Book review: Jill Abramson paints a cloudy picture for journalism and democracy

Jill Abramson. Photo (cc) 2015 via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s easy to imagine how Jill Abramson’s new book might have turned out differently. In “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” the veteran journalist follows the fortunes of four media organizations. BuzzFeed and Vice are young, energetic, willing to break rules and try new things. The New York Times and The Washington Post are stodgy, sclerotic giants trying to grope their way toward a digital future. We all know how that’s going to turn out. Right?

Well, something unexpected happened on the way to the old-media boneyard.

Read the rest at The Boston Globe. And talk about this review on Facebook.

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Making sense of the BuzzFeed bombshell — and what, if anything, went wrong

BuzzFeed News reports that “two federal law enforcement officials” have seen evidence that President Trump “directed” his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie under oath when he testified before Congress about a Trump Tower project in Moscow. Special counsel Robert Mueller takes the unusual step of having his spokesman denounce the story as “not accurate.” BuzzFeed’s reporters and their editor vociferously insist that they and their unnamed sources are standing behind their account.

Within 24 hours last week, what looked like a serious threat to the Trump presidency had collapsed into one big honking mess. Nor does it appear that we’re any closer to resolution.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

The tainted BuzzFeed News blockbuster: Where do we go from here?

Last night on “Beat the Press” (above) we took on the BuzzFeed News blockbuster and talked about how much credence the media should give to a story that they hadn’t independently verified. Among other things, I said that BuzzFeed News has a good reputation and that it has owned the Trump Tower story. I’ll stand by that.

Then, a few hours later, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller denied the story, which claimed that President Trump had personally directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress under oath about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The Washington Post’s account is brutal:

Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect. The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.

BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith said that he stands behind the story.

So where do we go from here?

First, this reminds me of James Comey, shortly after he’d been fired as FBI director, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee and claiming that The New York Times had gotten an important Trump-Russia story wrong. Comey offered no specifics, and we still don’t know what he was referring to. Likewise, Mueller’s spokesman did not say what BuzzFeed News had gotten wrong — other than “every aspect,” as the Post suggests.

Second, there’s been some well-informed speculation by Josh Marshall (sub. req.) and others that BuzzFeed’s sources are in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, not the special counsel’s office. National security blogger Marcy Wheeler believes that BuzzFeed “unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies,” and that Mueller issued his statement in order to take the temperature down and keep his investigation on track.

Third, BuzzFeed News does, in fact, have a good reputation. Smith is a fine editor. As you may have heard, one of the two reporters on the story, Jason Leopold, was caught in several ethical lapses earlier in his career, and it’s not unfair to take that into account. But there have been no reported problems since 2006, and in 2018 he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The other reporter, Anthony Cormier, won a Pulitzer in 2016 when he was at the Tampa Bay Times.

Smith, Leopold and Cormier knew what the stakes were before this story was published. I would imagine that even BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti was involved in the decision to hit “publish.” There may turn out to be some significant problems with the story. But unless we see evidence to the contrary, I think it’s likely that everyone involved satisfied themselves that they had the goods. Did they? I hope we’ll find out.

Sunday update: Trump’s lawyer-in-charge-of-digging-the-hole-deeper, Rudy Giuliani, weighs in:

And here’s BuzzFeed reporter Anthony Cormier refusing to back down:

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Obama’s farewell address runs afoul of the first rule of Trump

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-10-16-00-am
Carl Bernstein on CNN Tuesday.

The first rule of Trump: It’s always about Trump.

Thus it was that even on the night of President Barack Obama’s farewell address, the big story was CNN’s report — co-bylined by Watergate legend Carl Bernstein, no less — about compromising (and unverified) personal and financial information gathered by the Russians that could be used to blackmail the president-elect.

On our screens, a popular, largely successful, and thoroughly reassuring president was preparing to leave the White House. Behind the scenes, all was trouble and turmoil.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Snapchat news targets the young and the underinformed

snapchat

Previously published at WGBHNews.org and republished in The Huffington Post.

