8.1 A Prescient Warning, and Unheeded Advice

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs of recent decades have come from the technology arena. One of the most brilliant business leaders in modern history is Andy Grove, a co-founder of Silicon Valley giant Intel Corp., where he served as chief executive and chairman. In the 1980s he led the company through a wrenching transition, when he and his colleagues changed Intel’s focus from computer memory, a business they were losing to Asian competitors, to the central processor chips that became the heart of the world’s personal computers. With that move, the genius of which became clear only much later, Grove gave Intel its future—at least for the next several decades—and assured his own place as one of America’s great business leaders.

Grove, who is also an author and teacher, believes deeply in journalism’s importance, and he is never shy about speaking his mind. Never was that more clear than in April 1999, when he took the stage at the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, held that year in San Francisco. In a conversation with Jerry Ceppos, former editor of Silicon Valley’s once-great daily newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, Grove warned the editors that their time was running short: Newspapers faced a financial meltdown. He wasn’t the first to issue such a warning, and hardly the last. But the degree to which he was ignored remains instructive, and sad.

At the ASNE conference, he passed this same message on to the editors themselves:

You’re where Intel was three years before the roof fell in on us. You’re heading toward a strategic inflection point, and three years from now, maybe, it’s going to be obvious…. And my history of the technology industry is you cannot save yourself out of a strategic inflection point. You can save yourself deeper into the morass that you’re heading to, but you can only invest your way out of it, and I really wonder how many people who are in charge of the business processes of journalism understand that.

Grove was right about the trajectory, though a bit premature about the timing. He was even more right about the industry’s likely response: rampant cost-cutting, much too little investment and, above all, the failure to appreciate the value of entrepreneurial thinking.

How times have changed. The entrepreneurial, startup culture has infiltrated journalism in a big way—because so many people are trying new things, mostly outside of big enterprises but also inside the more progressive ones; because Digital Age experimentation is so inexpensive; and because we can already see the outlines of what’s emerging.

Although the transition will be messy, we’re heading toward a great new era in media and journalism. To be sure, we are losing some things we need, at least temporarily. But I’m an optimist, because if we do the transition right we’ll have a more diverse and vibrant media ecosystem. And by “we” I mean you, me and everybody.

“Ecosystem” and “diversity” are key words here. The dangers of monocultures—systems that have little or no diversity—are well understood, even though they still exist in many areas, such as modern farming and finance. Because monocultures are inherently unstable, the results are catastrophic when they fail—as we saw with Wall Street in 2008. A diverse ecosystem, by contrast, isn’t as threatened by failures, because they tend to be smaller and are replaced by new successes. In a diverse and vibrant capitalist economy, the failure of enterprises is tragic only for the specific constituencies of those enterprises, but what the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” assuming that we have fair and enforceable rules of the road for all, ensures the long-term sustainability of the economy.

Recall from Chapter 1 that the journalistic ecosystem of the past half-century was dominated by a small number of giant companies. Those enterprises, aided by governmental policies and manufacturing-era efficiencies of scale, controlled the marketplace and grew bigger and bigger. The collision of Internet-fueled technology and traditional media’s business model, which is heavily reliant on advertising sales, was cataclysmic for the big companies.

But is it catastrophic for the communities and societies the big companies served? In the short term, it’s plainly problematic, at least when we consider Big Journalism’s role as a watchdog (inconsistent though the dominant companies have been in serving that role). But the worriers appear to assume that we can’t replace what we will lose. They have no faith in the restorative power of a diverse, market-based ecosystem, because they have little or no experience of being part of one.

The diversity that’s coming—in fact, is already arriving—is breathtaking. As we all come to demand better from our information sources, and create trustworthy information ourselves, we’ll have the choices we need at our fingertips.

And remember this: The largest companies in the world started with individual people’s ideas. Maybe yours will someday be one of them. Even if you don’t really believe that, don’t ever assume you can’t try. Here’s why.

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