And how did newspapers try to save themselves? Hiring people like Clay Shirky…

March 18, 2009

Clay Shirky has many cri­ti­cisms of news­pa­pers, but was one of the industry’s biggest mis­takes in the digit­al era rush­ing in inex­per­i­enced con­sult­ants who talked the talk but knew little about busi­nesses and how to build them? As someone wrote in the New York Times in 2001:

In 1999 and 2000, I wit­nessed the arc of Inter­net invest­ment frenzy and col­lapse firsthand while work­ing as a con­sult­ant to a prom­in­ent Brit­ish news­pa­per pub­lish­er, help­ing to cre­ate and spin off Inter­net start-ups based on the par­ent company’s news­pa­pers.

The author was Clay Shirky, a Yale art gradu­ate, who had aban­doned an early career in the­at­ric­al light­ing (“In the early 1990’s, those of us who had quit our day jobs to make a go of this Inter­net thing labored in rel­at­ive obscur­ity.”), to write inter­net guides (e.g. Inter­net by Email).

So how could he save the news busi­ness?

The idea was to gath­er every­one who under­stood the Inter­net into a single busi­ness unit. For the first six months, a half-dozen of us were left to ourselves in a con­ver­ted Lon­don ware­house.

And what did this — I think the word then was ‘incub­at­or’ — achieve?

We out­lined busi­nesses for our par­ent com­pany to cre­ate and spin off as sep­ar­ate com­pan­ies. The first to be launched were Web sites that would make money from job list­ings, auc­tions and real estate sales…

So a year after eBay went pub­lic, the year Craig­list incor­por­ates, the busi­nesses that will save news­pa­pers are online auc­tions, job list­ings, and prop­erty sites…

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