Taking a trash-talking Murdoch lieutenant to task

April 1, 2014


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 (registration required) 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 premises.

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 page demonstrates.

Kaiser was out front, but he wasn’t alone, as I documented five years ago in this 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. (See also this short history of electronic newspaper delivery.) 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 this 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 Corp portfolio.

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 that.


Disclosures: My wife works as an editor at the Washington Post; Michael Schaffer and I aren’t related by blood but he is my brother, and I am indebted to his insights here. Send your genealogy to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and watch my Twitter feed to see if Shafer retweets Schaffer. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTOS: Robert Thomson, editor in chief of Dow Jones & Company, speaks at the Reuters Media Summit in New York, December 4, 2008 REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (Note: Thomson’s title has changed since this photo was taken.) 

Detroit News and Detroit Free Press paper boxes sit in front of the papers building in Detroit, Michigan December 16, 2008. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook






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I tend to agree with Robert Thompson in his criticism of the Wash Post. The paper is not what it once was – a paper with an attitude – brash and aggressive and willing to take on all comers.. It’s degenerated into a ‘less than influential’ paper spinning the ‘news’ and beholden to special interests (insert here WH).. The inherent reluctance to embrace a ‘digital future’ is a significant part of this ‘stuck in the past’ culture..

As a long time subscriber, I can clearly see the ‘self importance’ that staffers and writers there slather themselves in. “High Priests” is a great analogy – but like all ‘religions’ they eventually fall out of favor – and then nobody listens anymore.
It’s time for Bezos – who has had a ‘hands off’ policy up to this point – to get involved and remake this great paper with a new image..

Posted by willich6 | Report as abusive

Interesting that Robert Thompson was contradicted by his former employer, the FT.

Posted by JCB3 | Report as abusive