What did the internet do to the news business? It's a big question, but three Harvard Shorenstein fellows are about to give it the longest and most in-depth treatment it's ever received, in the form of an interactive article called Riptide that launches tonight.
What really happened to the news business?
Subtitled "what really happened to the news business," the newly launched Riptide site looks at the history of digital media, starting with the Teletext experiments that promised to deliver news over phone lines in the mid-70s, all the way to Jeff Bezos' purchase of the Washington Post last month. Along the way, the authors dig up untold stories from AOL's early courtship of newspapers and other rarely explored corners of news history. All told, the book-length oral history pulls together 61 interviews spanning nearly half a million words, from figures like Google's Eric Schmidt, AOL co-founder Steve Case and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo.
"No one owns it. I think it's a beautiful thing."
Riptide holds that, contrary to popular belief, many in the news business did see the rise of the internet coming, but shackled to old habits, institutions and revenue streams, they weren't agile enough to stay ahead of the curve. Even forward-thinking companies like Conde Nast, which launched the first generation of editorial sites like Epicurious and Style.com, eventually found themselves fighting tooth-and-nail with blogs that could draw the same audience at a fraction of the cost.
The biggest lingering question is, could it have been any different? For the most part, Riptide's subjects seem to think it couldn't. The fundamental shift — the riptide that the title refers to — was simply too strong. But while many companies were irrevocably damaged, countless others were created, and even the staunchest of the old guard show a little optimism about the future of media in the internet age. As Gerald Levin, former CEO of Time Warner, puts it, "I think we’re where we were meant to end up. The disruption was simply the notion of a network that has no central control that can deliver near infinite capacity… No one owns it. I think it’s a beautiful thing."