I caught little bits of last night's discussion at Shorenstein re Riptide, a project I participated in. The goal of the project was to try to understand, from various points of view, what happened to the news industry in the last 30 years or so. I was honored to be chosen as one of the people to offer their perspective.
NYT publisher Arthur Sulzberger said the mistake they made was not hiring more programmers sooner. I thought this was noteworthy -- I think the exact opposite is true. I think the Times should have tried to avoid hiring programmers as much as possible. Before they had a lot of programmers it was possible to do deals with them, after the programmers came on, they had yet another set of gatekeepers, who as a side-effect of doing their jobs, kept new ideas from penetrating the Times.
It's the nature of employees to want to do the things outsiders might do for you. And it's not just money it's costing you. People coming from outside your organization are free to think without the encumbrances of insiders. By bringing programmers in, they made sure that new ideas couldn't get in. At a time when there were lots of new ideas springing up all around the Times, rich new activities they could have owned, instead of ceding them to startups like Facebook, Twitter, Stack Exchange and LinkedIn, and thousands of others who quickly built fortunes around the stuff the Times is already so good at producing.
It's too bad, because when the Times was able to wheel and deal something very good happened, RSS. As such an unqualified success, it should have been used as the model for other good things that could have happened, but didn't, because of gatekeeping.
For example, I had a very simple Blackberry river of news for the Times in 2006. This was before it was known widely that mobile was everything (another thing Sulzberger said last night). But it couldn't happen because the Times had its own internal effort to do a mobile app that was, imho, nowhere near as easy, fast or nice as the one I was able to whip up in a weekend because I didn't have the time to make it complicated.
I just wanted something that would let me read the latest news on BART. Mine really worked. I still don't think they have a good simple mobile reader at the NYT. My own opinion of course.
I could have gone to the meetup in Cambridge yesterday, but chose not to because these events are all about creating justification for keeping things as they are, and I am often used as a foil for the evil ideas that are trying to get in to make things work differently. I've been lectured by the best Shorenstein has to offer about why what I'm proposing can never work despite all evidence to the contrary.
Shorentstein has that legacy. It's not my favorite approach. I think news organizations should be in Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom mode, and should see every new application of news as good news for their industry.
This led me to wonder in a fanciful way -- where is the anti-Shorenstein? The un-Shorenstein? In Superman terms, the Bizarro Shorenstein where they do everything exactly the opposite of the way Shorenstein does it? In that meeting the leaders of the news industry would do their share of listening, and new ideas would be welcome and allowed to blossom.