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So What Do You Do, Jeff Jarvis, Author Of What Would Google Do?

This Internet expert thinks old media should emulate online innovators

- February 11, 2009
Few old media writers have survived the Internet earthquake as well as Jeff Jarvis. His print experience alone could fill multiple mediabistro.com features: he worked as an editor and reporter at the Chicago Tribune, editor and associate publisher at the New York Daily News, a TV critic at People and TV Guide, and he founded Entertainment Weekly. As an entire generation of print journalists watches their old expectations and institutions crumble, Jarvis is leading a new media revolution.

Since 2001, he's blogged at his popular Web site, BuzzMachine.com, speculating about the future of journalism with the help of an active community of readers. In addition, he's consulted with scores of companies about adapting to new media, including Advance Publications (owners of Conde Nast and Newhouse Newspapers) and The New York Times Company. He also consults with the next generation of journalists, leading the interactive journalism department at City University of New York's graduate school.

This month, Collins Business released his new book, What Would Google Do? (WWGD). The book sums up years of new media theory and practice, showing how Google's innovative business model can help companies survive the transition to a digital world. He analyzes the Internet's implications for journalism, publishing, government, and many other fields. The book release has adapted many of Jarvis' "Google-y" innovations -- selling a $9.99 video book version, excerpting sections on his blog, and allowing readers to browse the text on the HarperCollins Web site.


Name: Jeff Jarvis
Position: Blogger, BuzzMachine.com; professor, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism; columnist, the Guardian
Resume: Creator of Entertainment Weekly; president, Advance.net; TV critic, TV Guide and People; Sunday editor and associate publisher, New York Daily News; columnist, San Francisco Examiner
Birthdate: 1954
Hometown: Chicago
Education: Journalism degree from Northwestern
Marital status: Married to Tammy
First section of the Sunday Times: "None. Read it online."
Favorite TV show: Weeds
Last book read: The Numerati by Steve Baker

How did you make the jump from blog to book? How do you turn your timely short pieces into a longer argument?
The great thing about having a blog is you can explore ideas with people who are very generous about making that idea better. I had blogged about What Would Google Do? (WWGD) in terms of newspapers, and one day I woke up and knew there was a book there.

My agent is Kate Lee at IGM. She was one of the first agents to see talent in blogs, if not the first. I respected her work. I had a couple of book ideas that were kind of sucky, but she brought me in to talk. Later, I sat down and started outlining ideas. I realized as I put ideas down that this notion of WWGD would be a better umbrella. Under that, I created this construct: I didn't want to tell Google's story from Google's perspective -- I wanted to distill the reasons for its success.

In your book, you explain that "middlemen are dead." How has this philosophy influenced your career as a book author? You chose to follow the traditional publishing model for this book, but last year saw massive problems at big publishing houses. How much longer do you think new writers can trust this model?
As long as the traditional model works, I'll choose it. In publishing, they add value. A middleman isn't a middleman if they truly add value. My agent clearly added value in the current marketplace. She gave me great advice on developing the book and formulating the idea. We got to the publishing house, and I learned a lot about the middleman's value there -- my editor improved the book immensely. I wanted the public to be involved in the ideas, pushing me in peer review. My editor is Ben Loehnen, a brilliant line editor. They are promoting relationships with booksellers, which still exist, by god.

In some ways, I say hyperbolically that middlemen are dead, but there are some ways that they are alive more than ever. We have so much content, we can't find the content we want. Clay Shirky calls it "filter failure." The solution is to help curate or aggregate the content -- that's a value added. The opportunity is saying, 'How can I help?'

"We as journalists should have seen what was coming. We should have adapted our skills. Even people who are still employed today have responsibilities to learn and innovate and change."

What's your advice for the hundreds of laid-off journalists in workforce?
Part of the point I make is that we had a responsibility, a stewardship, over journalism. We as journalists should have seen what was coming. We should have adapted our skills. If we don't accept responsibility for the past, then we can't take control in the future. Even people who are still employed today have responsibilities to learn and innovate and change.

There's not a second to waste. They should all be learning the skills of this new world. They are easy to learn. I've accused print people of acting like priesthood, but the online folks did the same thing. These tools are easy and fun to teach, we should be teaching them generously. Get a Flip camera, start doing videos. Enter into conversations, learn about it. Then look for opportunities.

