There’s no reason to think that a Nextdoor-like service would have saved local news

Every so often, media observers berate the newspaper business for letting upstarts encroach on their turf rather than innovating themselves.

Weirdly enough, I’ve heard a number of people over the years assert that newspapers should have unveiled a free classified-ad service in order to forestall the rise of Craigslist — as if giving away classified ads was going to help pay for journalism. As of 2019, Craigslist employed a reported 50 full-time people worldwide. The Boston Globe and its related media properties, Stat News and Boston.com employ about 300 full-time journalists. As they say, do the math.

Sometimes you hear the same thing about Facebook, which is different enough from journalism that you might as well say that newspapers should have moved into the food-services industry. Don Graham’s legendary decision to let Mark Zuckerberg walk away from an agreed-upon investment in Facebook changed the course of newspaper history — the Graham family could have kept The Washington Post rather than having to sell to Jeff Bezos. As a bonus, someone with a conscience would have sat on Facebook’s board, although it’s hard to know whether that would have mattered. But journalism and social media are fundamentally different businesses, so it’s not as though there was any sort of natural fit.

More recently, I’ve heard the same thing about Nextdoor, a community-oriented social network that has emerged as the news source of record for reporting lost cats and suspicious-looking people in your neighborhood. I like our Nextdoor and visit it regularly. But when it comes to discussion of local news, I find it less useful than a few of our Facebook groups. Still, you hear critics complain that newspapers should have been there first.

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Well, maybe they should have. But how good a business is it, really? Like Craigslist, social media thrives by having as few employees as possible. Journalism is labor-intensive. Over the years I’ve watched the original vision for Wicked Local — unveiled, if I’m remembering correctly, by the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth — shrink from a genuinely interesting collection of local blogs and other community content into a collection of crappy websites for GateHouse Media’s and now Gannett’s newspapers.

The original Boston.com was a vibrant experiment as well, with community blogs and all sorts of interesting content that you wouldn’t find in the Globe. But after the Globe moved to its own paywalled website, Boston.com’s appeal was pretty much shot, although it continues to limp along. For someone who wants a free regional news source, it’s actually not that bad. But the message, as with Wicked Local, is that maybe community content just doesn’t produce enough revenue to support the journalists we need to produce actual news coverage.

Recently Will Oremus of a Medium-backed website called OneZero wrote a lengthy piece about the rise of Nextdoor, which has done especially well in the pandemic. Oremus’ take was admirably balanced — though Nextdoor can be a valuable resource, especially in communities lacking real news coverage, he wrote, it is also opaque in its operations and tilted toward the interests of its presumably affluent users. According to Oremus, Nextdoor sites are available in about 268,000 neighborhoods across the world, and its owners have considered taking the company public.

There’s no question that Nextdoor is taking on the role once played by local newspapers. But is that because people are moving to Nextdoor or because local newspapers are withering away? As Oremus writes, quoting Emily Bell:

In some ways, Nextdoor is filling a gap left by a dearth of local news outlets. “In discussions of how people are finding out about local news, Nextdoor and Facebook Groups are the two online platforms that crop up most in our research,” said Columbia’s Emily Bell. Bell is helping to lead a project examining the crisis in local news and the landscape that’s emerging in its wake.

“When we were scoping out, ‘What does a news desert look like?’ it was clear that there’s often a whole group of hyperlocal platforms that we don’t traditionally consider to be news,” Bell said. They included Nextdoor, Facebook Groups, local Reddit subs, and crime-focused apps such as Citizen and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors. In the absence of a traditional news outlet, “people do share news, they do comment on news,” she said. “But they’re doing it on a platform like Nextdoor that really is not designed for news — may be in the same way that Facebook is not designed for news.”

Look, I’m glad that Nextdoor is around. I’m glad that Patch is around, and in fact our local Patch occasionally publishes some original reporting. But there is no substitute for actual journalism — the hard work of sitting through local meetings, keeping an eye on the police and telling the story of the community. As inadequate as our local Gannett weekly is, there’s more local news in it than in any other source we have.

If local newspapers had developed Nextdoor and offered it as part of their journalism, would it have made a different to the bottom line? It seems unlikely — although it no doubt would have brought in somewhat more revenues than giving away free classifieds.

Nextdoor, like Facebook, makes money by offering low-cost ads and employing as few people as possible. It may add up to a lot of cash in the aggregate. At the local level, though, I suspect it adds up to very little — and, if pursued by newspapers, would distract from the hard work of coming up with genuinely sustainable business models.

Google and Facebook have decimated newspaper ad revenues. A lawsuit aims to change that.

GBH News illustration by Brendan Lynch

Previously published at GBH News.

One afternoon in early 2016, I arrived at The Boston Globe’s former headquarters in Dorchester to talk with John Henry about the state of his newspaper. Before we could begin, though, he wanted to talk about something that was bugging him.

Google, it seemed, had started slapping the word “subscription” on Globe content when it came up in searches, even though few people were likely to run into what was then a relatively porous paywall. It took months to straighten out, he complained — costing the Globe readers and, therefore, advertising revenue.

Henry’s lament illustrates the complicated relationship publishers have long had with Google. On the one hand, they complain bitterly that the dominant search engine is repurposing their journalism without paying for it. On the other hand, they depend on the clicks that Google sends their way.

Now matters may be coming to a head.

Under pressure from the Australian government, Google and Facebook have agreed to start paying for the content they repackage, MediaPost reports.

In the U.S., the News Media Alliance, which represents newspaper publishers, has long sought an exemption from antitrust law so that they could attempt to negotiate a compensation package with the two companies. There are signs that Congress may finally pass legislation to let them try.

