Digital Riptide Continues

by mediachinwag

The report from the Shorenstein Center on the transformation of the American news media was aptly titled “Riptide: What Really Happened to the News Business.”

The oral history published in 2013 is still worth a read (and a listen—see below), especially considering the inside knowledge of the report’s authors. John Huey was editor-in-chief of Time Inc. from 2006-2012 during years of digital upheaval in the Time Inc. stable of publications. Paul Sagan was president and editor of new media at Time Inc. from 1995-1997 when American media first started catching on to the threat/opportunity of digital. Martin Nisenholtz was the founding leader of nytimes.com in 1995 and chief executive of New York Times Digital from 1995-2005.

But Riptide is not a static report, it is an ongoing project based on the website www.digitalriptide.org. The website is an amazing repository of information, including videos and transcripts of interviews done for the project and documents such as internal memos about the digital transition written by industry leaders.

digital riptide-blog

An excerpt from Riptide’s Introduction is below, but download the 2013 full report here.

For most of the 20th century, any list of America’s wealthiest families would include quite a few publishers generally considered to be in the “news business”: the Hearsts, the Pulitzers, the Sulzbergers, the Grahams, the Chandlers, the Coxes, the Knights, the Ridders, the Luces, the Bancrofts—a tribute to the fabulous business model that once delivered the country its news. While many of those families remain wealthy today, their historic core businesses are in steep decline (or worse), and their position at the top of the wealth builders has long since been eclipsed by people with other names: Gates, Page and Brin and Schmidt, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Case, and Jobs—builders of digital platforms that, while not specifically targeted at the “news business,” have nonetheless severely disrupted it.

Reasonable people can—and do—debate whether the replacement of legacy media by new forms of information gathering and distribution—including citizen journalism and smartphone photojournalism, crowdsourcing, universal access to data and, of course, a world awash in Twitter feeds—makes democracy more or less vulnerable. Usually the argument is reduced to a couple of symbolic questions: Who’s going to pay for the Baghdad bureau? Who’s going to replace the watchdog function at city hall traditionally provided by healthy metro newspapers?

Not everybody is a fan of the study. Some critics complained that the insider perspective of the authors blinded them to some realities of the digital revolution. For example, they noted that of the 61 movers and shakers initially interviewed for the study, five were (white) women, two were men of color, and zero were women of color.

The authors retort that their study is a work in progress, that 20 new interviews have been added (there are now 12 women listed as interviewees), and that they welcome suggestions for further voices or topics. Email: shorenstein_center@hks.harvard.edu.

—Scott MacLeod