Why Murdoch could prove to be the savior of CNN

Rupert Murdoch at the 2009 World Economic Forum.
Rupert Murdoch at the 2009 World Economic Forum

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Could Rupert Murdoch turn out to be the savior of CNN?

Not directly, of course. After all, his Fox News Channel is a blight upon the civic landscape — a right-wing propaganda machine whose elderly viewers are, according to a 2012 Fairleigh Dickinson study, even less well-informed than people who watch no news at all.

Nevertheless, I felt my pulse quickening last week when I learned that Murdoch is trying to add Time Warner to his international media empire. Among Time Warner’s holdings is CNN. And according to The New York Times, Murdoch would sell the once-great news organization in order to appease federal antitrust regulators.

(Murdoch’s acquisition would not affect Time magazine, a diminished but still valuable news outlet: Time Warner recently set Time adrift after stripping it of most of its assets.Time’s future is far from secure, but at least Rupe won’t have a chance to put Fox News chief Roger Ailes in charge of it.)

As you no doubt already know, CNN in recent years has fallen into the abyss. When I Googled up its increasingly ironic slogan, “The Most Trusted Name in News,” I was taken to a page at CNN.com dating back to 2003, complete with photos of former CNN hosts such as Aaron Brown, Judy Woodruff and Larry King, the seldom-seen Christiane Amanpour and others who evoke a better, more substantive era.

These days, unfortunately, CNN is known mainly for its endless coverage of the missing Malaysian jetliner and for a series of embarrassing screw-ups, such as its misreporting of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act in 2012 and its false report that a suspect had been arrested in the Boston Marathon bombing (to be fair, CNN was not alone on either mistake).

Then, too, there have been a series of mystifyingly bad hires, such as the talentless yipping Brit Piers Morgan to replace Larry King and the creepy Eliot Spitzer to cohost a talk show. Even solid choices like Jake Tapper seem to disappear once brought into the CNN fold. Of course, it’s hard not to disappear when your ratings are lower than those of Fox and MSNBC.

Is CNN worth saving? Absolutely. Its journalistic resources remain formidable. It’s still must-see TV when real news breaks, which certainly has been the case during the past week. Folks who are able to watch CNN International (I’m not among them) tell me it remains a good and serious news source. Anderson Cooper is among the more compelling figures in television news.

But domestically, and especially in prime time, CNN has utterly lost its way — starting at the top, with its self-congratulatory president, Jeff Zucker, who wants us to believe that everything is proceeding according to plan.

The time for a complete overhaul is long overdue. If Rupert Murdoch can help usher CNN into the hands of a new owner that might actually know what to do with it, then bring it on.

Photo (cc) by the World Economic Forum and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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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.

Continue reading “Disruptive innovation and the future of news”

A compelling case for ‘knowledge-based journalism’

9780345806604This review was previously published in The Huffington Post.

In the early 1990s the media identified an existential threat: violent crime. Sparked by high-profile cases such as the murder of a 12-year-old girl, Polly Klaas, and the fatal shooting of six passengers on a train in Long Island, news outlets from local television to Time magazine elevated criminal carnage above all other issues.

Such relentlessness brought results. By mid-1994, 40 percent of Americans were telling Gallup that crime was the country’s leading problem. Elected officials responded by passing laws mandating tougher prison sentences and by building new prisons. Within 10 years, the United States was locking up a higher proportion of its population than other country.

But there was something fundamentally wrong with all this. As Thomas E. Patterson describes it in his new book, “Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage), violent crime was actually on the decline in the early ’90s — including a 4 percent drop from 1993 to ’94. Thus journalistic malpractice led to policy malpractice, with consequences we continue to live with today.

Patterson is a longtime journalism and media observer as well as the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. (Disclosure: He is also a friendly acquaintance.) The essence of his  argument is that it’s no longer enough (if it ever was) for journalists to describe what they learn from interviews and direct observation. They also need to know what’s true and what’s false, and to incorporate such knowledge into what they convey to the public.

“Today’s journalists,” Patterson writes, “use reporting tools that were developed more than a century ago and were better suited to the demands of that age than to those of today, where manufactured consent, clever fabrications, and pumped-up claims are everyday assaults on the public’s sense of reality. … Knowledge-based journalism would provide the steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news that Americans now lack, but sorely need.”

As the example of violent crime suggests, knowledge-based journalism should be grounded in a way of thinking. It’s never been a secret that the U.S. Department of Justice compiles crime statistics, and of course today those numbers are far easier to access than they were 20 years ago. Thus the key is for reporters, editors and news directors to seek out the truth and resist the urge to pander. Obviously that’s easier said than done. The spirit of Walter Lippmann’s quest for scientific journalism permeates “Informing the News,” but as Patterson notes, it has never pervaded more than a fraction of the news media.

Patterson is especially strong in describing the confluence of mindless objectivity and a lack of knowledge. When a journalist doesn’t understand the truth of what he is covering, it’s all too easy simply to present different viewpoints and leave it up to the reader, the viewer or the listener to decide. “The objective model of American journalism offers a weak defense against factual distortions,” Patterson writes. “Not only does the commitment to balance invite such distortions, it allows them to pass unchecked.”

Yet even an empiricist like Patterson can’t overcome human psychology. And one of the obstacles to knowledge-based journalism is that we are wired to adhere closely to our beliefs, regardless of whether they are grounded in reality. Patterson presents research by the Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan showing that we tend to cling to misinformation even more tightly after our errors have been pointed out to us.

In a world in which comfortingly false information is never more than a click of the mouse or the cable box away, it is unclear how knowledge-based journalism would reach an audience larger than the one that already seeks reliable news. It is, after all, the genius of the right that it has managed to convince large swaths of the public that The New York Times and NPR are merely liberal equivalents of the Fox News Channel and Rush Limbaugh. Patterson describes the problem, but he doesn’t propose a solution. And it’s hard to imagine what a solution would look like.

So how are we to move in the direction of knowledge-based journalism? Patterson writes that “the university rather than the newsroom is the logical place to develop it,” and he calls for reforms in journalism education along the lines proposed by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education — the most relevant being “expertise in the specific subjects to be reported on.” At the very least, journalists should make use of nonpartisan repositories such as the Shorenstein Center’s own Journalist’s Resource, which compiles data and studies in areas ranging from human rights to climate change.

Patterson has made a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of what we should expect of journalism at a time when media outlets are multiplying, revenues are shrinking and opinion is elevated over fact-based reporting. Whether we actually embrace knowledge-based journalism or not, he has underscored journalism’s basic mission: to provide the public with the information it needs to govern itself in a democratic society.

We have a pope

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Well, of course it was marketing. That’s my response to the complaints that burst forth on Wednesday when we learned that Pope Francis had been chosen as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” rather than NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

But I think Time made the right call journalistically, too. The Snowden revelations have had an enormous effect on the way we think about government secrecy. But Francis is a larger, more forward-looking choice. His early papacy has been fascinating, even if his pronouncements on matters such as abortion and homosexuality have been more about atmospherics than substance.

As a non-Catholic and non-Christian, I find myself wanting to know more about Francis — and where he intends to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. For all his progressive-sounding rhetoric (my favorite: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”), it’s his recently announced initiative on the church’s child-rape crisis that will determine the fate of his papacy — and perhaps of the institution that he heads.