Two years ago, then-CNN reporter Peter Hamby lamented the negative effect he believed Twitter and other social media were having on presidential campaign coverage. In a 95-page research paper (pdf) he wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Hamby put it this way:

With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them.

On Tuesday, Hamby was back at the Shorenstein Center, this time to tout the journalistic virtues of an even more ephemeral media platform: Snapchat, built on 10-second videos that disappear as soon as you view them. Hamby, who is barely older than the 18- to 34-year-old users he’s trying to reach, told a friendly but skeptical crowd of about two dozen that Snapchat is bringing news to an audience that is otherwise tuned out.

“Because our audience is so young, I view our mission as educational,” he said. “I think it’s OK that our mission is to illuminate the issues for young people. That’s not to say we won’t get into more serious, complicated things.”

My personal philosophy about new media platforms is to watch them from afar and to more or less ignore them until it’s no longer possible to do so. That served me well with networks like Foursquare and Ello, which seem to have faded away without my ever having to partake. On the other hand, I’ve been tweeting since mid-2008, which is about the time that Twitter’s emerging importance as a news source was becoming undeniable.

Snapchat, it would appear, has reached that turning point. It already has about 100 million daily users, the vast majority of them between 18 and 34, as Michael Andor Brodeur notes in The Boston Globe. And it is starting to branch out beyond those 10-second disintegrating videos.

The newsiest part of Snapchat is called Discover — channels from media organizations such as CNN, ESPN, Vice, BuzzFeed and National Geographic that provide short graphics- and music-heavy stories aimed at providing a little information to a low-information audience.

CNN’s fare of the moment comprises such material as the fight between Afghan and Taliban forces in the city of Kunduz; an FBI report that crime rates are dropping (a story consisting of nothing more than a video clip of a police cruiser with flashing lights, a headline and a brief paragraph); and the re-emergence of the Facebook copyright hoax.

Perhaps the most ambitious news project Snapchat has taken on — and the one in which Peter Hamby is most closely involved — is called Live Stories. Snapchat editors look for snaps being posted from a given location and, with the consent of those users, weave together a brief story. They disappear after 24 hours; the only one playing at the moment is “Farm Life: Worldwide,” which is as exciting as it sounds. But Hamby mentioned stories from presidential campaign announcements, the Iran nuclear deal, music festivals and the like that he said drew tens of millions of viewers. (If you want to get an idea of what a well-executed Live Story looks like, Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab found a four-and-a-half-minute piece on the hajj that someone had saved and posted to YouTube.)

“At CNN we would cover an event with one or two cameras,” Hamby said. “With Snapchat we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”

For me, at least, the most frustrating part of my brief experience with Snapchat (I only signed up Tuesday morning) has been finding worthwhile — or any — content that’s not part of the Discover channels or the Live Story of the moment. The search function is not especially useful. I did manage to friend several news organizations and presidential campaigns.

Any user can create a story that will stay up for 24 hours. So far, though, I’ve only managed to see relatively useless clips from Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Hamby gives points to former candidate Scott Walker and current candidate John Kasich for their imaginative use of Snapchat. But as best as I can tell, Kasich hasn’t posted a story in the past day. His campaign website — like those of a few other candidates I looked up — does not include his Snapchat username, even though it includes buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Snapchat is mobile to a fault — you can install it on an iOS or Android device, but not a laptop or desktop computer. That makes it fine if you’re on the go. But for an old fogey like me, it complicates the process of finding worthwhile material. And vertical video! Yikes!

In listening to Hamby on Tuesday, I was struck by his animus toward Twitter. “I think Twitter has made the tone of the coverage more negative,” he said. “Twitter is a uniquely toxic, negative space.” And though you might dismiss that as simply putting down a competitor, he said much the same thing in his 2013 report, citing a Pew Research Center study to back him up. Hamby quoted John Dickerson, now host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” as saying of Twitter:

It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less.

