Arthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapers

Arthur Sulzberger, the conscientious family boss of the New York Times, was asked the other day what was the biggest mistake that brought down newspapers. One stood out, he said: not hiring enough engineers.

It’s not so daft an answer: Sulzberger meant that newspapers hampered their entry into the digital era by distributing their material through software engineered by newly-minted companies like Google. The new publishing system for news wasn’t shaped in the interests of the people who report the news and couldn’t capture the advertising revenue to pay for that reporting. But this diagnosis of what happened is wrong – and a revealing mistake.

The very best riposte to the idea that the root of the problem lies in engineering was written by the great media scholar Anthony Smith back in 1980 in his book Goodbye Gutenberg:

“It is the imagination, ultimately, and not mathematical calculation that creates media; it is the fresh perception of how to fit a potential machine into an actual way of life that really constitutes the act of ‘invention’.”

That quotation is the epigraph to Chapter 9 of my book Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of Journalism in the Digital Age at the start of a chapter looking at some of the people who are making the running in rethinking journalism, most of them not inside established news organisations. The history traced in the book shows how even a large infusion of engineers would not have saved print as the key platform for news.

Technology and people who can master it are important to change, but what technological invention does is release possibilities. Humans then have to make uses for it which people like. A site like Buzzfeed builds a superb technical back-end to a site which basically allows bored people on offices to swap videos to giggle over. Having grabbed an audience and held on to it with a strong technical foundation, journalism starts to creep in. In this zig-zag, unexpected, trashy, experimental way do new platforms for journalism happen. My book traces other examples of this pattern in operation both both in the present and the past.

The second part of Sulzberger’s mistake is failing to see the the size of the transformative change going on in the ways that all information – not just news – is moving between people. It’s not certain, that in the future there will be big mainstream news organisations, although some will certainly be more successful than others. Big news organisations have costs and habits which make the manoeverability required to exploit these new possibilities very hard to achieve. There’s a strong whiff of nostalgia about Sulzberger’s analysis. Oh, please, please, why can’t things be like they used to be – and if we’d just made that one right move on the playing board…they could have been.

Experimentation is more important than engineers and quality of experiment is most important of all. My book traces how long it has taken the present generation of news publishers to grope their way way to this truth (I was no faster than anyone else when I was in newspapers). This is very well laid out in this post by Jason Seiken of who has suddenly become interesting in Britain because he’s been appointed Chief Content officer of the Daily Telegraph.




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1 comment

  1. Engineers have become popular. So has pandering to the powers that control the trivial stuff that has trashed the information system. Critical thinking has been replaced by hack commentators
    on united states newspapers (even the most powerful one). I commend you for your insight. But alas, academia has declined,and the wonderful technology has unfortunately become the new dragon slayer. But the dragon is the good guy. The commentators have been coopted. And they are the new experimenters.