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We did our best, but we were powerless to reinvent journalism — it was a digital riptide!

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History is written by the victors, Winston Churchill said — the implication being that they choose to tell the story they want people to believe. But the losers also have their own version of events, which may also be distorted. Take the Digital Riptide project, for example, which bills itself as an “oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology from 1980 to the present,” based on interviews with various internet and media luminaries. The lesson we are supposed to learn? We did our best, but there was nothing we could do.

The triumvirate behind the project — former Time Inc. editor-in-chief John Huey, former New York Times editor of digital Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan, executive chairman of Akamai Technologies — talked to 61 people, in an effort sponsored by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School. All of the videos and transcripts are available at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab (where director Josh Benton created a well-designed and responsive website that is a great example of what online publishing can do).

Digital Riptide

The riptide metaphor absolves everyone of blame

The list of interview subjects for Digital Riptide includes a fairly large number of technology and media-industry heavyweights, from Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee to New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte — and to give the project full credit, there are also some interviews with new-media big thinkers and doers in the package as well, including our own Om Malik, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti and indie blogger Andrew Sullivan.

As the site explains, the title of the project came from the idea that the arrival of digital technology and the disruption that it caused in the media business was like a riptide — in other words, a powerful and largely unforeseen force that caught most of the swimmers in the traditional industry by surprise and made them more or less powerless to resist its clutches.

“When successful, pre-digital players who had learned to swim out to sea and return safely with confidence and regularity found themselves over time confronting a stronger and stronger force that made it more and more difficult to get back to shore. And just like a school of swimmers caught in a real riptide, even some of the best-prepared and forward-thinking media companies were swept away no matter how hard they tried to survive.”

This is a very appealing metaphor, because it largely absolves anyone who was involved in the media from any blame for failing to see the writing on the wall or failing to move quickly enough to change their behavior or their corporate culture. How could they be expected to do so? It was an act of God or an act of nature that was unavoidable — one which no one could possibly have expected. They did their best, but in the end they were powerless.

There were those who saw it coming


But is this true? Disruption guru Clay Christensen, also associated with Harvard, has written about how industries — including the car-manufacturing business and the steel industry — have failed to adapt because they didn’t appreciate just how disruptive new entrants or new technologies would be. And it’s arguable that the media industry in the 1990s and early 2000s also failed to appreciate just how disruptive the web would be to their business and to journalism in general. Should we blame them for that?

I think we should blame them a little, and here’s why: because there were senior people in the industry who saw the disruption coming — saw it clearly, appreciated the implications, and talked about the potential damage. These weren’t voices crying in the wilderness, but fairly powerful players. To take just one example, there was Knight Ridder excecutive Kathy Yates, who ran the company’s digital unit, and eventually grew frustrated with the industry and moved on to and then CBSMarketwatch. Here’s what she told the project:

“I just didn’t see that there was much of a future in a limited, walled garden online approach. It was just too difficult. The penetration was too thin; there was nothing about it that said to me that it would ever be a successful enterprise… I think what really was so striking to me about the Internet was the removal of boundaries. The newspaper business, as I experienced it, was always full of boundaries. It was very limited in so many ways… the Internet was just so gloriously, really free, of those constraints.”

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Why weren’t they listened to?

Here’s another example: Betsy Morgan, a former senior executive with who eventually left the traditional media business and became CEO of The Huffington Post. In her interview, she talks about seeing an early version of Google Trends, and how she believed this could help change the television news business by giving producers an idea of what the stories of interest to viewers were. She took some Google engineers around to show the feature to senior news staff and was rebuffed.

“These Google engineers were fabulous and smart and articulate. I got shut down. I was told that, had I not learned anything at the time I had been at CBS News? Had I not learned that this was not the way journalism was done, and that these funny, skinny kids from Google had nothing to say about the business, about the creation of journalism? I have to say, that was sort of a breaking point for me.”

Those are just two examples. And there are plenty of excellent interviews and worthwhile perspectives in the project, including Knight-Ridder executive Tony Ridder — who perhaps more than any other senior player in the media industry saw the change coming and tried to adapt his business to it, and ultimately failed — as well as David Graves, the Reuters executive who spearheaded the company’s landmark investment in Yahoo, and plenty of relevant insights from Nick Denton, Jonah Peretti of BuzzFeed and others.

Unfortunately, the over-arching impression is that no one was capable of altering these events — not even a host of well-intentioned and powerful senior executives in the media business like Gerald Levin and Arthur Sulzberger. And that ignores the fact that people like Morgan and Yates (and Ridder) saw the change coming and realized the implications on a fundamental level, and were not listened to. In other words, more companies could have tried harder to swim with the current instead of being sucked under.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Cheryl Casey

17 Responses to “We did our best, but we were powerless to reinvent journalism — it was a digital riptide!”

  1. “The newspaper business, as I experienced it, was always full of boundaries.”

    The MSM ideologues – rapists who thought it was love…

    News flash – your audience was only with you because you had them chained to the radiator by means of local monopolies and oligopolies.

    The internet bolt cutter sent “your” audience racing from your house/ideological dungeon.

  2. Fred Schecker

    Asking the “captains” of industry whether the iceberg could have been avoided gets the answer anyone could have predicted. They should have asked the people who were begging the captains to change course. What we witnessed was a massive leadership failure. A nearly complete lack of vision. The industry knew it was in dangerous waters, but the captains thought they were unsinkable.

  3. lorieparch

    I absolutely agree that “riptide” is a colorful metaphor for willful ignorance on the part of the biggest media players. I started working online in 1996, moving from print to a huge media company that was an early entrant into the online world. I well remember the country’s biggest media company *repeatedly* — over years and years — hiring big cheeses to run digital who had NO digital experience. None.

