Who runs newspapers? Who should run news web sites?

Joel Spolsky from Inc. Magazine (via SVN):

Watching nonprogrammers trying to run software companies is like watching someone who doesn’t know how to surf trying to surf. Even if he has great advisers standing on the shore telling him what to do, he still falls off the board again and again. The cult of the M.B.A. likes to believe that you can run organizations that do things that you don’t understand. But often, you can’t.

Readers, I need a hand.  Can you answer two questions for a newbie?

  1. I don’t know who runs newspapers.  Are publishers usually former journalists?  Or are they more frequently experts in publishing topics like ads, printing and distribution?
  2. Who should run news web sites?

I’m constantly amazed at how bad news web sites are.

For example: Search the Chicago Tribune for my dean’s name, “Lavine.”  It returns no results.  There were at least a half dozen articles about Dean Lavine printed in the last six months, I promise.  What gives?

My suspicion is that the folks running the news sites just don’t understand the web.  If the web is the future of news, should technologists be the publishers?  I’m thinking no, instead it should probably be tech-saavy journalists.

The only strong feeling I have is that it should *not* be ink and paper newspaper publishers.

9 thoughts on “Who runs newspapers? Who should run news web sites?

  1. Most of the newspaper publishers I work with came up from the advertising. I’ve known one who started as a pressman. At very small papers, the publisher often is the editor, so they presumably know their way around the inverted pyramid.

    Who should run news sites? Journalists, but with tools developed by people fluent in both code and news.

  2. Hm. This is problematic.

    Why aren’t publishers journalists? I’m guessing that there’s so many other, soulless skills required in running a newspaper (ad sales, etc.) that journos weren’t interested. 🙂

    Can the web change this? I think maybe.

    If Google sells the ads, and your operations are reduced from printing plants and a fleet of trucks to a CMS, does this open the door for the entrepreneurial journalist?

    The best modern software companies are small, smart meritocracies. Maybe this is because they had the tools first. They live on the web and reap all the benefits.

    We’re both knowledge industries. We both produce useful information, begging to be copied, shared, and remixed.

    Journalism could, no should, be able to streamline just as much as a modern web shop. Blogs do it. How about a bigger news org? Huffpo?

    Screw the ad guys. We don’t need ’em. The journos should run the show. (While we’re at it, how long until the web enables the philosophers to be kings?)

  3. If you can live on the cheap, sure, screw the ad guys. Bloggers have, right? Otherwise the newspaper lives or dies based on ad revenue, so no big surprise if that’s who runs the paper. (I don’t actually know, but it seems plausible.)

    In the case of “big” blogs (something like Engadget) they do seem to be run by bloggers. And I think the same is mostly true of small community newspapers. Both small institutions. Of course, maybe they are small because they are relatively unsuccessful, and the successful small newspapers of yesteryear were run by ad people who made them larger? Well… it’s all a feedback cycle, because the successful people of yesteryear also sought out markets that were lucrative, passing over stuff like a community newspaper that just doesn’t have that much potential.

  4. Ian – The more I think about this, the more I feel like we’re onto one of the major disconnects between old and new media.

    Maybe the future of the journalism lies not in bringing newspapers online, but in giving journos better low-overhead platforms. Blogs were the first form of entrepreneurial journalism on the web, but I’m certain they won’t be the last.

  5. “My suspicion is that the folks running the news sites just don’t understand the web.”

    I can see why you would think so. In some cases, it’s true. But in some cases, the people “running the news sites” do not have any say over the tools they are required to use.

    Much time and effort is wasted — an awful amount, really — by perfectly competent online producers, reporters and editors who are stuck using a “from hell” CMS forced on them by a corporate parent.

    The tools really suck. Go take a field trip and ask to see them. You’ll want to weep.

  6. Hey, Mindy!

    I’m in no way picking on the producers, reporters and editors. I hope I haven’t offended any of those lovely people. We’ve got a CMS at Medill that could squash the spirit of the feistiest reporter – it’s dreadful.

    When I say run, I mean the people in charge – the folks who pick the CMS and decide on the strategy. I’m guessing from your comment and my experience with other industries that they don’t use the tools they choose?

    A chef buddy of mine likes to say that a fish rots from the head down. I reckon this is the case with online news.

    If the publisher/CEO/whomever doesn’t get/live/love the web, there’s little chance that their web site will be any good.

    To me this is more evidence that the journalists need to be much higher up in the publishing process, which isn’t all that difficult if you run a news organization like a tech startup – low overhead, shallow org structure and killer tools.

    Am I dreaming here?

  7. @Brian – Yes, in general, some people choose the tools who have zero understanding of the tools (or software in general) and who will never, ever have to use them.

    The people who will use them are not involved in the decision process (usually).

    Doesn’t this sound like Management 101? I mean, it’s not like this is a shoe factory.

  8. I don’t have professional newspaper experience, but I do have professional magazine experience, and that’s a whole different beast. Companies with regional magazines have had historically sloppy moves to the web. I think this is because, in the course of growing the company, the parent company needs to a) keep some cohesiveness among the publications, while b) allowing each some autonomy that allows them to be responsive to their market. But it is difficult and costly to give each market it’s own site. So they have to have one site. And since the publishers are used to being heard, it becomes website by referendum. It takes forever, regional magazines usually don’t have enough staff to do unique online content (it’s enough to put a whole magazine out with three editors who also write a ton of content), and the parent company can’t add to that burden with online. That’s just my view of things. I’m willing to be wrong, but, like I said, I’ve seen it firsthand.

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