Wednesday, September 29, 2004

COLUMN -- Planes, trains and forged memos

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:44 AM |  

Pioneer Press
Sep. 29, 2004

Many have commented on the infamous CBS report on President Bush's National Guard service, both in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere — that diverse Internet community "open to anyone with a modem and some opinions." None mentioned Theodore Levitt.

Levitt authored the classic Harvard Business Review article "Marketing Myopia," which challenged organizations with the question "What business are you in?" He contended that by maintaining a myopic focus on products rather than customers, a business risked losing growth opportunities and ultimately obsolescence.

So what has a marketing wonk got to do with an overzealous CBS News anchor, a blogger "sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing what he thinks" and you and I getting the daily news? As much as two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, had to do with the demise of American railroads — a lot.

The story links to the story, behind the story, of CBS and some forged memos.

Before heading off to work the morning of Sept. 9, Minneapolis attorney/blogger Scott Johnson, co-founder with fellow attorney John Hinderaker of, checked the site's e-mail, one of which suggested the documents used by CBS to discredit the president's National Guard service might be forgeries. Proportional spacing and other typography characteristics in the CBS documents, according to the e-mail, weren't possible on a 1970s-era typewriter.

Johnson, looking for Power Line readers who could support or negate the e-mail's charge, posted the information. Over the next several hours, Power Line received hundreds of responses — not all of them valuable by Hinderaker's account — but many showing "remarkable knowledge of military protocol of the early 1970s, type fonts and typewriters and so on."

Throughout the day, as evidence mounted that the CBS documents were fakes, Johnson and Hinderaker updated Power Line. Other bloggers linked to the Power Line posts adding their own analysis and the expertise of their readers. The Drudge Report posted a link to the Power Line site exposing thousands more to the story.

The mainstream media latched on to the story, investigated and ultimately sanctioned what the blogosphere had already confirmed — the CBS documents were fakes.

The blogosphere has received grudging credit for the speed at which the CBS story broke, but most mainstream media reaction has been of the "yes, but" variety — Yes, bloggers uncovered a significant story, BUT that doesn't make them "journalists."

Mainstream media don't concede what bloggers do is "journalism" — evidence former CBS executive Jonathan Klein's "pajama" comment. Typical is columnist David Broder's lament that "the Internet has opened the door to scores of 'journalists' who [have] no allegiance at all to the skeptical and self-disciplined ethic of professional news gathering."

Which brings us back to "Marketing Myopia."

While the journalism side of mainstream media licks its wounds and snarls rationalizations at the undisciplined rabble storming the Bastille of its self-proclaimed credibility, one wonders what the business side is thinking.

Unlike blogs, which are labors of love, not booming commercial ventures, the mainstream media must make money. Blogs have a single customer — readers. Mainstream media must satisfy consumers who purchase "news" in whatever form best meets their needs and advertisers who purchase those consumers. Neither group has inherent loyalty to a specific product — a broadcast or a newspaper. They have only needs.

In a classic example of marketing myopia, Levitt describes how railroads, operating with a product focus, dismissed the airplane as an innovation to be embraced. They disastrously perceived themselves in the narrow "railroad" business, not the broader "transportation" business and consumers didn't necessarily need railroads — they needed transportation.

Already faced with a significantly functioning blogosphere, are there network executives, newspaper publishers and station managers asking themselves, "What business are we in?" Are they coming up with answers other than "television news," "newspaper publication" and "radio programming?" Have they considered the "information" business and what that recognition might mean for their relationship to bloggers, the Internet and their customers?

The winds of "Hurricane Dan" are already blowing themselves out to the relief of all stressed out "real" journalists. But for media executives (and not just at CBS), now comes the tough construction task, not just rebuilding lost credibility, but creating new models of information businesses.

UPDATE: In today's Start Tribune, Nick Coleman takes off on bloggers --
"Do bloggers have the credentials of real journalists? No. Bloggers are hobby hacks, the Internet version of the sad loners who used to listen to police radios in their bachelor apartments and think they were involved in the world."

Unfortunately, Coleman misses the point in his effort to be clever instead of wise.

UPDATE: The blogosphere does a reality check. Some nice words from Fraters Libertas.