Tough Love with Ken Lerer

The HuffPost co-founder on "how we got here"...and "how we get out of here"

Kenneth Lerer to newspapers: You blew it.

The media executive and Huffington Post co-founder, in a lecture he delivered last night to a packed audience at Columbia’s J-School, pulled few punches when it came to newspapers’ culpability for the crisis in which they now find themselves. In the years when the expansion of the Web made it clear that news had an online future—the years when they should have adapted to that future, Lerer said—papers “barricaded themselves in an echo chamber.” Losing, in the process, not only their perspective on the future of news, but also their claim on it.

Though Lerer pointed to several external factors that have contributed to newspapers’ current crisis—increased competition, consolidation, changes in the news cycle, and new models of online efficiency among them (“add on the economic crisis, and welcome to the perfect storm,” Lerer declared)—ultimately, he said, the fault lies with newspapers themselves for their failure to adapt their business models “in the transformative way that the new digital world required.”

But here’s the rub: newspapers failed to adapt not because they were bad at business, Lerer said, but precisely because they were good at it. “It’s not that newspapers were stupid or lazy,” Lerer noted. Rather, they were focused on what good businesses are generally expected to be focused on: serving their customers. “They concluded that because most of their customers weren’t asking for news delivered on the Internet, they didn’t have to do it,” Lerer said. Papers didn’t see the need to change because they were giving their customers what their customers wanted: solid print products, delivered each morning. They were caught in the innovator’s dilemma, Lerer said, “paralyzed by their apparent success.” And they’re in trouble now because “they were run for the world that was, not for the world that was coming to be.”

The window for adaptation—which is to say, survival—is now, for many newspapers, quickly closing. “We have to ask,” Lerer said, “whether printed newspapers can remain relevant…or whether they’re becoming anachronisms like paper checks and fax machines.” We have to ask, as well: “If digital news is the future, how much of the old system can we—should we—preserve?”

Those questions are no longer philosophical. They are pragmatic and, for that, urgent.

Lerer’s lecture (sponsored, fairly ironically, by the Hearst corporation) was entitled, “How We Got Here and How We Get Out of Here.” The more significant half of that name—indeed, the question that the people crowded into Columbia’s lecture hall had come to hear an answer to—was, finally, the latter: how do we get out of here?

Lerer (after noting the usual caveats: that there’s no silver bullet to rectify journalism’s woes, and that “no one knows what the future will look like”) pointed to innovation—and hasty innovation, at that—as a necessity for newspapers and other news outlets. We need to “embrace disruptive innovation,” he said; “to continue to resist it is to fail to understand what’s happened in the last fifteen years.” In fact, “if I owned Time magazine,” Lerer said, “what I would have done years ago is hire X number of reporters” to work online only. He’d tell them not only, “You break your stories, and don’t worry about the magazine,” but also: “It’s your job to put these guys”—the denizens of the print product—“out of business.”

“Disruptive innovation” is a term Lerer used again and again in his speech.

Large, legacy outlets like the The New York Times and The Washington Post have started to experiment with such innovation, Lerer noted, but not only are they late in doing so, he said; they haven’t done enough. And their sheer size—a journalistic asset in so many other ways—actually hinders innovation. “It would actually would be easier for mid-size papers to make this change,” Lerer said.

“If I owned a newspaper, I would move to a robust hybrid model immediately,” Lerer said, and “aggressively build out online business and start building a future without the printing press.” He would open the door to citizen journalists’ contributions, Lerer said—not as a replacement for traditional, seasoned journalists, he noted, but as a way “to build online community.” Because “for today’s newspapers to succeed, they’ll have to provide their readers more chances to engage and discuss, react and interact.”

Lerer isn’t without some sympathy for newspapers’ current rock/hard place positioning when it comes to digital migration. “Yes,” Lerer acknowledged, “it’s hard because the advertising isn’t there, and, yes, it’s hard because you have this legacy business that you have to figure out. But if you don’t start, you’re never going to move to where you want to go. Stop arguing, and just do it. That’s the bottom line.”

And “just do it” quickly, he said—because, when it comes to adaptation, “the longer you don’t embrace the new technology, the harder it’s going to be.”

As newspapers embrace digital innovation, Lerer said, they “need to think of themselves as technology companies as well as media companies.” They need to foster engagement rather than rely on passive observation; they need to see the link economy as an opportunity, rather than a threat; and they need to embrace the notion that, as ad exec Linda Kaplan Thaler had it, “ubiquity is the new exclusivity.” Rather than guard the information they gather in “walled gardens”—another phrase Lerer often repeated last night—news organizations need to focus on distributing their content as widely as they possibly can.

“Media today is a networked ecosystem—aggregating, linking, and spurring conversations,” Lerer noted. News organizations that embrace that dynamic diversity have a fighting chance; those that don’t aren’t likely to be around much longer to protect their content. Or produce it.

Still, if we embrace Lerer’s core assumption—that “the future of journalism is not dependent upon the future of newspapers”—then there’s reason for optimism. There’s no reason why news outlets—even newspapers themselves—can’t succeed online, Lerer said. “They do not have to compromise their journalism, even as their business model devolves, inevitably.”

Lerer pointed to the familiar rays of light in all the business-model gloom—the fact that “there are more readers of news than ever before,” and the fact that “that number is growing every year”—and noted the undeniably happy development that, now, journalists can reach audiences around the world. “There are going to be plenty of people—I think probably more people than now—practicing journalism” in the future, he noted. And “that will make for a huge amount of content online.”

“We’ve only just begun to explore new models for news delivery,” Lerer said. “While no one knows what the future will look like”—again, the caveat—“I’m confident that in a few years, tops, the news landscape will look fundamentally different from what it looks like today.”

And that’s a good thing, he said, a future to be embraced rather than chafed against. As long as the public puts a premium on quality information—which it will continue to do, he said, just as it has in the past—“then journalism will continue to survive.” And thrive. “Journalism isn’t in jeopardy,” Lerer said. “It’s just in another transition to a new and better place.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.