When they take it from our cold, dead hands

I was intrigued this week to see a young reader’s question to Richard L. Berke, the New York Times assistant managing editor for news. It was a variation on that ancient generational challenge: When will you old people get out of the way and let us younger folks run things? Berke’s response has generated a bit of controversy in the blogosphere.

The question from Josh of New Orleans related to the train-wreck that is the news business these days:
“Newspapering as we knew it — its economic sustainability and moral righteousness — died sometime in the last decade. Yet the people who sank the ship, namely those of the baby-boomer, Woodward-and-Bernstein era, are still at the helm, and giving up their lofty newsroom positions only with cold, dead hands. …

“My question is, both cheekily and seriously, when will your generation quit and let my generation try all these ideas we have about how the news should be presented?”
Berke’s response went something like this: It’s always been hard to land a news job, especially now. But, think of all the opportunities you have to innovate and try new forms of reporting:
“Maybe I'm refusing to face reality, but I believe that if you're enterprising and talented enough, there are more opportunities than ever in the world of journalism.”
That caused a harsh reaction on Jim Romenesko’s web site from some younger journalists. They complained that they have bills to pay (sometimes big bills), can’t afford the time to innovate, and that it was wrong to leave the people who ran the news biz up on the rocks at the tiller of the industry.

Good points, all.

I think I’d side with Berke, but for slightly different reasons. If you really want to fix what’s wrong with this business (and who doesn’t?), the last place you want to be is at a property owned by a big media company. Big companies are, by nature and with rare exception, conservative places. The people who are hired to run them aren’t hired to be daring or make cutting-edge moves. They are hired to be careful, preserve what has been built over many years, add to it some, and then pass it along to the next batch of managers.

That’s one reason why they missed what was coming with the web. They had a good and profitable thing going with print and it didn’t seem necessary, or prudent, to start tinkering with another delivery model that might endanger those profits. The big money was always in print and it always would be, wouldn’t it?

If you’re looking to innovate and find the new models, the best thing is to do it at smaller companies that are more nimble and willing to experiment and, possibly, fail. Jason Preston expressed it to me best many months ago: The big media companies need to act like startups, investing in people and ideas like a startup would: with an eye toward the future. And I’m not sure that they can or will.

I was struck while attending The Pitch, Jason’s media discussion event the other night, that there were few representatives of established media companies in attendance. And those who were there weren't the people making the big decisions. The topic was what business models might work for journalism for the next five years. Lots of good ideas were batted around and they were free for the taking. But, as far as I know, no one from a mainstream Seattle media company was there.

The people who were there were mostly academics and entrepreneurs (and a few folks from Microsoft). Those entrepreneurs are the fertile ground where these new ideas will be found and nourished. If the big media companies were smart, they’d spread a little money around to these folks and see what grows. Call it digital fertilizer. But, maybe that’s too far outside their comfort zone also.

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