Digital guy David Skok to leave the Boston Globe

David Skok. Photo via the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
David Skok. Photo via the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Big news from the Boston Globe: chief digital guy David Skok is leaving later this year. I’m trying to do this on my phone. So, for now, the memo from editor Brian McGrory will have to suffice.

Friday update: Skok’s departure is especially significant given that the Globe is in the midst of a major reinvention effort as well as another round of downsizing. Skok is a huge part of solving a big problem for the Globe: although it has made strides in becoming a round-the-clock digital news organization, as McGrory notes below, most of its readers continue to view the print edition as the main event. That’s true at newspapers generally—even the Washington Post, perhaps the most digitally focused newspaper in the country.

No one is irreplaceable, but it’s not going to be easy for the Globe to find someone as knowledgeable and respected as Skok.

Here is the Nieman article co-authored by Clayton Christensen, Skok, and James Allworth that McGrory mentions below. And here is a talk Skok gave at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center in April 2015.

McGrory’s message to the newsroom follows.

When I journeyed to Toronto one summer day three years ago to meet David Skok, I brought with me no small number of demands. The Globe had a new and beautiful website, but we needed far more traffic to make it matter. The newsroom had many digital ambitions, but lacked someone to point us in the right directions. We could hear the music, but were slow to pick up the rhythm. Basically, we needed to find the most capable and disciplined digital journalist in the industry to guide us toward an entirely better place.

David’s work launching a confederation of news sites that spanned Canada was widely lauded, and his paper on disruption, co-authored with Clay Christensen during his Nieman fellowship, served as something of an instruction manual for many in the business. In a part of the industry filled with hucksters spouting jargon, it was immediately apparent to me over dinner that David stood far apart. He very much belonged at the Globe.

The rest has been nothing short of transformational. In the two-and-a-half years since David arrived on Morrissey Boulevard, globe.com readership and revenues have soared. Last year was a record year for traffic, and this year we’re already up by nearly 20 percent. We now have a fresher, bolder, more relevant, and increasingly provocative site filled with a heady mix of digital-first journalism that captures the moment and deeper enterprise presented in ways that are geared toward the web. Our social and video teams are producing visual and social journalism that rivals many digital native news sites. Most important of all, this entire room has arrived at an understanding of what it means to be a digital-first operation and why it’s vital to our future. It’s often easy to lose sight of how far we’ve come as we focus on how much work is left to do.

I’ve buried the lede here, certainly because the next line pains me so to write, but here goes: David has decided to leave the Globe. He’s seeking his next professional challenge, which he very much hopes will lead him back to Canada. I’ve asked him to continue to lend his insights to our vital reinvention initiative, and he has agreed. We’re both thinking of a departure around the end of the year, give or take.

David’s legacy here can be distilled rather easily. While self-proclaimed digital gurus are always chasing the newest new thing – More video! A landing page for newsletters! – David takes a distinctly different approach. He constantly and consistently preaches quality – quality story-telling, quality editing, quality decision-making. He wags his finger at anyone seduced by the siren song of page views – “Vanity metrics,” he calls them – and recites from memory what specific stories led to the most subscriptions. The reason behind this is very simple: David is a journalist first, a digital visionary second.

More recently, he has taken his managerial skills outside of the newsroom, imposing a rare sense of order in our digital efforts building-wide. He has had no problem whatsoever holding demanding department heads at bay because of precious resources, while holding his own team accountable for its time.

One other note that probably shouldn’t come this far in: David is a world-class colleague, smart, humane, funny in his own Canadian way, and a person of some of the highest integrity I’ve ever seen. Add to that the fact that he quite simply never lets up on himself.

There’s no need to say goodbye to David just yet; as I said, that won’t occur until later in the year. But David wanted to give me, and us, plenty of notice. The front office will make announcements imminently on who will take over the digital operations in other parts of the building, and I’ll begin putting together a plan for the newsroom. It could involve a specific person, a different structure, or some combination of the two. Please stay tuned.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to David’s work is the extraordinary digital team that he’s assembled over the past couple of years, so infused with authority and confidence that it will prosper long after he is gone. We are on the verge of even greater things, and that doesn’t change at all.

Brian

Newly named Globe M.E. Skok discusses digital strategy

IMG_1779
David Skok

David Skok sees his mission at The Boston Globe as helping to define the organization’s RPP — “resources, priorities and processes,” in the words of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.

“Clay’s theory would argue that that’s what forms the culture,” Skok says.

Skok discussed the Globe’s digital strategy at an appearance earlier today at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Before he began, Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones announced that Skok, the Globe’s digital adviser, had just been named managing editor for digital — an announcement that was reported by Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin a few hours later. Skok has also been appointed general manager of BostonGlobe.com.

Christensen is the godfather of disruption theory — the idea that successful companies are vulnerable to competitors using low-cost technologies and ideas. Think of the way that personal computers brought down minicomputers and mainframes — or that once-lucrative classified ads were pretty much destroyed by Craigslist.

Skok told the Shorenstein crowd that he became attracted to disruption theory when he audited one of Christensen’s classes as a Nieman Fellow. He and Christensen later collaborated on a report about disruption and journalism called “Breaking News.” Last year I analyzed Christensen’s theories following a tough critique (flawed in my view) by Harvard historian Jill Lepore in The New Yorker.

“I sat in on Clay’s class and was immediately transfixed by some of the ideas and theories he put forward,” Skok said.

He added that though he largely agreed with the pessimism that pervaded the news business from a few years ago, since working with Christensen he has come to believe that “journalism will survive and thrive.”

