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

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 Women.com 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 CBSNews.com 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