    To my mind, this is exactly like the auto makers and the finance industry. Only they appear to be surviving with much the same way of doing business intact. No one is going to bail out media, nor should they. But people like me – long-time, award-winning working journalists – can’t find work that pays anything anymore. In the early 90s, $2/word was a good rate. Two decades later, good luck finding that for journalistic work. Years ago I had to switch to custom/branded content to pay the bills.

    To say nothing could have been done by the most powerful leaders in media over nearly 20 years – when we ALL saw it coming; I mean, come on – that’s just ridiculous. It may not have saved media as we knew it – and I am definitely not one who thinks it should have stayed the same at all – but it might have created a viable model for content creators to get paid a decent wage while not gauging readers/users either.

  4. The accusation of “failing to see the writing on the wall” presupposes the existence of a singular wall with a singular message. In truth, there were lots of walls and lots written on them. Statistically speaking of course some of the messages were bound to appear prescient in hindsight. The challenge is always how to discern, in real time and a midst an abundance of new technologies, which words to heed.

  5. Matt Terenzio

    Whether anyone could have beat the riptide does not explain the vast majority of publishers that I worked with that weren’t really trying to. To take the metaphor further, they were really just conserving their energy until a rescue came.

    In fairness, sometimes the huge innovation needed would be too risky and too disruptive to a company that is still successfully employing lots of people. That is a fair consideration for any CEO or Publisher.

    So it seems they should have made an earnest but more conservative play with the newspaper brands and a more aggressive play with some spinoffs that could pursue an unfettered charge at the open markets.

    I don’t think we saw enough of that, but it’s not over yet.

  6. Jeff Yablon

    I’ve been a business change consultant for … a long time. And while we all have a tendency to resist change because … well, because change is uncomfortable, it seems to me (and I’ve written about it frequently at that the media business(es) suffer most egregiously in this area.

    OBVIOUSLY people “saw it coming”. But they were shot down by others who believed that the correct strategy was circling the wagons until the storm blew over (yikes, two cliches in on sentence … sorry).

  7. Jeff Yablon

    I’ve been a business change consultant for … a long time. And while we all have a tendency to resist change because … well, change is uncomfortable, it seems to me that the media business(es) suffer most egregiously in this area.

    OBVIOUSLY people “saw it coming”. But they were shot down but others who believed that the correct strategy was circling the wagons until the storm blew over (yikes, two cliches in one sentence … sorry).

  8. To really, really run the riptide metaphor to its limits, I’d note that one of the key tips to get out of an actual riptide is to turn and swim parallel to the shore, not just struggle to swim straight with it or against it back to shore. In other words, you have to do something counterintuitive. Just sayin…

  9. Thabo Mophiring

    I always wonder why it comes down to blame. Social systems have inertia and just because some saw it coming does not mean everyone should have or could have woken up.

    All metaphors obscure as much as they show. One prevalent in this article is the hero/visionary who could have turned the tide – if only …..

    Same song is sung about the financial crisis.

    Disruptive Innovation is really just a trumped version of creative destruction. Change will happen and when it is truly disruptive even the farsighted seers will find themselves disrupted.

    No use crying over spilt milk – ride the riptide

  10. There is arrogance in any bureaucracy and loads of it in the media. All saw it coming but few knew what it meant. They simply refused to grasp that power was shifting.

    Society is the victim; the intensity and meaning of news coverage has significantly changed for the worse. Media spent their professional lives holding bureaucrats responsible while sailing full-speed towards the iceberg.

    They saw and dismissed. Shame.

  11. Steve Outing

    That this could not be helped is not at all a fair conclusion. In hindsight, many of us who saw it coming could have shouted louder and made the suits in the executive suites take us seriously. We should have done more to convince the decision-makers that they needed to hire and pay competitively for some of the best technologists, and use some of their tidy profits from the 1990s to go on acquisition sprees of online start-ups. How different would the news industry have turned out if news companies hired futurists and visionaries; rather, early ones like Roger Fidler got defunded in 1995 by (now-defunct) Knight-Ridder, a classic example of lack of long-term thinking.

    I think overall the news industry (and academic journalism) pretty much blew it. I certainly regret that I didn’t do more and agitate much more aggressively for dramatic measures that would have avoided or at least lessened the pain felt by the news industry during the digital transition.

    • Mathew Ingram

      You did plenty, Steve – you and others tried. Which is part of why I think that the Riptide metaphor fails to capture what happened. There was an element of deliberate ignorance.

    • Tim Windsor

      I agree with your spirit and with Mathew’s followup.

      “Riptide” is just “Mistakes were made” dressed up in a cooler metaphor.

      The fact is, our leaders were bozos and, yeah, we didn’t scream loud enough (though my colleagues with the hoarse voices — I’m looking at you Tom Davidson and Matthew Baise and Mireille Grangenois and Marc Seldin and Dan Kelley and Thom Smith, to name just a few of the many in Trib — might disagree with that).

      Let’s beat this metaphor to death:

      There WERE people running up and down the shores, screaming and waving flags and sounding sirens, but the fat, happy (and, let’s face it, oft-times dimmer than similar leadership in other industries and especially the Valley) folks floating a few feet offshore ignored us, scoffed at us even.

      Saying nobody could see this coming is at least delusional and, at worst, an outright lie.

    • Cynthia & Bunny

      Steve – you were clearly one of the few news industry people who early on understood the ramifications of the digital world and wrote brilliantly about it. I have never figured out why you weren’t listened to then by the news execs, and why now you aren’t one of the top 10 industry pundits.

      For those of you who are not familiar with Steve and his work, here’s a link to his blog.