Teaching Examples

How do we define success?
March 5, 2007, 12:52 pm
Filed under: audiences, business, journalism, online

I was thinking about this as I read the prepared statement of Tim Berners-Lee to the U.S. Congress, which he presented as testimony to the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet last week.

Is the Internet “successful”? According to Berners-Lee (he invented the Web; I hope you already knew that):

The lesson from the proliferation of new applications and services on top of the Web infrastructure is that innovation will happen provided it has a platform of open technical standards, a flexible, scalable architecture, and access to these standards on royalty-free ($0 fee patent licenses) terms…. [A]ll who contribute to the development of technical standards at the W3C are required to agree to provide royalty-free licenses to any patents they may hold if those patents would block compliance with the standard.

In Part 3 of Frontline’s News War series (which is much more boring than I had hoped it would be — and look at all those old white men! Five women and 59 men, can you believe that?), there’s a wonderful interview with Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, in which he says at least twice:

“Who cares [what the value of Craigslist is]? We’re not selling. It doesn’t matter.”

Just take a moment to think about what that means.

Is Craigslist “successful” because it’s supposedly worth tens of millions of dollars? Or is it successful because people love it, and they keep coming back to it?

I think success will happen if people like the product. If it lets them do the things they want to do. If they like the way it works.

The good news is, more and more journalists are understanding that the path to success now is online. From Robert Kuttner’s optimistic cover story in the current issue of CJR:

… if most reporters are taking happily to the Web, the several editors I interviewed are positively euphoric. Five years ago, editors were haltingly and grudgingly adding a few bloggers and chat features, because the Web was something that had to be lived with. “It wasn’t very long ago that I and a lot of other people in the newsroom were worried about the competition from the Web, and its effect on the journalism,” says Leonard Downie, executive editor of The Washington Post. “We were wrong. The Web is not the distraction we feared it would be, and all the feedback improves the journalism.”

But the market judges success in a way different from what Berners-Lee was talking about, and differently from the way Newmark defines it. The market deems you successful only if you have secured a higher profit than in the same quarter last year.

Consider (again from Kuttner):

… the economics of the business require newspapers to persist as partly print media for at least another generation. Some Americans still want to pick up a daily paper rather than read content on a screen. And as a business proposition, the average monetary value of a visitor to a newspaper’s Web site is only 20 to 30 percent of a newspaper’s print reader; Web ads command lower rates because of the greater competition among Web sites. So even if a newspaper shut down its print operation, published only on the Internet, and somehow managed to keep its entire circulation, the revenue loss would exceed the cost savings.

Will the center hold? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Rob Curley took a stand (see the second comment; that’s Rob) on how ridiculous it is to expect the online team to “monetize” their journalism in advance — you would never ask the print journalists to do that.

How many journalism organizations are hurting themselves because their first question is, “How are we going to make money with that?”

Is that the right question?

Is that how you define success?

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