Will Snapchat prove to be the antidote to Twitter? Count me as skeptical. Five to eight years ago, when Twitter pioneers were using the nascent platform to cover anti-government protests in Iran and earthquakes in California, Haiti and elsewhere, we had no way of knowing it would devolve into one of our leading sources of snark, poisoning the public discourse 140 characters at a time. (And I’m not sure I agree that that’s what it’s become. I mean, come on, just unfollow the worst offenders.)

But to the extent that we have to bring news to where the audience is rather than waiting for people to come to us, then yes, Snapchat may prove to be a valuable home for journalism. I just hope it whets users’ appetites for something more substantial.

How the ad-blocking wars threaten independent media

ad-blockersThe stakes in the raging battle over ad-blocking software are high — but they’re not quite what you might think.

On the surface, it all seems straightforward enough. In one corner are executives at struggling news organizations who want to be sure that visitors to their websites actually see the ads. Thus did the Washington Post recently experiment with blocking the ad-blockers, a development first reported by BuzzFeed.

“Many people already receive our journalism for free online, with digital advertising paying only a portion of the cost,” a Post spokesperson was quoted as saying. “Without income via subscriptions or advertising, we are unable to deliver the journalism that people coming to our site expect from us.”

In the other corner are users who are sick and tired of popups, pop-unders, scroll-across-the-screeners and other obstrusive ads that invade your privacy by tracking your interests and that, in some cases, carry spyware or malware.

“What is unlikely to fly as a long-term strategy is begging readers to load all of the 50 or so trackers and ad-loaders and popups and banners, each of which might make a publisher three cents per thousand clicks, if they are lucky,” writes Mathew Ingram at Fortune. “That business is in a death spiral, and yelling about ad blockers isn’t going to change that.”

In fact, the ad-blocking controversy is anything but a simple morality play. Nor is it a coincidence that the issue has reached a frenzied peak thanks to Apple’s decision to include ad-blocking in its iOS 9 software for iPhones and iPads. Because the real stakes are being fought not on the Internet but in the boardrooms of the giant tech companies that want to control your online experience.

Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Vergeexplained it last week. Essentially, it comes down to this: publishers that rely on web advertising are helping to drive revenue to Apple’s archenemy, Google, which controls much of the infrastructure for online ads. Block those ads and those publishers are more likely to run into the warm embrace of Apple, whose new Apple News platform provides a nice, safe, closed environment with ads that can’t be blocked. And Apple gets a 30 percent cut.

Facebook offers a similar service, the still-aborning Instant Articles, which allows publishers to post their content directly inside Facebook’s all-powerful newsfeed. As with Apple News, Facebook takes a cut of the action from the unblockable ads that will be displayed. It’s such an attractive proposition that the same Washington Post that’s trying to block the ad-blockers announced Tuesday that it will also publish 100 percent of its content to Facebook. Patel writes:

So it’s Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook, all with their own revenue platforms. Google has the web, Facebook has its app, and Apple has the iPhone. This is the newest and biggest war in tech going today.

And the collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google’s revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.

As a matter of principle, I refuse to use ad-blocking software — but I turned on AdBlock while researching this article just to see what would happen. As anyone could have told me, sites loaded more quickly and with fewer distractions. ESPN.com, which is so bogged down with ad-related bloatware that it’s become virtually unreadable, was zippier than I’ve ever seen it. A small hyperlocal site that I often visit suddenly appeared ad-free, simply because the site relies on an external ad-server business that AdBlock intercepted.

Interestingly enough, Marco Arment, the creator of the best-selling ad-blocking program Peace, pulled the software from Apple’s App Store almost as soon as it was released last week. “Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have,” he wrote on his blog. “Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”

By acting as he did, Arment may have pointed the way to a possible solution. Because the problems ad-blockers are designed to solve are real, and they run a lot deeper than mere inconvenience. As Dan Gillmor recently wrote in Slate, “The advertising and tracking industries, abetted by telecommunications carriers, are investing in all kinds of technologies aimed at thwarting users’ wishes to retain some control over their online activities.”

