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My Business Week Interview

In the Business Week article I point to in the posting below, Steve Hamm quotes me (very) briefly. Here’s our full exchange (I’ve combined two emails):

Question: Could the Mercury News or Knight Ridder have done a better job of keeping their readers or gaining new ones? If so, how?

Answer: The trends — demographic, financial and technological — have been working against the newspaper industry for some time. The Merc and KR were caught in a particularly bad bind given the collapse of not just the tech bubble but also the tech-advertising bubble.

That said, there’s always room for improvement. For example, the paper (and company) didn’t take advantage of the vertical-market opportunity offered by, a truly baffling misstep from my perspective.

And I continue to think that we should have jumped harder into conversational space with readers, offering a variety of initiatives such as reader blogs and a much deeper connection to the communities. (Not, of course, that this has happened in many other papers; the industry is only now getting why this matters.)

Question: The newspaper is trying to reinvent itself now. Is it too late?

Answer: Probably, but not definitely. Newspapers could still become the places that are community centers. Pretty late to get going on this, however.

As for the Merc, some terrific folks are still there despite the bloodletting. They understand (I think) that they’ll need to get radical about adapting to the new reality.

What I don’t know is whether the new owners are basically in business to milk the thing dry or (at least try) to create a sustainable and serious operation for the new world.

Question: When and why did you leave?

Answer: Early 2005. It was time; for one thing, I didn’t want to be one of those columnists who gets predictable and tedious. I’d done the book on citizen media (“We the Media”) and had an opportunity to put some of the ideas into practice. The first experiment didn’t work out, but I’m working on a bunch of projects (and investing in or advising some others) that are at least promising. I do sometimes miss the gig, which was incredibly fun and satisfying (not to mention the extravagant compensation), but I didn’t want to look back in 10 years and realize that I’d missed my chance to make a difference in the infancy of something genuinely transformative.

Question: When you were still at the Merc, did the staff warmly and aggressively pursue the opportunity to publish online, including breaking news and exploring new forms like Blogs? Can you think of an anecdote from that time that illustrates whether they went after this or not?

Answer: Remember that the Merc was quite early in all this, going back to the AOL days. Was the staff universally enthralled with the new media? No way. But enough folks were experimenting that the operation was a clearly a leading light for a time.

I suspect that most of my newspaper colleagues never even glanced at my blog back in its early days (1999). But keep in mind that had a daily online column even then. It took a long time for the Merc to launch its second blog, but again, that was true of the industry in general, too.

The horrible software mess at Knight Ridder Digital (I’m sure you’ve been told about that) slowed down all of the newspapers’ forays into the digital realm. Maybe it was a good business decision, for getting national advertising, but it was a total hairball for people doing the journalism — and they ended up removing years of my blog archives from the Web. That was demoralizing, because it proved the company hadn’t learned the values of the Web in any serious way.

At the same time, I was able to use the blog in pretty much any way that felt right. We were first, I believe, to take posting from the blog and put them into the paper, reversing the usual “repurposing” order. We also used it to break news, such as the Google buyout of the company that created Blogger.

Question: Is TechCrunch to the Mercury News Business section what MTV was to Rolling Stone?

Answer: I don’t think so, though both are about disruption.

MTV came into being in a world of (relative) media scarcity, even though it was part of a somewhat opened-up ecosystem. MTV took relatively deep pockets to start and get onto cable systems.

TechCrunch can rise because there’s no barrier to entry, at least not at the moment. (The “broadband” duopoly is working hard to fix that…)

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