One of my goals during this one-year sabbatical has been to consolidate and digiitize all of the website bookmarks, emailed referrals, paper notes, and conference handouts I’d accumulated over the years and integrate them into my class lessons. If it was really true that the future is now, I would have my arsenal well stocked. Nobody will be able to accuse me of failing to keep up with the times.
“If you’re not moving ahead, then you’re staying still,” one innovations guru quipped early in my re-education.
But what I’ve been discovering in going through these gems is that nearly all of them are too dated to use, that five years is a yawning shelf-life and three not much better. It is as if a toddler is introduced to the world and proclaimed an old man before he gets to kindergarten.
Further, too many of the gurus I have listened to, trusted, have been proven wrong, incorrect in their assumptions, with the result of their being pushed aside, their websites or startups closed or moved.
The most shocking one was www.notrainnogain, maintained by respected newspaper expert Steve Buttry. Among other things, he had spearheaded a $2.5 million project started in 2006 by the respected American Press Institute (API) and Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, called Newspaper Next (N2 for short).
N2 was to be a five-year transforming project that would serve as a template for newspapers trying to find their way forward as disruptive technology was taking hold. There was great hope attached to it, having been sanctioned by respected newspaper owners in the United States, Canada and some news operators around the world. As the newspaper industry watched print revenues decline, quarter after quarter, year after year, the optimists would proclaim, “Wait ‘till N2 is out.”
I followed Buttry’s blog like a nerdy school kid reading Homer. It had been obvious to me for years that newspapers had to exploit the emerging new tools being made available to them. N2 certainly sounded transformational, with talk of “citizen journalism”, new platforms of “reader engagement” ringing in a brave new era of journalism, to replace the one that had become dusty, resistant to change and worse, absent of revenues.
Five years after it started, however, here’s what Buttry had to say in his blog on Sept. 26, 2011, the final day of the N2 project.
“N2 attracted great curiosity in the newspaper business five years ago today with the release of its Blueprint for Transformation report.
For the next year or so, the American Press Institute project was the talk of the newspaper business. My API colleagues and I made more than 100 presentations to several thousand executives, sales reps, managers and journalists at industry conferences, seminars and workshops.
As someone who spent most of two years trying to spread the N2 message and issuing the N2 call for transformation, it pains me to look back five years later and say that we didn’t bring about any significant lasting change.”
Later, he said: “I expected five years ago that N2 would transform the newspaper business. That was naïve of me. I didn’t have much expectations for my own career at the time, except that I would ride the N2 wave into the future with API, learning and teaching more about innovation as the business moved forward.”
The Newspapers Next site is gone.
On Jan. 25, 2012, API, the most respected newspaper training institution in the world, the same Reston, Virginia institution I attended in 1995 for a career-altering week, merged with Newspaper Association of America.
API, which claimed the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the top daily titles had resided under its tent, was declared insolvent.
My old alma mater had gone the way of the dodo, folded into NNA which itself has problems keeping members.
Buttry had this to say in his Jan. 25 blog:
“I won’t dwell on the decline of API. It serves the newspaper industry, which has been in a free fall. I don’t know what could have been done to prevent the decline of an institute tied to an industry whose primary revenue source was declining. I have noted before that the industry did not do enough to follow the advice we presented in the Newspaper Next project. But I wish some newspapers would have tried everything we advocated. I think the business and API would be doing much better.”
It was an inelegant exit for someone who was fond of using historic moments in technological change to underscore the need for urgent change in the newspaper industry.
“Western Union was the king of telecommunication. In 1876 they said the telephone has no inherent value and a means of communication.”
In the early 1980s, AT&T asked McKinsey to estimate how many cellular phones would be in use in the world at the turn of the century. The consultancy concluded the total market would be 900,000 users. At the time, this persuaded AT&T to pull out of the market.”
Today, this number of phones is sold every 18 hours.
Buttry said newspapers needed to be the place the community turns to for data. Cincymoms.com is an example of how you unlock the collective wisdom of the community. He held up Clevelandcountykids.com, a site monitored by the Sherrif’s office, as an example. I checked it out; the last entry on the website Screenshots says this:
The most recent screenshot for this website was taken on Oct 24th, 2010.
The site had unceremoniously closed for unexplained reasons.
