Massive layoffs with no end in sight. Wave after wave of acquisitions and mergers fueled by the excesses of artificially cheap capital. Widespread fear that an entire industry will stall or simply cease production.
These phrases describe the news industry today, but they also echo what was heard about the high-tech industry during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) laid off people by the tens of thousands; Wang Computers, Data General, and Apollo Computer sank beneath the waves. Prime Computer fought off a hostile takeover attempt by corporate raiders only to die of its wounds. IBM and Hewlett-Packard survived, but never regained their roles as central innovators in their industry.
My life has been spent in high-tech, not journalism. My parents met over a mini-computer; my marriage comes with free lifetime technical support; our kids will know their Emacs from their Vi. Now I run two hyperlocal Web sites—h2otown.info, about the place where I live, Watertown, Massachusetts, and placeblogger.com, where blogs with an insider’s point of view about places they know best are compiled. Others call what I do “citizen journalism,” and this is why my path now converges so much with yours.
I’ve been communicating and connecting via computer since I was a kid. Over time, I haven’t strayed far from what I’ve always done, but in many ways journalism has been drifting steadily in my direction. What’s going on now with journalists—as layoffs hit and thinking about the future turns to teaching or wondering if your kids will follow in your footsteps—happened to me and mine during high-tech’s tailspin, and it made for a few miserable Thanksgiving dinners paid for with unemployment checks and spent with laid-off aunts, uncles and cousins.
When high-tech’s central institutions blew up, people asked many of the same questions I hear asked by journalists today. Without these institutions, who will fund the mission? How will we attract the talent we need to make the transition? Just as journalism without newspapers seems inconceivable, it seemed to many of us back then that innovation could not continue without the force, resources and sheer heft of the companies that formed the core of the high-tech industry. Who would write the next operating system? Who would create the next generation of microprocessors?
Today, journalists ask how democracy will fare in our country without the robust free press they’ve been a part of. Back then, technology folks were asking how the United States could retain its leadership position without big, powerful computing companies.
There can be no underestimating the pain of the tech implosion: People who got laid off expected to be out of work for a year or more; people lost their houses, got divorced, or left the industry entirely. The lucky ones took early retirement packages. To make matters worse, many people had deep loyalties to the companies they worked for and spoke with pride of the “HP way” or the “IBM way.”
This breakdown wasn’t sudden: From beginning to end the dismantling took nearly a decade. We decamped from the Titanic and dispersed in every direction in a fleet of kayaks: small, self-propelled, and iceberg-proof. We learned through all of this to be loyal to our friends and to the ideas and ideals for which we had genuine passion. It was our friends who were going to pull us out of the cold water. And it was our ideas that would relaunch us after this setback.
What we discovered, of course, was that innovation survived the death of its institutions. Only 10 years after DEC founder and CEO Ken Olsen stepped down amid the massive layoffs, Google was launched. And if you are reading these words on the Nieman Web site, both of us are beneficiaries of LAMP, the “web stack” that serves the vast majority of sites and browsers across the world. The acronym LAMP stands for its components—Linux, Apache (a Web server), MySQL (database), and PHP (scripting language)—each of which began as the contribution of an individual and is maintained by a distributed cast of thousands. The central innovations of the Web today don’t emerge from the labs of giants but from the dorm rooms of kids. And on them is constructed a big and varied industry with, yes, actual paychecks.
Do not mistake this message as a prediction that the news industry’s misery is mere stage setting for a glorious resurgence. It isn’t. As the Web, emerging software, and news coverage merge gradually—but certainly—into a single industry, the stability and security of those times when our foundational institutions were big and strong are gone and will never return. Gone with them are bloated bureaucracies and that feeling of giving up trying to change anything because it’s impossible to figure out how many people to ask for permission. All of these and more are as dead as IBM’s dress code of blue blazer, red tie, white shirt.
On the decks of a career Titanic, passengers sat back and let others ensure their safety and set their course. Traveling now by kayak, setting your direction, and learning to keep yourself safe have become essential skills. From a fellow kayaker, let me pass along this navigational advice as you enter the high-tech waters:
- High tech is a boom and bust industry. We get laid off when the economy is good, and we get laid off when the economy is bad. Investors get fed up and pull the plug on small companies; at big companies, the CEO must, on ceremonial occasions, throw a few sacrificial victims to the volcano gods on Wall Street. We don’t even take it personally anymore. If it weren’t for layoffs, we’d never take a vacation. If you value your sanity, have some savings, and don’t take out big mortgages.
- Jobs are temporary. Friends are forever. High tech offers reincarnation without having to die. The person who’s your boss now is someone you’ll hire as an employee later; then they’ll be your boss again. Everyone gets recycled. Act accordingly; you will see them again.
- Nobody has the right qualifications. If you think you aren’t qualified to work at Google or Yahoo!, you haven’t worked there. People with all sorts of backgrounds have jobs at high tech companies. Perhaps the best way to get a job at The New York Times is to start by getting one at Facebook. Bring your values to online companies; bring your skills back to news companies. Then repeat the cycle.
- Projects, not companies. Look for interesting projects, not prestigious companies. A set of ideas will last a decade or more, even if they get housed in half a dozen companies during that time. Companies can’t and won’t provide stability, and even prestigious, exciting companies have a ton of boring, dead end jobs.
- Time is on my side. Why pick up that “Learn to Build Google Maps” book if you don’t know how long it will take for you to be able to do something useful—or even if you’ll be able to do something useful when you’re done? Set your goal-orientation aside for an hour or two a week for study and experiment with something that excites you without any practical expectation of results. On-the-job training just makes you an expert in something you don’t love.
- Breaking things is a privilege. Progress is about alternating breaking and fixing. Anything 100 percent functional is 100 percent dead.
- Read the manual. It’s all they really teach at MIT. Yes, read the, uh … fine … manual. The whole thing. Really.
- Write the manual. No manual? Write one. Your newspaper Web site lets users blog—and has no manual? No video tutorials? Why not? Create the documentation and you don’t just know it—you wrote the book on it.
- Narrow comprehensiveness. The Web rewards narrow comprehensiveness: “Everything about something.”
- Collapsing vs. building. Traditionally, the news industry has taken stuff that’s free—public information, for example—and made it worth money by adding editorial value. On the Web, the more successful companies don’t build, they collapse, by taking something that used to cost money and making it free. Craigslist isn’t the only one that can play this game.
It’s tough to hear about what’s happening to your industry, as I do frequently these days since I am asked to attend a lot of conferences and workshops with journalists—and there the talk is about little else. I do believe that the values and work you care about have a chance of survival. On behalf of my global tribe of bloggers and citizen journalists from Mumbai to Minneapolis, I bid you welcome.
Lisa Williams is the founder of Placeblogger, the largest live site of local Weblogs, and of h2otown. In May she received a Knight News Challenge grant to support her work on these Web sites.