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Day Two: Tiptoeing Around the Elephant at Centerstage



Lurking in the background of most every discussion in today's sessions at the Media Giraffe conference, was a single question.

Can newspapers survive?

And how you answered that question, seemed to depend on what side your bread was buttered.

Folks here with roots in mainstream newspapers were confident -- with almost desperate conviction -- that today's dead tree merchants will survive the sinking circulation, dipping profit margins, shrinking advertising base, restless stockholders and intensifying Internet-based competition.

People in the web world, however, couldn't wait to pronounce modern-day, mainstream media as a Dead Industry Walking -- propped up by clueless advertisers, graying audiences and consumer habit; too dumb to step off the train tracks even as the oncoming locomotive of digital media rushes towards us headlong.

And as much as attendees here wanted to pretend everyone was on the same team, frictions between the two sides popped up at the most interesting moments.

"I do think newspapers are dead...their souls are dead," said Paul Bass, the scrappy founder of a hyper-local web site in Connecticut called the New Haven Independent. "We are at a wonderful moment where we're going to take (journalism) back...we don't have to be stuck in this idea that monopoly capitalism is the only way to go in a community."

The newspaper faithful were heartened by a presentation from Stephen Gray, executive director of the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next project. Charged with helping newspaper companies across the country find strategies for coping with their fading industry, Gray touted the concept of "disruptive innovation" cited by noted consultant Clayton Christensen.

As Gray explained it, businesses usually innovate by focusing on the needs of their upper-level customers; if a product is good to serve their needs, it can serve just about anyone who wants to use it. But occasionally, an innovation will come that is targeted to non-consumers or lower-level consumers -- usually cheaper, more efficient, more simple to use and/or centered on an aspect of the industry which seems impractical to the leading companies.

Often, the innovators don't even know why their product is successful with customers. And by the time the industry leaders figure out what is happening, their business has been turned upside down. So Gray suggests all a business need do is learn how to think like the disruptive innovator, anticipating lower-level customers' needs (My fave quote: "Someone who buys a quarter-inch drill doesn't want the drill; they want a quarter-inch hole.")

Though the reasoning sounds simple -- I left the session thinking, if Times editors had given such a talk to the staff, much confusion about the daily TBT*'s mission would have been answered -- Internet-based folks scoffed at the presentation, noting correctly that companies which have resisted innovation for decades hardly seem poised to figure out innovations even those already on the cutting edge don't understand. (My second favorite quote: Gray noted one newspaper manager who said, "I don't know what to do, but i'm ready to do it.")

Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism pressed his notion that traditional journalists are no longer gatekeepers of information, but authenticators of it. Advocates for net neutrality legislation noted that, if the journalism industry mostly migrates to the Web, a lack of enforced neutrality would give telecommunications companies control over every major media outlet.

And though some in the newspaper industry have expressed skepticism about a public relations executive leading the investors group which bought the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Inquirer editorial page editor Chris Satullo said the sale -- closed Thursday -- left him feeling like a freed inmate.

"For 17 years, I felt like I was in prison," said Satullo, describing former owner Knight-Ridder's insistence on saving money at the expense of innovation. "And just because some people have worked so long in a top-down, cost-cutting environment, they may not be able to make the transition."

In the spirit of trying to ask the right questions, I also wondered:

If this was a conference about the future, why were so few session panelists younger than 45?

If online journalists depend on mainstream media stories to fill their web sites and mainstream journalists read blogs all the time, why is each group so intent on making the other irrelevant?

If newspaper companies are so interested in innovation, why were so few top editors at this conference?

Much as I have come to enjoy spending time with conference organizers, I must confess, they made some mistakes.

The showcase panel of Thursday evening, exploring issues of ownership, had no women or people of color included. Organizers seemed unprepared for the political dimension of sessions -- despite a conference title that promised discussion on "sharing news and politics in a connected world." And a panel on net neutrality lacked anyone working to defeat neutrality legislation because they weren't invited until a few days before.

Adds up to a quirky conference where what isn't said is almost as interesting as what is.

Barbara Walters Explains Herself -- and Steps Deeper in It

In explaining how Star Jones was unceremoniously forced off The View this week, head diva Barbara Walters took the wimpy route -- blaming her unrenewed contract on ABC executives, claiming the show had planned to go along with whatever BS reason Jones wanted to give for her departure.

That's right. Walters admitted she and the show were ready to lie to viewers - and the world -- to help Jones save face. Worse, she and the other View ladies had denied rumors Jones was leaving the show for months -- despite the fact that they knew Jones contract wouldn't be renewed, even then.

Walters' explanation for Jones' ouster in the first place? "The audience was losing trust in her," she told the New York Times. "They didn't believe some of the things she said."

Babs better be careful. Or she might wind up in the same predicament -- for the same reasons.

MSNBC Switches Up Again

When NBC's cable channel first debuted, it featured "repurposed" stories from Dateline NBC and pre-taped shows featuring Matt Lauer and others narrating canned stories or interviews with celebrities. And the viewership was awful.

So why is the channel going back to so-called "longform" programming July 10 -- with two hours of taped programming each night from 10 p.m. to midnight? And Tucker Carlson gets new MSNBC general manager Dan Abrams' former time slots at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., providing a double-dose of overly entitled, egotistical white guy musings. The only good thing about this new schedule announcement, is that Rita Cosby's show goes bye-bye, as Rita announces the MSNBC Investigates pieces airing at 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. and does assorted specials (has Abrams ever even heard her gravelly, tone-like-a-cement-mixer voice?)

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:36pm]


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