Why Medium’s Ev Williams will fail at his quest to fix the internet

Ev Williams. Photo (cc) 2014 Christopher Michel.

Earlier this month The New York Times published a profile of Evan Williams, an internet entrepreneur who has done as much as anyone to promote the notion that each of us can and should have a digital voice. He founded Blogger, the first widespread blogging platform. He co-founded Twitter. And, in 2012, he launched Medium, a platform for writing that he hoped would become an alternative to the sociopathy that defines too much of the online world.

It hasn’t worked — not because the quality of Medium isn’t good; much of it is. Rather, he hasn’t been able to find a workable business model that attracts readers, rewards writers, and generates profits for his investors. In other words, Williams is dealing with the same problems as publishers everywhere, and his bona fides have proven to be of little help.

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Williams told the Times’ David Streitfeld. “I was wrong about that.”

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

Talking about blogging and journalism at Harvard

I’m looking forward to meeting with folks at Harvard’s Kennedy School at 11:40 a.m. today to talk about blogging and journalism. Not to give too much away, but I’ll be using this slideshow as a framework. I’ll also be sharing some thoughts I sketched out last summer in this essay for Medium.

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?

Blog like a journalist

The revolutionary gleam has faded. Yet blogging remains at the center of the digital media toolbox.

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Previously published at Medium.

From the vantage point of 2014, offering advice on how to write a blog feels a little like telling people how to write a proper newspaper article in 2005. “Blogging is dead,” says the (ahem) blogger Jason Kottke, overtaken by social-media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

But if the revolutionary gleam has worn off, blogging nevertheless is still a valuable tool for anyone practicing digital journalism, whether it be commentary, original reporting, photography, or video. I’ve been blogging since 2002 — on my own at first, then as the media columnist for the late, lamented Boston Phoenix, and since 2005 as the publisher and almost-sole author of Media Nation.

These days there are many places online where you can share your work — not just social platforms but also online publications such as the Huffington Post and Medium, which combine paid content with unpaid blog posts. (God help us, but such hybrids are known in some circles as “platishers.”) So why set up a solo blog?

The reason is that you need an online home that is controlled by you — not by Mark Zuckerberg or Arianna Huffington or some other digital mogul seeking to get rich from your content. Moreover, you need to establish an online identity. If you don’t, others will do it for you. “You can’t allow others to define who you are, or control the way you are perceived. This is especially true today for people in the public eye, but the more we do online the more it’ll be true for the rest of us, too,” writes Dan Gillmor in his book Mediactive. “To the extent that it’s possible to do so, you should control the reference point for people who want to know more about you and your ideas.” (In 2006 I profiled Gillmor for CommonWealth magazine.)

Dan Gillmor
Dan Gillmor

Yes, I’ve uploaded this essay to Medium. I also occasionally self-publish at the Huffington Post and am a (too-) active member of Twitter and Facebook. But I’ll repost this article at Media Nation, as I do with all my work to which I have retained copyright. I don’t have complete control — I use the free blogging platform WordPress.com, and I must adhere to its policies. But I can back up my work and take it with me, and it would be easy to switch to self-hosting using free WordPress.org software if I felt the need. Just as important, the URL for Media Nation is my name: dankennedy.net.

So what is a blog? Taking the most expansive definition possible, a blog consists of content, usually text or mostly text, that is published online in reverse chronological order. That would include everything from the Washington Post’s breaking-news blog to Lisa Bonchek Adams’s diary-style blog about living with metastatic breast cancer. Dave Winer, an early Internet thinker and coder who writes the blog Scripting News, has a more specific definition, which he first gave voice to in 2003. Winer writes:

A blog is the unedited voice of a person.

The lack of editing is central, because it’s one person who’s responsible for every word. When you click the Publish button you should feel butterflies, at least sometimes, because there’s no one to pass the buck to. If someone else wrote the headline, or did a copy edit, or even reviewed what you wrote and critiqued it before it went out, it’s still writing, but it is not a blog.

