Wading into ‘Riptide’

From my column in Clio Among the Media, the newsletter of the History Division of AEJMC, spring 2014.

A year ago, some well-seasoned journalists were hanging around the Kennedy School at Harvard as Shorenstein Fellows. Having a few months to decompress from their high-stress careers, three of them worked on a history project – history that’s still too close to comprehend. They decided to create an oral history of how digital online media changed journalism from 1980 until now.

Me in labThe result is a remarkable website called “Riptide,” http://www.niemanlab.org/riptide/, hosted by the Joan Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and the Nieman Journalism Lab. The homepage carries an essay that underscores the importance of the Great Disruption we’re still witnessing every day. It makes you realize, if you haven’t already, that we’re in the midst of a whole new revolution in American history, with new wealth piling up on young engineers rather than the titans of the press, as it did in the last century. Yet it’s still too close to us, too much in flux, to grab a-hold of. The big picture doesn’t fit easily into our journalism classes, much less our journalism history classes.

There’s no single Johannes Gutenberg or Thomas Edison (although it’s interesting that Menlo Park, where Edison located his main lab in New Jersey, is also the name of the home of gigantic Google and Facebook labs in California). There’s no single technical breakthrough that clutches it. There’s the Web, the self-correcting networks of Wiki, the power of interactive virtual communities. But more than any of these, there seem to be some new laws at work in the technology itself, as “Riptide” points out.

Moore’s Law, for example, says that the number of transistors on a microcircuit doubles every two years. This seems to have held true since 1965 to today. Add to this Metcalfe’s Law, which says that the power of a telecommunications network increases as the square of the number of connected users.

And then you have a psychological law, called Amara’s, which states, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”The over-estimating might explain why, contrary to the cliché that news organization were slow to adopt the new media, some smart newspaper chains adopted it early – and then crashed. But over the long-haul, it was the combination of things that grew from the margins and overwhelmed us all. We didn’t realize, as Frank Rich put it in a New York column last year, that we were swept up in a change as big as the transcontinental railroad or electrification of American cities.

Swept away is more like it, or drowning in information. The title is well-chosen. A riptide is the phenomenon when the incoming force of waves on a beach is opposed by an outflowing current, such as from the mouth of a stream, creating a powerful undercurrent that has been known to carry unsuspecting swimmers out to their deaths. This may be like what the new, interactive digital technology has done in counter-flow to traditional American journalism since 1980. Or not: swimmers are advised not to struggle against a riptide but to swim a little way to the side, parallel to the shore, to escape its turbulence, which is usually quite narrow.

It may be too early to write the history, but not too early to interview the key players. The Shorenstein fellows who did the interviewing for “Riptide” brought their experiences of being smack in the middle of the changes, and also their skills (and values) as journalists. Martin Nisenholtz created the New York Times’ first website in 1995, ran Times Digital until 2005, then became the paper’s senior vice president for Digital Operations through 2012. The Times, most would agree, rode the tide as well as any newspaper in the world, and seems to be on top of it now. Paul Sagan was a TV news director who helped develop new media for Time Inc. in the mid-1990s, then led Time Warner’s Internet cable operations.

John Huey, the third researcher, had just retired after six years as editor-in-chief at Time Inc. I know Huey from way back when he wrote for my high school paper in Atlanta. He reported for the Atlanta papers, the Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine, which he later edited. Back in 1989, he hired me to help launch a slick Southern monthly, which didn’t last long but was a lot of fun. I can recognize Huey’s engaging drawl in the text of “Riptide,” and his casual, no-bull style in the way the interviews were conducted.

More than 60 subjects were interviewed. These include names you know, or should know, from Arianna Huffington, Michael Kinsley and Donald Graham to Arthur Sulzberger Jr. But most of the players here are from the engineering side, brilliant web developers and entrepreneurs like Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web; Matt Mullenweg, developer of the open-source favorite of bloggers, WordPress, and Om Malik, a legendary tech blogger who just happened to ring Mullenweg’s doorbell during the interview in San Francisco.

The “Riptide” website is like some rich archival collection of primary material that historians in the future might pore over. Actually, these interviews are only about “What really happened to the news business.” The Great Disruption continues to do its transformative work in so many other areas as well, from domestic life to education to politics. Those histories are also yet to be written or understood.

But instead of resting in some library, these interviews are, like the revolution they describe, instantly accessible to everyone in online, multimedia form. Each interview you can see in an unedited video, most of them about an hour long, with a full transcript.

This gave me an idea for my Intro to Mass Communication class. Instead of having my students rummage around for a topic on their final research paper, I have assigned each student a particular subject-interview from “Riptide.” This is original primary source material, all ready for them to draw on. All they have to do is put it in context and tell me what it means. Come to think of it, that may be impossible, since we won’t know what it means, probably, until we can look back on it. Still, the assignment seems a good way to make students think about the history they’re living into.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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