So why not come up with a different kind of blocker — a piece of software that informs you when you’re about to access a website that fails to follow some agreed-upon list of best practices regarding privacy and user experience?

Such an arrangement may be the best way to preserve independent media on the open web. Users would be able to protect themselves from abusive adware without freeloading. And web publishers who see their traffic drop might decide it’s time to change their ways.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org and in The Huffington Post.

Stomp out clichés and aim for ‘austerity of language’

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

If you feel under par, work your fingers to the bone, and know it’s time for a change, click on the Cliché Site to trade tired phrases for compelling images.

That was one of myriad tips from top nonfiction writers last weekend at Boston University’s annual narrative journalism conference.

Organized by BU journalism department writer-in-residence Mark Kramer, the conference drew some 400 writers and editors from around the world. They discussed everything from viral content to social justice reporting to humanizing even the worst criminals.

Kramer preached his well-known gospel of “austerity of language: elegant, taut” prose that convinces readers they’re in the hands of an engaging storyteller. “Go on a to be hunt,” he said. “Get rid of whens and as’s. Lose clichés and metaphors.”

Keynote speaker Jill Abramson, a former New York Times executive editor now teaching at Harvard, repeated the good writing mantra: “Show, don’t tell. Collect anecdotes and revealing detail.” She called Gay Talese’s 1966 classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” the epitome of the narrative genre.

Abramson had good news and bad news as journalism faces a “rapid riptide of change.” The good: long, ambitious reporting is in high demand. She singled out BuzzFeed’s “wonderful” criminal justice series and former Times colleague Jeff Gerth’s exposé of Hillary Clinton’s private emails as exemplars of excellent coverage delivered over new platforms. Gerth, a two-time Times Pulitzer winner now with ProPublica, co-wrote the March 27 article with Gawker reporter Sam Biddle.

The bad news, according to Abramson: worldwide legal threats to freedom of the press. She noted that a study of corruption in Russia under President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been published in Britain because of fears of legal action.

Abramson sees storytelling platforms consistently shifting, with platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram giving nonfiction writers new tools and outlets.

One of those is BuzzFeed, where Mark Schoofs, a Pulitzer winner at The Village Voice, now leads an investigative unit as the site augments viral content with some 130 domestic and foreign news staffers,

Schoofs said social justice reporting hasn’t changed much since Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and others started muckraking powerful institutions more than 100 years ago. As ever, he said, it is based on “the desire to change, to expose a wrong, to have your journalism matter.”

He said these stories may start with “outrage,” but you have to skewer sacred cows if their assertions are incorrect. “You’re not in the tank for any one ideology or group. Test your assumptions versus whatever you see on the ground.”

He loves immersive participatory journalism and stories that have wrongdoing at their heart, calling David Barstow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Times series on Wal-Mart bribery one of the best in recent years.

Exposing wrongdoing? Fine. But why humanize evil-doers?

Beth Schwartzapfel examines the inner lives of rapists and murderers because “just calling someone a scumbag is lazy, way too easy. He’s a person” and understanding him can be a valuable way to examine what made him do it.

Schwartzapfel is a staff writer with the Marshall Project, a new nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers the criminal justice, system; she is also a frequent freelancer. She tries to get beyond obvious good guy/bad guy distinctions, asking what if Truman Capote’s groundbreaking “In Cold Blood” had ignored the killers and concentrated only on their victims.

Profiling a man who’s served more than three decades for a murder he committed as a teenager, she doesn’t gloss over what he did. She includes graphic descriptions of the crimes and always details the victim’s family’s grievous loss.

“Don’t give [inmates] a soapbox,” she said. “Being sympathetic is not being their advocate. Let readers come to their own conclusions” about whether they deserve parole. “Show how they’re human, not how they’ve been wronged. That’s up to the reader to decide. I tell them ‘I see it as my task to make you human.’”

