Online newspapers and innovation: Slate’s Jack Shafer has it wrong

Jack Shafer’s got a piece in Slate about newspapers and the web that draws heavily on  Pablo J. Boczkowski’s 2004 book, Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers, one chapter of which is about New Jersey Online, where I was editor in chief and then editorial director at the time(and worked for the briliant Jeff Jarvis).

Shafer’s detailed recap of Boczkowski’s book leads to one conclusion: though newspapers were early on the web compared to magazines (and to most consumer brands), newspapers could not make the leap into a new culture, a new product and a new paradigm that would have led to success. Even though they started early, the vision and execution never grew and in fact so lagged behind that now, ten years later, newspapers can’t catch up (Shafer’s supposition, not mine.)

As someone who started her online career right in the center of Shafer’s premise (and Boczkowski’s book), it’s hard to read this and not wonder what’s new here. Surely, anyone who reads Jarvis and Jay Rosen could not have missed that part of the collapse of print media has had to do with the failure of the old skool to grok the new program.

I’d question whether newspapers ever actually tried to invent the web. My recollection is that, in New Jersey where we started New Jersey Online in beta in September/October 1995, launching during the big blizzard of ’96, when we were the only news medium functioning without interruption in the region, Advance was not trying to invent the web, but eager to push back against Yahoo! city editions, Sidewalk and other local plays. Maybe later, as the best and the brightest left online newspaper sites for the Netscapes, Yahoos, MSNBCs and other web-based startups there was the window dressing of innovation, but it was common knowledge in the online industry as I knew it that if you wanted to push the envelope, newspapers were not the place to be.

Jeff’s words in his Buzzmachine post ring true for me and are worth repeating. He writes:
“For every honest attempt to change that Shafer and Boczkowski talk
about, I saw many more efforts to avoid and even torpedo change:
newspaper editors and executives who told me that it was not their job
to help this internet thing, to share content with the internet, to
link to anyone else on the internet, to interact with readers on the
internet, to rethink their procedures because of the internet, to teach
new skills because of the internet, to promote the internet, and on and
on. I saw too many direct attempts to subvert the future. That’s where
the fault lies. “