Howard Owens' declaration that the original sin of newspapers was "Keeping online units tethered to the mother ship" is the subject of much chatter this morning. Having been on more than one side of that question, and having been one of the originals, I categorically reject the notion of any "original sin."
Unless, of course, you think inaction is a sin. Those who were in the vast center of gravity in newspaper journalism simply came to work and did their print-focused jobs every day. They were not change agents. They were not inventors. They believed -- rightly -- that their role as journalists constituted a valuable public service and that they should focus on it. While those may turn out to be the good intentions that pave the road to hell, I won't call it "sin."
But back to Howard's assertion, which I find flawed (in its assumption that newspapers haven't tried) but interesting.
The question of how to organize new-media efforts in an old-media company is an old one. I think the first panel discussion on which I appeared back in the mid-1990s focused on that question.
The truth is that newspaper companies have tried more twists and variations than most people recognize. Like the paid-content question that Alan Mutter claims to be an original sin, newspapers have a track record of empirical learnings that perhaps ought to be considered before jumping off into a debate about beliefs.
At the end of the last century I was executive editor of Cox Interactive Media, which ran local websites in a dozen or so U.S. cities and had an ambition of opening operations in the top 50 markets.
Some of the sites were affiliated with Cox newspapers, and with typical newspaper myopia, most people in the newspaper industry think that's what CIM was all about.
But most of the sites actually were in Cox broadband cable markets and Cox television markets. They didn't have the addictive benefit of a daily dump of newspaper copy. They had to create their own content. This included news and sports coverage, but also Web directories, forums, ranking/rating systems, local contests, games and some large-scale efforts to host websites for community organizations.
My time at CIM disabused me of some of the arrogance that newspaper people unfortunately carry into any conversation about the Internet. Research showed that some of the CIM sites matched or exceeded the local market reach of the newspaper-based competition in markets like Providence and San Diego.
And some of the ideas have stood the test of time. At CIM, we evolved a program of going to a community event, shooting hundreds of digital photos, handing out business cards with the website's URL, and posting the results in photo galleries designed to crank pageviews and induce viral link-sharing. The content/marketing program that Morris now runs, called Spotted, was essentially based on that experience.
CIM, which was intended to become a spinoff company, was dismantled in the economic collapse that came at the end of the original dotcom bubble. In the political infighting that followed, Cox threw away much of what it had learned.
The interesting thing about Howard's post is his identification of a principle: "Instead of thinking about how to generate more cash, I needed to figure out how to create a news operation that could exist profitably based on a reasonable expectation for local online revenue." This essentially is what we were trying to do with the thinly staffed CIM studios, although I'd substitute "local media business" for the more narrow "news operation."
This principle is stated by Clayton Christensen as "patient for scale, impatient for profits." And the Harvard crew has many tales of disruptive efforts more effectively being positioned at a distance from the mothership (think about IBM's PC division, which built computers at a Water-Pik factory.)
Several years ago I found myself sucked into one of those painfully chronic debates about paid content. OK, it wasn't exactly a debate, it was a discussion about how we (the online guys) could stop a paid-content movement championed by a publisher and a couple of print circulation people.
Suddenly I had had enough. It all felt paranoid. And I was frustrated by the implicit assumption that we couldn't do anything to build audience online other than pump newspaper shovelware onto the Web. I stood up and announced: "OK, I officially change my vote.
"Put the newspaper content behind a wall," I said. "It'll fail, but that's not important.
"What's important is the question: What should we be doing to build an audience without the benefit of the newspaper content?"
This led to a reconsideration that eventually yielded the blog-centered community conversation model of BlufftonToday.com, where the original plan was to not put any of the newspaper content online.
A radical move, such as setting up your online operations as a separate division, or (in Howard's case) quitting the newspaper business to set out on your own, is an effective way to force a confrontation with that basic question: What should we be doing?
It is a confrontation that does not require a spinoff or a startup. Anyone can confront that question. So, why don't we? Is it sloth? Isn't that one of those ... sins?