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Will Newspapers Survive the Digital Transition? [Change)Waves / Social Technologies]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Social Technologies
Change)Waves newsletter
Premier Issue / Fall 2007

Will newsrooms and magazines across the country make the transition to digital media, successfully adapting the way they gather news, deliver content, and generate revenue? Witt the printed publication disappear? Will bloggers and “citizen journalists” replace journalists?

Martin Nisenholtz just might have the answers.

For starters, the senior vice president of digital operations at The New York Times Company rejects a comment made by his friend, retired Microsoft VP Dick Brass, who suggested the last print edition of the Times will be published in 2016.

“I think he has missed the point,” argues Nisenholtz, who since February 2005 has been responsible for the strategy, development, operations, and management of The New York Times Company’s digital properties, including About.com. “I’m not sure that our new, digital journalism will ever really replace the extraordinary package that is the printed newspaper. The more important strategic point is that, as participants in this rapidly changing landscape, we imagine new possibilities and prepare to recognize the sparks that lead to big fires and fuel them when they ignite.”


Nisenholtz has a theory about those sparks and fires. “Long ago, it struck me that we were witnessing a century-long historical arc that began in the 1940s,” he says. He breaks this arc down into four phases (see below, Four Phases of Nisenholtz’s Digital Arc).

The first phase, which began shortly after World War 11, was characterized by aggregation and sorting of the world’s knowledge—but this content was accessible mostly to small groups of academics, government officials, and a few private organizations.

Today we are firmly in Phase 11, where access to knowledge is the defining characteristic thanks to sites like Google and Yahoo. We are starting, however, to move into Phase 111.

The third phase, Nisenholtz says, is characterized by creativity and will give birth to “wholly new forms of publishing media that borrow from the elements of the first two phases, but bring users new and original ways of communicating.” Plus, he adds, it will give birth to a “new class of competent creators.”

The Times is not merely keeping pace with these developments, Nisenholtz insists: leaders at the media giant are working hard to stay ahead of the curve.
He points to October 11, 2006, “a pivotal day in the newspaper’s history.”

On that morning New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle’s small airplane crashed into the 40th floor of an apartment building on the upper east side of Manhattan. Rather than dispatching print reporters and photographers, drawing up a story list for the next day’s paper, and posting a blurb on the website, a video unit was sent out first and the Times broke the story online.

“The coverage was faster, richer, and deeper than anything we’ve done before online,” Nisenholtz explains. “Within a few hours we were offering slideshows, audio, video, and pictures so remarkable that they drew hundreds of compliments from readers. Most importantly, we’d made this magical transformation from Phase 11 to Phase Ill.”


In the next five years media houses and journalists will struggle to come to terms with the final phase of the arc. The transition will not be without challenges, “but in the end, the Millennium generation—the first to grow up with complete connectivity-will absorb and convey information in new ways,” Nisenholtz concludes.

Nisenholtz believes new forms of expression will come into existence:

• New tools for media production will empower this new “creative class to tell stories that combine all types of media,” he says. “We can show this in early form with our Cory Lidle example.”

• This new type of storytelling, he adds, will increasingly be “done in a non-linear, hyperlinked format, as databases are woven seamlessly into the fabric of a story.”

• Finally, Nisenholtz says, “the boundaries of mainstream media will expand into social networks supported by online reputation systems.” This means that readers wilt value a publication as much “as much for its audience as for its content.”

Scott Smith, a futurist at Social Technologies who tracks changes in culture and media, agrees. He, too, sees a dramatic change coming in terms of how media outlets operate.

“One major trend that has developed from the intertwining of digital journalism and consumer-generated content is the emergence of massively parallel emotion where consumers share their views of breaking events—often with high emotion-around major tragedies such as terrorist attacks, or even around a major celebrity news item, and those views are captured and even stoked by the immediacy of digital media,” says Smith.

“Letting non-journalists become direct actors in the tone, content, capture, and distribution of news will have a profound effect on how news outlets and journalists operate in coming years. So-called old-school journalism will have even less of an impact, and the nature of what we consider to be news will be determined more by emotion.”


*• PHASE I—*This phase, which began shortly after WWII with the invention of digital computing, was characterized by aggregation and sorting of the world’s knowledge. This knowledge was accessible mostly to government officials and academics.

*• PHASE II—*Access is key to the second phase, which began in the early 1990s and continues to expand as more people around the world connect to the Internet. Nisenholtz credits companies such as Google and Yahoo with fully realizing the potential of this phase by giving a worldwide audience real-time access to the vast stores of information.

*• PHASE III—*Creativity is the thrust of this portion of the arc. Born from the ashes of the dot-com bust, this phase has given birth to new forms of media that enable people to communicate and interact with information in new and original ways.

*• PHASE IV—*Nisenholtz believes this final phase of the arc will begin to become more dominant around 2012 when devices, operating systems, and interfaces come together to create a wholly new experience. It wilt eventually create massive institutional dislocation and “radically transform the institutions-corporate, academic, and government that support the information economy,” he says. “These transformations—which may seem apparent to some even today—have only just begun.”


More ChangeWaves / Social Technologies Articles

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• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
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• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.