There are plenty of voids in journalism that are opening up. You could follow Debra Galant's example at BaristaNet.com: She was former columnist at The New York Times, and created a local blog. She started her own, she's created real value there. She employs people, she's profitable, and last I heard, she had 10,000 visitors a day. She's bringing journalism and fun and new organization to Montclair. Is it possible in every town? Will it replace your old salary and benefits? No guarantees.

Find something that's not being covered. You can cover an industry, a special interest, or a disease. We journalists look for problems, but we should look for opportunities instead. From my blog work, I got a book deal, consulting, [and] teaching work out of it. Don't count solely the blog income.

Finally, you have to learn the business side, or find somebody else who knows the business. We are unaccustomed to that, but we need to learn it. Be willing to look at new models and platforms. Maybe you'll create iPhone apps. There are all sorts of opportunities, but they are all risky. Do it while you have the luxury of failing.

You recently criticized David Carr's idea for a news iTunes. How does the wisdom of Google apply to this particular situation?
What Carr was going after was the idea that the public is not paying for journalism anymore. That's naive about the economics of media and newspapers. The public never paid for journalism -- advertisers did.

To go to the Google model, it is scarcity versus abundance. It was an economy based on scarcity: 'I own the press and you don't -- nah nah nah.' The Internet clearly blows that apart. Companies in the old model can't reproduce that model. Google creates abundance. The more content there is, the more Google can do. Carr's model wants to recreate the model of scarcity. But the problem with that is that it's impossible to compete with free. TimesSelect proved it: When they got rid of it, traffic went up 40 percent, by one report.

Rather than try to recreate scarcity, you have to find abundance. You don't control it anymore. That's what led to the book, if you ask What Would Google Do? -- how can I turn this around? About.com is a great example. They got 80 percent of their traffic and half their revenue from Google. Google created a spot for them to exist, they helped it succeed -- that's how Google succeeds.

"Once people see they can have an affect on a company, that influences the company's image. On the [Internet], you can see what ideas take on critical mass, [and] which ones whither away. Now the stupid ideas die in public."

What can the Obama administration learn from Google? What's your advice for this new political team as they face our country's daunting problems?
I think to a greater extent, they have already adapted these ideas. By hiring Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook, for the campaign, they used social media brilliantly. Nicolas Sarkozy did all sorts of interesting things for video before he was elected, but I don't think he does it anymore. I hope that's not the case with the Obama administration. Of course, bureaucrats in Washington can derail any good attempts.

What's possible now is that we can have a more collaborative, transparent, and open government. Transparency yields openness, brings people into the process. My first hope is government becomes more transparent.

I think we should abolish the Freedom of Information Act. The government should ask our permission to keep things from us. What if the default was openness? Everything we do is digital, so why not share it?

Do not assume that everything the government does is dastardly. The discussion always defaults to the negative. If people were able to be involved, to share and improve ideas and see that their ideas would pay off, it could change things. It's possible to imagine a world where smart citizens help the government work smarter.

Your book has plenty of advice for how old media companies can learn from Google. What can new media companies -- Nick Denton's Gawker empire or mediabistro.com's network -- learn from your book, especially in this recession?
They have learned already. Nick is the guy who first introduced me to blogs. I chased him to invest in his last company, and he said 'I've got to show you this thing' -- a blog. I didn't see it. Nick is very cagey and brilliant; I don't believe his poor mouthing [pleading poverty as a defense or excuse] for a minute. He's making tough decisions.

These new companies are different. I think if mediabistro.com started 20 years ago, it would have been a newsletter, but now, it's a network. It has jobs, education, and it's very Google-y in its thinking.

However, in my book, I lambaste Yahoo for being the last old media company. You become old really fast. Mostly, I think old companies are still looking at the old world with an old worldview.

In your book, you discuss your evolving interaction with the computer company Dell. Could you explain how that experience shaped your work as a blogger?
I bought a computer and it sucked, and after becoming highly frustrated, I wrote a blog post with a headline "Dell Sucks." I was not influential about computers, but my message rang true for too many readers, and it caused my post to rise up on Google and have an influence on Dell's image.

