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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