I don’t believe we need to think about blogs quite that narrowly. For instance, if a journalist asks her editor to read a sensitive post before publishing, that doesn’t mean she’s not writing a blog. Still, there’s no question that a journalistic blog — which is what we are concerned about here — is different from other kinds of journalistic writing: less formal, more conversational, often with no traditional reporting (but never without research), and aimed at a small but passionate audience. (As David Weinberger and others have said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people.”)

How to write a good journalistic blog post

There are many ways that a journalist can go about writing a good blog post. It might be a sentence or two. It might be 500 words. But I think the essence of a worthwhile post can be boiled down to several elements:

  1. Call your audience’s attention to something it doesn’t know — for instance, an environmental blogger might write about a new study regarding electric cars. Above all, don’t be boring. The lede you write for a blog post might be different from what you would write for a news story, but you still need to grab the reader by the throat and not let go.
  2. Link to the source of your information, which could be a news article or possibly the study itself. Quote a bit from the source, keeping in mind that most of your readers won’t actually click. Shorter quotes can be put in quotation marks; longer quotes should be blockquoted. (Please note that I’m not talking about the sort of blog post that summarizes a news story so thoroughly that there is no incentive to click. I’m talking about a true value-added post. Keep reading and you’ll see what I mean.)
  3. Bring in other sources of information. Although there’s nothing wrong with a short one-source blog post, you add value when you pull in other sources, link to them, and attempt to make sense of them.
  4. Offer your own perspective and analysis so that your readers take away something of value that goes beyond the sources you’re quoting. If you are working for a news organization that does not normally allow you to express your opinion, then don’t. But a first-person conversational tone is appropriate. If expressing opinions is part of your job description, then have at it. In all cases, though, your tone and approach should remain journalistic. One good question to ask yourself: Is this something I would want to show a prospective employer?

Here is a blog post I wrote earlier this year about the sale of the Providence Journal that encompasses all of the elements I discuss above. Please note, though, that you could scroll through many pages of Media Nation and find only a few that are as thorough.

Some additional guidelines to keep in mind:

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Ta-Nehesi Coates

Choose a beat that is narrow — but not too narrow. The best blogs are specialty sites where you can learn everything there is to know about a subject and where the blogger’s enthusiasm comes through. That is what you should aspire to. But if you pick too narrow a subject, you may find yourself hard-pressed to find enough reading material on which to feed. Boston restaurants? No problem. Ethiopian restaurants in Boston? Eh, probably not. You might make it through a week. But what are you going to do after that?

Compile a wide-ranging reading list. And keep compiling. If your blog is about climate change, you are going to want to put together a list of blogs, websites, and Twitter feeds related to that topic that you check every day. If your blog is a supplement to your regular work as a beat reporter, you might be doing what is sometimes called beat blogging — sharing short stories that might not be of general enough interest for your news organization, keeping on top of developments in your field, and interacting with your audience. (Steve Buttry offers some worthwhile thoughts about beat blogging; he has also written a good beginner’s guide to blogging.)

Maintain a conversation with the “former audience.” Dan Gillmor coined the phrase, and Jay Rosen has written about “the people formerly known as the audience.” They were referring to formerly passive news consumers who have been empowered by technology to talk back to us and among themselves. Your audience is a valuable resource. Tend to the comments on your blog. Always posts links to your blog posts on Facebook and Twitter, which is not only a good way to promote your work but is also where much of the online conversation has migrated in recent years. Remember the Dan Gillmor adage that your readers know more than you do — which is not to say that collectively they know more than you, but that someone in your audience might. Much of reporting consists of finding people who know more than we do and talking with them. Your blog (and your social-media presence) can make that easier.