Here’s an idea for how to fix Boston.com

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I have an idea for how to fix Boston.com, whose executives on Wednesday found themselves apologizing yet again — this time for some juvenile humor about House Speaker John Boehner’s alleged drinking problem following a death threat against him.

The screw-up has gotten widespread coverage from, among others, Politico, the Boston Herald (where the story landed on page one) and The Boston Globe.

First, some context on why John Henry and company find themselves in this situation.

When Boston Globe Media Partners decided to remove all Globe content from its free Boston.com site, a strategy that Justin Ellis explained at the Nieman Journalism Lab last April, they created a difficult challenge. Boston.com was one of the first and most successful newspaper websites, and had spent most of its existence primarily as a place where you could read the Globe for free. The challenge was to create a compelling news site without running anything from the Globe — and, at least based on what I’ve seen, to do it on the cheap.

The route that Boston.com has taken is a lot of aggregation, a lot of attitude and a lot of viral content — such as the phenomenon it had on its hands in December with Harvard Business School professor (and lawyer) Ben Edelman, who was revealed to have sent a series of legalistic, threatening emails to a Chinese restaurant owner because he’d been overcharged by $4 when he placed an online order.

The story went sour after the site published and then pulled a post falsely claiming that Edelman had sent a racist email. It then turned out that deputy editor Hilary Sargent, the lead reporter on all things Edelman, was selling T-shirts online making fun of him, which led to her suspension. (My former Boston Phoenix colleague David Bernstein, a WGBH News contributor, recently wrote a good summing-up of the Edelman affair, with links, for Boston magazine. We also talked about it on “Beat the Press.”)

It hasn’t helped that Boston.com has been without a top editor for most of its reincarnated existence. Globe Media chief executive Mike Sheehan told his own paper Wednesday that he hoped to have an editor in place soon, though he didn’t specify a timetable.

The deeper problem, though, is that Boston.com has a fundamentally different mission — maybe even an impossible mission — compared to the Globe’s other online verticals.

Both Crux, which covers the Catholic Church, and BetaBoston, which follows the local innovation economy, are free to excel and be the best that they can be. Stories that have broad appeal can be picked up and run in the Globe.

Boston.com, by contrast, is hampered by being a general news site that in some respects overlaps with the Globe but can’t really be allowed to compete in any serious way. There are exceptions, of course. For instance, the Globe — and news organizations around the world — picked up on the Edelman story, an entertaining morality tale about a hardworking restaurateur being harassed by an arrogant Harvard professor. And Globe editor Brian McGrory told Justin Ellis he expected to “compete like crazy” with Boston.com.

In the main, though, Boston.com has suffered by what we might think of as an imperfectly applied example of Clay Christensen’s disruption theory — by which I mean that the free Boston.com site can’t be allowed to disrupt the Globe’s business model, which is based on paid print and digital subscriptions as well as advertising. (Henry is known to be an aficionado of Christensen’s work. I wrote in some depth about disruption theory and journalism last summer for Medium.)

I disagree with critics who say Henry ought to shut down Boston.com (it still has great value, built up over nearly 20 years) or sell it (and let the Herald or another competitor grab it?). So what do I think the solution might be?

How about a first-rate arts-and-entertainment site with a truly comprehensive, searchable database of listings? It would fill a real need, and it might attract high-quality local ads. And it would be more like Crux and BetaBoston than the current Boston.com in that it could function as a Globe vertical rather than as a separate-but-not-quite-separate-enough enterprise.

I don’t know whether such an idea would work, and I would observe that the Phoenix didn’t have a lot of success with that model during the last few years of its existence. But the Henry ownership is supposed to be all about experimentation. And the Globe has two advantages the Phoenix lacked: great technology and a huge built-in audience. Some experiments will pan out; some won’t. This one strikes me as worth trying.

Boston.com 2.0 has been troubled from the start. Maybe the right editor can fix it. But maybe it’s not too soon to be thinking about version 3.0.

 

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”

How Clay Christensen’s thinking has influenced John Henry

Fall2012_185wHarvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has an important article in The Boston Globe today on the disruptive changes coming to higher education, arguing that the fading away of MOOCs (massive online open courses) will amount to nothing more than a temporary reprieve for the old way of doing things.

Ultimately, Christensen and his co-author Michelle Weise argue, college and university administrators will have to deal with “disruptive innovations” coming from the outside as they find that their high and increasing costs are unsustainable.

But what I find at least as interesting as Christensen’s views on education is connecting the dots between him and the Globe. Consider:

  • In the fall of 2012, Christensen and two co-authors — David Skok and James Allworth — wrote the cover story for Nieman Reports, “Breaking News,” on the challenges facing the news business in a time of disruptive innovation.
  • Last October, John Henry, shortly after completing his purchase of the Globe, wrote a piece for his new paper outlining his vision — and citing Christensen’s oft-repeated mantra that business leaders should think in terms of “jobs to be done.”
  • A month later, Christensen’s co-author Skok, the former head of a Canadian news site called Global News, was hired as the digital adviser to Globe editor Brian McGrory. (And here is an article by Skok that accompanied the main Nieman Reports essay.)
  • In an exchange of emails with Boston magazine earlier this year, Henry expressed admiration for Christensen and Skok, adding, “I’m not sure it is necessarily up to the disrupted to be disruptive as a strategy, but virtually everything these days is subject to disruption.”

Given that context, Christensen’s appearance in today’s Globe would appear to be a side effect of the “jobs to be done” thinking that has already permeated John Henry’s news organization.