And now, a chain of newspapers in West Virginia has filed a lawsuit charging that Google and Facebook violated antitrust laws by forming an alliance aimed at perpetuating their monopoly on digital advertising.

In order to understand exactly what the two companies — especially Google — have done to harm the news business, you need to consider two different but related practices.

First there is the matter of grabbing content, which, as Henry’s complaint shows, is convoluted: Publishers can’t live with Google and can’t live without it. Years ago, before the Google-Facebook lockdown on ad revenue was even on the horizon, publishers would argue that Google should pay them. Google would counter that it was driving traffic to news sites, thus increasing the value of advertising on those sites. There was some logic to Google’s argument, though somehow it never worked out in favor of the publishers.

The problem in recent years is that Google acquired a number of advertising businesses and now controls not just search but also the advertising associated with search. Through the use of an automated auction system, the price of digital ads is being driven ever lower, making it all but worthless. As Nicco Mele, a former deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, explained several years ago, a full-page weekday ad in the paper that cost $50,000 had given way to Google ads on its website that brought in less than $20 to reach the same number of readers.

“To a large extent, Facebook and Google are sucking up revenue that publishers of content should be receiving,” Mele told an audience at Harvard.

It’s the ever-shrinking value of digital advertising that’s being targeted in the West Virginia lawsuit, brought by HD Media. The small chain owns seven newspapers, most notably the Charleston Gazette-Mail and The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington. Paul Farrell, the lawyer who represents the papers, told the trade magazine Editor & Publisher that Google is leveraging its control of two entirely different businesses in order to monopolize ad revenues and squeeze out anyone else.

“They have completely monetized and commercialized their search engine, and what they’ve also done is create an advertising marketplace in which they represent and profit from the buyers and the sellers, while also owning the exchange,” Farrell was quoted as saying. “Google is the broker for the buyer and gets a commission. Google is the broker for the seller and gets a commission. Google owns, operates and sets the rules for the ad exchange. And they are also in the market themselves.”

So where does Facebook fit in? According to a lawsuit filed by several state attorneys general that was reported by The Wall Street Journal, Google and Facebook are colluding through an agreement that Google has code-named Jedi Blue. The AGs contend that Google provides Facebook with special considerations so that Facebook won’t set up a competing ad network. (Google and Facebook have denied any wrongdoing, and, in the E&P story, Google reiterated that stance with regard to the HD Media suit.)

For Google, it’s a perfect closed environment: It holds a near-monopoly on search and the programmatic advertising system through which most ads show up on news websites. And it has an agreement with Facebook aimed at staving off competition.

As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan observed, the collapse of advertising is what has led to the closure of more than 2,000 newspapers over the past 16 years — as well as the shrinkage of surviving papers like the Gazette-Mail, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the opioid crisis in 2017.

Back when newspapers were manufactured out of dead trees, advertising was responsible for about 80% of revenue. Once they started moving online, that revenue stream was decimated, first by Craigslist, a mostly free service that scooped up nearly all the classified ads, and then by Google and Facebook.

Ironically, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark today directs much of his considerable philanthropy to the news business, and Google and Facebook spend quite a bit on various journalism initiatives as well. But whereas Newmark’s only sin was to build a better mousetrap, Google and Facebook’s dominance has more in common with the robber barons of the Gilded Age. It’s time that someone brought them to heel.

At least some newspapers have come up with a formula for overcoming the digital-advertising debacle. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and, yes, John Henry’s Boston Globe have all reinvented themselves as successful enterprises by reducing their reliance on ads in favor of digital subscriptions.

But it’s far from clear whether that will work for local and most regional papers, and even those that are doing well run the risk of becoming overreliant on one source. A reliable stream of ad revenue, freed from the depredations of Big Tech, would go a long way toward revitalizing journalism.

Private equity ownership is devastating retail — just as it has destroyed newspapers

The Washington Post reports some startling figures about the role of private equity firms in the retail business. According to the Post’s Abha Bhattarai:

More than 1.3 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past decade as a result of private equity ownership in retail, according to a report released Wednesday. That includes 600,000 retail workers, as well as 728,000 employees in related industries. Overall, the sector added more than 1 million jobs during that period. [my emphasis]

This is exactly what has happened to the newspaper business over the past several decades. Yes, the internet has devastated the economic model, with advertisers fleeing to Craigslist, Google and Facebook. But that’s only part of the story. The other part is that corporate chains have hollowed out newsrooms in order to maximize profits at a time when what was really needed was investment and patience.

The most notorious of the corporate raiders is MediaNews Group, formerly Digital First Media, which is owned by Alden Global Capital. MNG has all but destroyed once-great papers like The Denver Post and The Mercury News of San Jose, as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren notes in her proposal to re-regulate Wall Street. Cuts continue at MNG’s Massachusetts holdings, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg. Meanwhile, The Berkshire Eagle is rebuilding after a group of local business people bought the paper back from MNG.

Consider, too, that independent regional papers such as The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis are doing reasonably well, and others are taking innovative steps such as giving iPads to their readers to ease the transition to all-digital (the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette), operating under hybrid for-profit/nonprofit ownership (The Philadelphia Inquirer) or are pursuing pure nonprofit ownership (The Salt Lake Tribune).

For years we’ve been hearing that Amazon is destroying retail — yet, as the Post observes, that part of the sector not being strangled by private equity has continued to grow. Newspapers’ business problems are very real. But surely they would be shrinking a lot more slowly, and perhaps groping their way toward sustainability, if they weren’t being destroyed by our financial overlords.

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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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