As an example of a profile that goes far beyond the image of a stock villain, she praised Albert Samaha’s Village Voice profile of a New York City detective who framed innocent men to boost his conviction rate.

Some dismiss memoir as an unreliable narrator’s narcissistic ramble through the past. But in “Big Little Man,” Alex Tizon created a highly praised blend of history, memoir and social analysis.

“Many people dismiss memoir as easy, and a lot of the time memoir is just a cheaper form of storytelling — but it doesn’t have to be,” said Tizon, who won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting while at The Seattle Times. “Report the hell out of your own story,” he advised, having interviewed about 40 people for his book’s exploration of Asian-American masculinity.

To write a memoir, he said, “you have to risk being a fool unless you’re writing public relations. Include the painful parts. I put my siblings at a certain risk — what to leave out? I had to ask, ‘Could I live with this if a sister never spoke to me again?’ The truth is impossible, but my aim is to be as truthful as possible.”

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Northeastern J-School partners with Esquire magazine

photoBy Jeff Howe

Earlier this year Northeastern University’s School of Journalism received a Knight Foundation grant to launch a Media Innovation graduate program. Students — mostly mid-career journalists and the occasional newly minted J-school grad — would pursue one story over the 18-month course of study. We’d let the story discover its own media, so to speak, rather than, say, imposing an interactive treatment on a piece that wants to be a photo essay. Then we would crack open the considerable resources of Northeastern University to our students. Javascript, data-scraping, digital videography — each student writes her or his own ticket, like a Knight Fellowship with a degree at the end.

In the final semester we would work assiduously to place the story with a well-respected media outlet. Poker isn’t poker without money, and journalism isn’t journalism without readers. Since we mostly acquire the craft in a newsroom, we figured we’d bring the newsroom into the university. So far, and to our great pleasure, reality has followed the blueprint.

In the spirit of marrying education to editorial, this week we launched a partnership with Esquire magazine. The goal is to create both a physical and virtual research and development lab for digital storytelling. Online platforms have recently delivered a cornucopia of long-form journalism, but we’re still in the messy — a.k.a. totally awesome — phase of experimentation. Most of the current experimentation will fade away without a trace. But some of it will stick.

Esquire and Media Innovation decided to approach the subject from three directions:

  • StoryLab, a full-semester course taught at Northeastern’s School of Journalism beginning in spring 2015, in which students will work with Esquire writers and editors to reimagine both classic and new Esquire stories for the digital age.
  • Storybench.org, a news site that offers an “under the hood” look at the latest and most inventive examples of digital creativity — from data-visualization projects to interactive documentaries — as well as the tools and innovation behind them.
  • StoryChallenge, an annual new-media storytelling competition, launching in October 2015, which will challenge journalists to reinvent the way magazine stories are told.

These projects serve a few highly pragmatic purposes. As one of the nation’s most prestigious venues for literary journalism, Esquire has a great interest in the future of that form. As educators, we’re doing our best to prepare journalism students to enter a workforce that expects creativity and a collaborative imagination as much as shoe leather reporting.

Recently we had Jay Lauf — the founding president and publisher of the business news site Quartz — speak to our students. Like Vice and BuzzFeed, Quartz is growing fast and hiring accordingly. I’m so accustomed to journalism’s famine mentality I assumed they were getting inundated with talented candidates.

That’s not the case. “We are getting swamped with résumés,” Jay says, “but not always with qualified candidates.” Jay defines these as journalists who may have a base-level fluency in programming but, more important, they can demonstrate an easy facility with numbers and data and social media. In fact, the various digital journalism ventures in New York, Jay says, are battling it out for the few journalists that fit the new mold.