Don’t try to read people’s minds. This is specialized advice, but since I write opinionated media criticism, it’s something I wrestle with from time to time. Another way of putting it is that you shouldn’t ascribe motives unless you’re willing to pick up the phone and do the reporting. For example, it’s fine to observe that the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox is soft (if you think that’s the case and can offer evidence) and that the Globe’s owner, John Henry, is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. But it’s out of bounds to speculate without interviewing the principals that Globe staff members are afraid of angering Henry, or that Henry must have sent out an edict of some sort. Facts are facts and opinions are opinions, and each has its place. Speculation is neither fact nor opinion and has no place in your blog.

Learn to use photos within the bounds of copyright law. I like to run photos with my blog posts, but I know I can’t run a photo that is the copyrighted property of, say, the Associated Press or the New York Times. Fortunately, there are troves of photos online that you can use without payment, many of them through Wikimedia Commons and Creative Commons. Be respectful of the photographer by crediting it as he or she would like and by linking to the photo. Here is an example of how I handle such credits. (You may be interested in this Q&A I did with the photographer, Gage Skidmore, for the Nieman Journalism Lab.)

Some bloggers worth paying attention to

The best way to become a good writer is to read as much good writing as you can. The best way to become a good blogger is to study blogs by people who know what they’re doing. Here are some examples from my own personal list and from my followers on Facebook and Twitter. You’ll find a range of approaches and topics here.

Note: This is just a tiny sample. I’ve left out many people, including friends, especially if they are white men writing about politics — the single most common type of blogger. If you’d like more recommendations, please take a look at the blogroll on Media Nation — and see who the people below are linking to.

Andrew Sullivan. A pioneering blogger and a former editor of The New Republic, Sullivan’s The Dish is a model in terms of linking, quoting, offering his own commentary, and posting with the regularity of a Stakhanovite. Sullivan writes most frequently about politics, but nothing is off limits. He is not on my daily must-read list, but strictly in terms of craft and discipline, he may be without peer.

Jay Rosen. The New York University journalism professor’s blog, PressThink, is perhaps the most influential in future-of-journalism conversations. Rosen writes a type of blog that I particularly admire — long, well-thought-out posts in which he attempts to make sense of many strands of information. His attention to comments is impeccable as well.

Adam Gaffin. The founder and editor of Universal Hub, which tracks and excerpts from several hundred blogs and websites in the Boston area, as well as from mainstream news sources. Updated multiple times a day, the emphasis is on the sources, not the writer — although Gaffin’s wicked sense of humor often breaks through. In 2008 I profiled him for CommonWealth magazine.

Ta-Nehisi Coates. A national correspondent at The Atlantic and an occasional columnist for the New York Times, Coates blogs powerfully and intelligently on issues related to race and culture. Beyond his blog, his essay “The Case for Reparations” may be the most important magazine article published so far in 2014.

Meg Heckman
Meg Heckman

Meg Heckman. A journalism professor at the University of New Hampshire whose blog, A site of her own, focuses on “women, tech, journalism.”

C.J. Chivers. A war correspondent for the New York Times, his blog is called The Gun.

Virginia Postrel. A libertarian and early blogger, Postrel writes the Dynamist Blog, which is worth a look.

Jim Romenesko. The original media blogger, Romenesko moved from blogging on his own to working for the Poynter Institute, and is now on his own once again at JimRomenesko.com. Essential news-biz gossip.

Ian Donnis and Scott MacKay. Their On Politics blog is a good example of a beat blog, as Donnis and MacKay cover politics for Rhode Island Public Radio.

Michael Marotta. His blog, Vanyaland, is a respected guide to alternative rock.

Marjorie Arons-Barron. Former editorial director at WCVB-TV (Channel 5), she writes a blog — often with political reporting — on politics and public affairs.

Mark Garfinkel. A staff photographer for the Boston Herald whose website, Picture Boston, is an excellent example of a local photojournalism blog.

Photo credits: Blogger (cc) by European Parliament; Dan Gillmor by Joi Ito; Ta-Nehesi Coates by David Shankbone; Meg Heckman by Dan Kennedy. All photos published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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.”

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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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