(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a
columnist for Reuters.)
By Jack Shafer
April 2 A journalist hasn't performed a full
day's work unless at some point he deprecates a competitor,
either in print, in a public speech, or idly while exiting the
building for lunch. News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson
(Wall Street Journal; Times of London; New York Post;
Australian; et al.) more than earned his pay Monday, when he
rabbit-punched the Washington Post at an Advertising Week Europe
conference in London. He castigated Post staffers, most of whom
regard themselves as "high priests" of journalism, he said.
Their self-worship has prevented them from making the necessary
transformative digital switch, Thomson alleged.
As if commissioned by the Post's guardian angel, the
Financial Times answered Thomson's sass with a glowing story
about all the digital initiatives at the Jeff Bezos-era Post.
The newsroom is adding three dozen new faces, including data
journalists and mobile designers, and has struck a deal with six
outland newspapers that will allow their subscribers to bypass
the Post pay wall and read all they like there. The paper has
established a new online contributor network, drawing on the
talent at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, and it has swung (and
missed) with its Post TV venture.
Financial Times reporter Emily Steel was dazzled by some of
the skunkworks projects that digital wizard Cory Haik showed
her, which included prototypes built on Google Glass, Snapchat,
the Secret app, and smartwatches. So allow me to correct Robert
Thomson: If any future-blocking high priests of journalism
remain at the Post, they must be directing their masses off the
I slag Thomson not only to fill my own daily quota of
deprecation, but as a device to revisit the journalistic debate
that has smoldered like an underground coal fire since the
commercial Web got going 20 years ago. The debate pits the
platformists against the contentists, to pinch the terminology
of my friend Michael Schaffer of the New Republic.
Platformists, who speak excitedly and are prone to writing
in italics, insist that technology changes everything! Function
must follow form! Digital first! Innovate or die! Everybody must
learn how to write code! Data rules! We must build an Uber for
news! A GarageBand for news! A Candy Crush for news!
The contentists, no less difficult to parody, scoff at most
of the new content delivery technologies and claim Homer and the
tellers of Norse sagas as their forbearers. Story trumps all,
they say, whether it's printed, sent in Morse code, over the
air, in black and white or color, on a television or wired
directly into your limbic system.
The platformists vs. contentists debate isn't real, of
course, probably not even in Robert Thomson's mind.
Unreconstructed contentists such as Robert G. Kaiser, a former
Washington Post managing editor and foreign correspondent, were
among the first to demand that their ink and paper vehicle make
way for pure electronic journalism, as the Kaiser memo on this
Kaiser was out front, but he wasn't alone, as I documented
five years ago in a piece about how newspapers tried to invent
the Web long before the Web existed. As early as 1947,
newspapers were experimenting with fax delivery of the news.
David Carlson's Online Timeline charts a decade-by-decade
history of news-platform innovation around the world, including
Viewtron, Minitel, Gateway, Prestel, Info-Look, Extravision,
Vu/Text, Access Atlanta, the Electronic Trib, and many others.
The most enthusiastic sponsors of these new systems almost
always came from the old guard, which, after all, controlled the
budgets, and they were as much platformists as contentists in
their philosophies. As Pablo J. Boczkowski explains in his 2004
book, "Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers,"
newspapers had been fighting electronic media since the
introduction of radio in the 1920s and they understood that
eventually their product would be superseded by an electronic
delivery system. As a consequence, there's not a major newspaper
in the country (including the maligned-by-Thomson Post) that
hasn't spent tens of millions - or hundreds of millions - on
platforms since the mid-1990s.
You can't get any more platformist than that.
Newspapers weren't done in by a "lack of vision" or
irrational devotion to contentism, but by the mass and rapid
defection of advertising from newspapers - as a popular chart by
Mark J. Perry illustrates - to better electronic conveyors of
it, basically Google.
After all the false starts for their first "electronic
newspapers" - on Viewtron, Vu/Text, CompuServe, AOL, Prodigy,
Interchange, and all the rest - newspaper publishers settled on
the open standard of the Web. Their adoption of the Web, which
happened between 1994 and 1996, helped to refashion the Web as a
universal publishing platform that has allowed new contentists
masquerading as platformists an affordable way to enter the
once-closed news market and compete with the old contentists.
So when Thomson says the Post's journalists "haven't
understood that we are in a different moment in history," he's
deliberately talking out of his hat. Jeff Bezos, whose nest
Thomson kicked, has a brilliant, 20-year record reordering the
cosmos, which pales the novelties and advances of the Wall
Street Journal since Rupert Murdoch added the paper to the News
Nobody holds the secret to making the transition from print
to digital. He that is first may later be last. And today's
databombs and Snowfalls may quickly become tomorrow's unbearable
clichés. Any respectable platformist or contentist can tell you