The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

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Good Eating, a bridge to the future

The first and last issues of the Chicago Tribune's Good Eating section, 1/25/1995 and 7/11/2015.

The first and last issues of Good Eating, 1/25/1995 and 7/11/2015. (Yes, to scale.)

It was snowing in Arlington Heights when the lightning struck.

It was 1994, and I was in a darkened room watching a focus group through a two-way mirror. It was one of 16 such groups I monitored that year in order to learn about Chicagoans’ thoughts about food, cooking, recipes, and nutrition; I was leading a Tribune team charged not just with reinventing the food section, but actually with saving it — and with extending its success beyond print into television and online.

“All I really want,” one suburban mother and cook told the moderator, “is for my husband and kids not to hate what I put on the table.”

That was the lightning bolt. Throughout the rest of that day’s groups, I listened to people differently, focusing less on their activities and more on their motivations. And the next morning, I called a meeting of the project team to make an announcement. From that moment forward, we would not be working on a “better food section” centered on great recipes, the model since 1957. We would be working on a section built around a single idea: success with food. Success, however any reader might define it.

I didn’t know it, but we had stumbled onto a version of what Clayton Christensen was already calling these people’s “job to be done” — one of several things about this food project that would, sooner than any of us could have realized, become crucial we plunged into the Internet business along with the rest of the newspaper industry. The Tribune’s decision to retire the Good Eating name with last week’s issue creates an occasion to evaluate the effort, 21 years after the section launch.

A changing marketplace

So why did the food section need saving? Continue reading

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

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