company launched a satellite site in Washington, and were planning to open a third site in New York.

So I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when it was announced a few days ago that BostInno had been acquired by American City Business Journals (ACBJ), the parent company of the Boston Business Journal. What’s posted on the BostInno (here) and BBJ (here) websites is all very hopeful and enthusiastic, as these things generally are. But is this going to give BostInno a chance to grow — or does it mark the beginning of the end?

Although the terms were not disclosed, I suspect that ACBJ’s managers are genuinely interested in BostInno, if only because there was no reason for them to acquire it just to shut it down. I also predict a culture clash ahead. The BBJ and its sister papers are high-quality but rather staid. (Indeed, ACBJ is part of the Newhouse empire, making the BBJ — and now BostInno — corporate cousins of the New Yorker.) BostInno is energetic and can be fun, but it is not a hardcore journalistic enterprise.

Here’s how BostInno put it:

While acquisitions are usually viewed as endings, we believe this is just the beginning for Streetwise. We believe more and more each day in what we are doing and we love doing it.

And here is a considerably more reserved quote from ACBJ chief executive Whitney Shaw that appears in the BBJ:

In a short amount of time, Streetwise has attracted a very loyal and robust audience that is different from but complementary to what we do at our business journals in Boston, Washington and elsewhere.

I’m hoping that the acquisition means good things for BostInno, and that Garbarino and co-founder Kevin McCarthy will be allowed to do their thing. I think they’re on to something, and I’d like to see them have the time and resources they need to figure it out.

The New Yorker’s underwhelming iPad app

Given the New York Times’ rather rhapsodic take on the New Yorker’s iPad app, I was surprised by how underwhelming it turned out to be when I finally gave it a test. I installed it on Mrs. Media Nation’s first-generation iPad, loaded in the current issue — and found it to be almost identical to the PDF-like version that the New Yorker makes available to its print subscribers, a.k.a. the “digital edition.”

There was one key difference, and I’ll grant you it’s an important one: the digital edition requires you to move the pages around on your computer screen, making them bigger and smaller and switching around among columns, maneuvers that have long made most of us despise PDFs. The iPad version, by contrast, automatically formats to the screen. That’s a big improvement.

Other than that, though, I found the app to be rather flat and uninspiring. Yes, the Times review emphasized that it was designed for people who just want to read rather than be dazzled. But there’s a middle ground between a plain reproduction of a magazine and a distracting multimedia extravaganza. I’d have liked to see the New Yorker aim for that middle ground.

That said, it was a nice way to read Ryan Lizza’s excellent profile of Michele Bachmann — especially since the mailman hasn’t seen fit to deliver our print edition yet.

Paul Krugman, cat person

If you’re a fan of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, as I am, then you really have to read Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of him in the current New Yorker.

I love the Tina Barney photo of Krugman and his wife, Robin Wells, posing with their cats. You don’t really get the full effect unless you see it in the print edition, but there’s something hilariously incongruous about Krugman holding a cat while looking like he’s about to bite the head off a political adversary.

I was also interested to learn that Wells has had a strong hand in sharpening and toughening Krugman’s prose. For instance:

Recently, he gave her a draft of an article he’d done for Rolling Stone. He had written, “As Obama tries to deal with the crisis, he will get no help from Republican leaders,” and after this she inserted the sentence “Worse yet, he’ll get obstruction and lies.”

Recently I heard someone describe the columnist divide this way: you’re either a Krugman person or a David Brooks person. Go figure: they’re my two favorite columnists, though I’ll confess I find fault with Brooks’ cautious conservatism far more often than I do with Krugman’s fire-breathing liberalism.