After one year, they had technicians contact bloggers who complained. And then, Dell started blogging with Lionel Menchaca. He was brilliant at bringing a real human voice to the company. In the same way, Robert Scoble changed Microsoft's image almost single-handedly with his company blog.

Once people see they can have an affect on a company, that influences the company's image. It showed a change in the culture of the company. Starbucks adapted Dell's ideas with MyStarbucksIdea.com. On the site, you can see what ideas take on critical mass, [and] which ones whither away. Now the stupid ideas die in public.

I was fascinated by these suggestions. People said: "My card should have my order and my money on it" and "I want to send my order by my iPhone." Everybody was complaining about the Starbucks line, without ever complaining about the line.

Every time Google puts out a product, they say it's beta -- they say, 'This isn't done yet; we know it, tell us what it needs to be. Help us and we listen.'

In a more contemporary example, how do you feel about the online reporters who kept chasing stories about Steve Jobs' health -- is this fair news for new media journalists?
We're a lot more public now. Young people are more transparent, but there is still a line of privacy. Generally that line is seen as health. I revealed on my blog my heart condition that I got out of Sept. 11. But I don't run a major company. Nobody really suffered from me saying that. Maybe there was an employer who didn't end up hiring me.

There are limits to public-ness, and I don't know where I come down on Jobs. The company is so singularly about his vision -- it brings the argument that everything should be public. The judgment should be this: Is he doing a good job running the company? That's the hope, that they instill Jobs' spirit in the company. It's his job to instill the reasons why Apple succeeds in the rest of the company. That's the job of every CEO.

I have to hope that he's so smart that he realized that. I'm of two minds: Transparency is good, but I also understand the limits of public-ness.

You are the director of the new media program at CUNY. What does your program teach that young journalists need right now? How are you adapting your Google University techniques at this school? What are the other schools missing, in your opinion?
WWGD came from me trying to get the students to think this way. A lot of the students are more net-native than me. I teach them to trust themselves, not to default to our traditional ways. Journalism, like every single industry, must adapt.

The first thing we teach is change. They all learn the tools of the Internet and all media -- they have to. Every student makes video with small and large cameras. They report with phones, blogs, and wikis throughout the whole time they are there. I also teach the impact of that technology -- RSS and search engine optimization so they understand how their stories are found.

Students should be able to make video from scratch; everybody learns Final Cut as our primary tool. They all learn blogs. The program is called interactive journalism. It's hard to teach interactivity without a public to interact with. They have to find a community and try to add journalism to it.

We were not taught the business of journalism. That made us bad stewards of journalism. We have an entrepreneurial journalism class where we can give some students seed money for new ventures. Journalists have to think, 'How do I take advantage of that?'

You wrote, "Do what you do best, and link to the rest." American Media Inc., the publisher of Star, The National Enquirer, Shape and Men's Fitness is struggling right now. What will happen to the link quality of the gossip sphere if they disappear? In general, how will magazines closing affect the link economy?
I think that TMZ does plenty of original stuff, Gawker, Perez Hilton, too -- there are lots of new players. Perhaps Star should have seen ways to work with them -- aggregate with them, sell ads there -- instead, like all old media, they just stayed there.

In general, I believe there is a market -- whether we are talking about gossip or serious journalism -- and I have hope that it will work out. Look what happened with TechCrunch, it has a huge amount of journalism, beating tech sections of newspapers. mediabistro.com covers media more than could ever fit in the pages of The New York Times. If big media leaves, there will be a vacuum -- but it's an opportunity to start something.

Earlier this year, you wrote: "So maybe the Times should buy the Huffington Post -- or vice versa -- and they can start to learn from each other now. Naw, that's going too far." Can you elaborate on that dramatic statement? How can the two economic models ever be reconciled?
What can you learn from the Huffington Post? How to give a people a voice. The Guardian looked at the Huffington Post and said, "Shit, we should have done that." So they created Comment Is Free.

The Guardian has already adopted the Huffington Post model as part of their model. They can link to the news they already have. Part of the problem here is we set our standard at perfection. It's better to be like Google doing beta tests -- it's a confession of imperfection so others can fill it in. That's not the way we are trained as journalists.


Jason Boog is editor of GalleyCat.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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