There’s another mission threading throughout these efforts: How do you train journalists for jobs that don’t exist yet? One way, we figured, was to try to invent those jobs here. We’re not going to do that by stroking our chins in Aristotelian reflection. We’re going to do it by doing it. There have to be readers at the end of the process, and real sources and real stories. Poker ain’t poker if you’re not using real money. Journalism ain’t journalism unless the stakes are real. And that’s what these Esquire partnerships bring to the table.

Jeff Howe is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University. This post was previously published at the Knight Blog.

The good, the bad and the ugly of the new news ecosystem

Is this a new golden age of journalism? It all depends on who’s getting the gold.

For consumers of news, these are the best of times. Thanks to the Internet, we are awash in quality journalism, from longstanding bastions of excellence such as The New York Times and The Guardian to start-ups that are rising above their disreputable roots such as BuzzFeed and Vice News.

For producers of news, though, the challenge is to find new ways of paying for journalism at a time when advertising appears to be in terminal decline.

The optimistic and pessimistic views got an airing recently in a pair of point/counterpoint posts. Writing in Wired, Frank Rose gave the new smartphone-driven media ecosystem a thumbs up, arguing that mobile — rather than leading to shorter attention spans — has actually helped foster long-form journalism and more minutes spent reading in-depth articles. Rose continued:

Little wonder that for every fledgling enterprise like Circa, which generates slick digests of other people’s journalism on the theory that that’s what mobile readers want, you have formerly short-attention-span sites like BuzzFeed and Politico retooling themselves to offer serious, in-depth reporting.

That Rose-colored assessment brought a withering retort from Andrew Leonard of Salon, who complained that Rose never even mentioned the difficulties of paying for all that wonderful journalism.

“The strangest thing about Rose’s piece is that there isn’t a single sentence that discusses the economics of the journalism business,” Leonard wrote, adding: “If you are lucky, you might be able to command a freelance pay rate that hasn’t budged in 30 years. But more people than ever work for nothing.”

To support his argument, Leonard linked to a recent essay on the self-publishing platform Medium by Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who writes about Internet culture. Shirky, author of the influential 2009 blog post “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” as well as books such as “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus,” predicted that advertising in print newspapers is about to enter its final death spiral. That’s because Sunday inserts are about to follow classified ads and many types of display ads into the digital-only world, where retailers will be able to reach their customers in a cheaper, more targeted way. Here’s how Shirky put it:

It’s tempting to try to find a moral dimension to newspapers’ collapse, but there isn’t one. All that’s happened is advertisers are leaving, classifieds first, inserts last. Business is business; the advertisers never had a stake in keeping the newsroom open in the first place.

There’s no question that print will eventually go away, though it may survive for a few more years as a high-priced specialty product for people who are willing to pay for it. The dilemma of how to pay for journalism, though, is not going away.

Free online news supported solely by advertising has not proven to be a reliable business model, although there are exceptions, including a few well-managed hyperlocals, like The Batavian in western New York, and sites that draw enormous audiences while employing very few people, like The Huffington Post.

Digital paywalls that require users to pay up after reading a certain number of articles have helped bolster the bottom lines of many newspapers, including The Boston Globe. But very few have been able to generate a significant amount of revenue from paywalls, with The New York Times being a notable exception.

It may turn out that the most reliable path for journalism in the digital age is the nonprofit model, with foundations, wealthy individuals and small donors picking up the tab. It’s a model that has worked well for public television and radio, and that is currently supporting online news organizations both large (ProPublica) and small (the New Haven Independent). But nonprofits are hardly a panacea. The pool of nonprofit money available for journalism is finite, and in any case the IRS has made it difficult for news organizations to take advantage of nonprofit status, as I wrote for The Huffington Post in 2013.

Journalism has never been free. Someone has always paid for it, whether it was department stores taking out ads in the Sunday paper or employers buying up pages and pages of help-wanted ads in the classifieds. Today, the most pressing question for journalists isn’t whether we are living in another golden age. Rather it’s something much blunter: Who will pay?

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.

Continue reading “Disruptive innovation and the future of news”