On Tech Entrepreneurs and News Orgs

Student Jake Ehrnstein takes us through the elements of Content Marketing during his final presentation on Mon. night.

Student Jake Ehrnstein takes us through the elements of Content Marketing during his final presentation on Mon. night.

Today, I finish up a summer session teaching two courses that deal with digital media concepts, trends and issues. So, it is fitting that yesterday’s news of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post comes just in time for one last discussion. The courses are Fundamentals of Digital/Online Media – now a required class by all Mass Comm students – and Issues in New Media – a graduate class. They are similar in the topics we cover, with the grad course taking a more theoretical and scholarly approach. But both classes deal heavily with the practical aspects of digital media and the role of innovation.

We start broadly and then narrow down to topics like social issues, music, video games, business models, personal brands, mobile and data journalism, and we spend a lot of time catching students up on the history of the Internet and Web. We go through the various evolution of companies that have contributed to our online environment. Google, Facebook, Twitter were discussed in terms of their innovation, Yahoo as it struggles to remain relevant, and MySpace, Friendster and other digital road kill to understand the challenges and missteps (both still exist, though not in their original glory). I encourage students to try new platforms like Pinterest (even the guys) and RebelMouse. They need to be adventurous with a critical eye.

They make things too. Even though these classes are not as skills-oriented as others in our curriculum, students start WordPress blogs and promote on Twitter and Facebook. The undergrads shoot video, use Storify and do photo slideshows for their blogs.

One of the topics we discussed in both classes is the concept of “convergence.” In the grad class, we read this article From Convergence to Webvergence: Tracking the Evolution of Broadcast-Print Partnerships through the Lens of Change Theory by Linda-Jean Thornton and Susan Keith. The article discusses “convergence” projects entered into by newspaper and broadcast organizations. In most cases, these efforts failed. And the term “convergence” has lost favor mostly due to failures of this nature.

Through our discussion, I bring the students around to the question that perhaps the collaborations were with the wrong partners. It was natural for newspapers to look out their back door and see the local TV station. It wasn’t natural for them to turn to a technology company to seek the expertise they needed. Their biggest problems did not have to do with creating multimedia content. The challenge was in how to leverage the new medium to tell stories in new ways. Newspapers and TV stations weren’t the ones who could solve that problem.

Which is why I am intrigued by yesterday’s news of Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post. What this particular acquisition will bring remains to be seen, but this is a first step in news organizations realizing that the help they need exists in other neighborhoods. Bezos is successful with a savvy personal portfolio. He’s made investments in Twitter, AirBnB and MakerBot, among others, although I don’t know what his strategic contributions have been to those organizations. He made Amazon into a e-commerce powerhouse, basically the Google of selling things. Actually, you could call Google the Amazon of search, since Amazon started long before.

Bezos gets business models like The Long Tail. Heck, the first example Chris Anderson used to demonstrate The Long Tail was the resurgence via recommendations of a nearly out-of-print book on Amazon by another on a similar topic. He understands the scale of digital publishing, but he has done so with a focus on products as well –  actual books, shoes, clothes and housewares.

I believe his motives for purchasing a news organization go beyond the acquisition of power or an ego that has a viewpoint that needs a platform. He’s one of the first tech entrepreneurs to attempt to fix journalism.

In a few years, we’ll either look back on this as the a-ha moment of media or the worst idea ever. But regardless of the success or failure of this particular endeavor, we now begin to see that the media landscape is so much broader than our view of traditional news organizations. News is delivered and shared on a variety of platforms and more people are engaging with and creating digital content than ever. Google competes with Facebook’s eyeballs and fingertips (tapping away on keyboards), not just Yahoo’s. Blogs and Instagram and Pinterest and Yelp provide these opportunities as well. And news organizations are competing with, but at the same time engaging with, all of it. The sooner they and everyone who works in their operation realize this the better. (See my previous post on the Seven Things Everyone in Your Organization Should Know).

Who else should buy a newspaper? Or at least collaborate with a news org? How about Tony Hsieh of Zappos? Or maybe Tumblr’s David Karp will take a shining to journalism. He talks about its importance on Tumblr’s platform with my student Emily Lyons during SXSW last March.

This is the environment in which we need to prepare students to exist. The students in my classes this session were enthusiastic and insightful in their discussions of media innovation. I was quite impressed. Is our curriculum across the journalism and mass communication discipline in place to encourage this type of thinking? We need to keep asking and changing and trying…



2 thoughts on “On Tech Entrepreneurs and News Orgs

  1. Bryan M. says:

    Though-provoking post, especially about collaborating with the wrong partners. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I think the legacy news media greatly underestimated the resiliency of technology companies.

    “I believe his motives for purchasing a news organization go beyond the acquisition of power or an ego that has a viewpoint that needs a platform.”

    I’m curious what leads you to believe this?

    From what I’ve read, he has said very little about why he purchased the print parts of Washington Post Co. (including all those suburban papers, military papers, and the Spanish-language paper), other than the perfunctory “we are committed to maintaining the high quality of the current product” language that comes with every corporate purchase by a new owner.

    I’m not saying it’s not possible. He could be the next Aaron Kushner, or the next Rupert Murdoch. Here’s hoping he’s more the former and less the latter.

  2. Cindy Royal says:

    Thanks for your comment, Bryan. Yes, we’ll see. As far as hindsight, I have been discussing this “partnership” issue in my classes since the Convergence/Webvergence article came out in 2009. I remember messaging the authors about this concept of missing out on tech partnerships. It’s been years since the failed convergence partnerships, and there have been a few various tech projects that have been successful with news, some great data journalism being created, innovation like Storify occurring. But to my knowledge, this is the first tech entrepreneur to take over from the top at a news org. Interesting times ahead.

    As far as his motives, it’s just my opinion. I said “go beyond.” There is nothing yet to indicate that he has other goals. His letter to Post employees emphasized innovation. But I could be wrong.

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