To be fair, Buttry was far from the only digital prophet pointing us toward the future. At the same conference in 2008, Bruce Annan, a former southern Ontario newspaper editor and new media guru with a consultative startup called CallsifiedIntelligence.com, cited blogcabin.com as one worth looking at.
Google said it was blogcabin.net and this comes up:
Not exactly what Annan showed us back then. Oh, and ClassifiedIntelligence.com has been swallowed up by airmgroup.com, which bills itself as a consulting service for interactive media and classified advertising.
What about newassignment.net, “an experiment in open-source reporting.” Well, its last entry was March 12, 2011 by Jay Rosen, whose name I recognized as an occasional contributor to API. It was then a WordPress blog. In 2008, Baketopia then had nine or 10 different websites separate from the newspaper. It’s gone.
Scoopt.com was heralded as “positioning itself as the middle-man; we’ll broker the deal to the newspaper.” Gone.
This was tweeted from Canadian Sunmedia Parliamentary bureau chief David Akin April 2012: “Blog publishing platform http://www.blogware.com, created in Canada (and which I used for years), is out of action.”
And on it goes. As I worked through the list, it was clear that these sites and services were unveiled as certainties, but really, they were seductive best guesses. That anything new needed to be watched, obeyed, emulated and accepted as a sure bet, because we were told by the high priests of new digital, this is the way it is, and it ever will be.
A very few number of sites, services and apps have stood an intermediate test of time, though not many of them. Facebook, Linked In, YouTube we’re all familiar with.
We’re seeing Facebook’s IPO doing a tailspin and revenue projections falling short.
Surely, though, Google has stood the test of time!
Well, yes and no. Here’s an article I retrieved from the July 23, 2012 (page 39) issue of Maclean’s magazine. Click on the image to read the piece.
In 2008, the best search engines cited were Firefox, Dogpile and Google got a distant mention as the last one to use.
Placeblogger.com is still there, and it still claims to find you a blogger by area. But it has that look of inactivity and chronic lack of oversite, with its most recent listing as 2012 August – in March 2012.
How about the non-profits? Not so good either.
Here’s a piece about the demise of the Chicago News Cooperative, a non-profit local and hyper-local journalism site. The team were professional journalists who wrote polished prose. The site apparently broke news and got a decent number of page views and mindshare in the Windy City.
What Non-Profit News Orgs Can Learn From Yelp
22 February 2012 by Alex Salkever
“It was sad to read that the Chicago News Cooperative was going to suspend operations. This was one of the big efforts at non-profit local and hyper-local journalism. The team were professional journalists who wrote polished prose. The site broke news and got a decent number of page views and mindshare in the Windy City. So what happened? And does this mean the end for non-profit news collectives? For their part, the CNC said that they did not rely on multi-million dollar donors to sustain them and, likewise, the New York Times reported that the CNC lost out on funding after one of its primary donors, the Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, changed grant rules in a way that limited potential disbursements.
“The CNC is probably not alone. Rumors have swirled that the Bay Citizen (caveat emptor – I am a donor and member) has sought out mergers with other non-profit journalism efforts. Other non-profit locals have struggled, for sure, to find a happy spot between sponsorships sold to businesses (basically, advertising) and outright donations.”
Remember Leonard Asper? One year before his company, CanWest, sunk and was taken over by PostMedia, a company with an uncertain future itself, told a packed Toronto audience at a Canadian Association of Newspapers conference in that, given the intense disruption to his industry, five-year business plans have turned out to be “a cruel hoax” and was convinced that any plan needed to be reviewed every three months.
The Aspers were a celebrated media family in Canada in the last decade, but of course, the name, along with Conrad Black and others whose exits were far less visable, proved that very little today, can be relied upon to last.
As a onetime reporter, editor, publisher, columnist and now journalism educator, I have to turn to those resources, methods and products that show sticking power. I can no longer afford to teach students radical new ideas. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to spend time this past year, shadowing reporters in the trenches, and avoiding too much the libraries of academia in search of answers whose questions were posed before the internet.
Thanks to them, I’ve learned a lot, but not without adopting a little voice in the back of my head cautioning that these are days, like the Higgs Boson particle, in which creation and death are nearly instantaneous. The stuff that remains for longer than a blink of an eye is worth a longer gaze.