The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

Paving the road to the Web (or just spreading gravel)

On Jan. 19, 1995, I called to order the first meeting of a 10-person Chicago Tribune committee charged by our bosses with figuring out the Internet.

By March 29 … yes, just twenty years ago … we were done.

(Must have been the head start: Since 1992, the company had been running Chicago Online, a service on America Online that was about to become profitable … thanks to the number of hours its users were spending not so much reading the news, but chatting with each other.)

Of course, our merry little cross-functional band knew full well we weren’t done. But we were done enough to pitch a vision and a business plan, and to argue for the organizational bandwidth needed to hire about 18 new staffers. And then to turn them loose.

We also knew that even if we persuaded the bosses to go for our ideas, we could still screw it up. “An uncompetitive or uncompelling product invites ridicule, or worse, complete uninterest,” I wrote. “Reputations are made and lost on the Internet as quickly as technology changes; what once was ‘innovative reuse of content’ is now ‘shovelware.’ A substandard or merely mediocre product not only puts at risk our reputation for technological innovation; it also provides an opening for competitors.”

But enough quoting from source material, whether the prose be deathless or deadly. Continue reading

We celebrate the book, and sing the e-book

IMG_2369 IMG_2362IMG_2371Looking at Julia Keller’s new e-short story: My Kindle Fire, Kindle DX, and Nexus 7. Admittedly, none of this hardware is of recent vintage…

This Saturday (June 7), I’ll be returning to the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest for the first time in a couple of years. It’s the 30th anniversary of an event that was called the Printers Row Book Fair when we acquired it from the Near South Planning Board a dozen years ago. My longtime colleague and Tribune literary editor Elizabeth Taylor invited me back for a panel called “The Digital Revolution,” its general topic being “the many digital developments that are transforming the publishing industry.” (Event details at the end of this post.)

As it happens, the first thing that Liz and I worked on together was itself a “digital development”—a standalone Web site for the Tribune books section called “Chicago Books,” developed for us by Jimmy Guterman and which launched in August of 1997 even though only a fraction of the section’s readers were yet even online — and when, according to my files, a week of 30,000 Books page views was a big deal. (If you want to re-enter that version of the world, check out this piece by Donna Seaman from that month: “Learning to Crawl: Book Lovers Go On-Line.”)

Also as it happens, this is also the week in my Coursera MOOC “Understanding Media by Understanding Google” where one of the two topics being discussed is the impact of the Web in general, and Google in particular, on the book business (the other is the news business). One of the ideas I have put out for agreement or disagreement is taken from Steven Levy’s In the Plex, in which he quotes librarian John Wilkin of the University of Michigan: “Twenty years from now, interaction with a physical book will be rare. Most of that interaction will be in the study of books as artifacts.”

Does my worldwide student body agree? Continue reading

RedEye turns 10. How did it happen? Why did it work?

"Dinner with 12 Strangers" logo

Friday, Nov. 2, was always going to be an interesting night. Back in May, I had agreed to take part in a Northwestern tradition called “Dinner with 12 Strangers,” in which a couple of faculty members, a dozen random students, and some alumni hosts share a meal “in an informal atmosphere that builds Northwestern community and camaraderie,” as my invitation put it.

RedEye's 10th anniversary logoRecently, just after I learned I’d be dining in beautiful nearby Kenilworth, my second invitation for the evening arrived, promising a somewhat different kind of community and camaraderie: “It’s been 10 years of crummy commutes, celeb meltdowns, 3 a.m. taco runs . . . and we’re just getting started. You’re invited to RedEye’s 10th Birthday Bash. Dress to impress; birthday suits not optional.”

How did RedEye happen?

Well, okay then, it was looking like a double-header, not to mention a fine way of wrapping up a week of thinking about how a few paragraphs I wrote in the May 2000 Chicago Tribune strategic plan had turned into something big enough to host a party for more than a thousand of its closest friends:

“Market data indicates that young, time-starved city-dwelling professionals can be be attracted to a newspaper–but that it might take a very different product than the one we produce today . . . Rather than continue to deliver a single newspaper throughout the marketplace and ask its purchasers to make choices from among the content we have bundled together, it may be time to put multiple newspapers in the market and let readers make a choice on what to buy.”

It went on to describe a “5-day-a-week newspaper for single-copy distribution, primarily in the city, Tribune vs. non-Tribune branding to be explored, edited for a younger audience.” Continue reading

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