Bob Massie

“BREAKING NEWS”: Why the New York Times and Harvard Should Merge

In Business and Sustainability, Education, Politics on February 7, 2009 at 4:33 pm

The business model – which is another way of saying the underlying purpose – of just about everything is changing right now, and that includes the university and the newspaper.

Consider these parallels:

What is the purpose of a newspaper?

To establish a network of fact-seekers (correspondents) who pass information to a group of quality control processors (editors) who repackage the information for consumption as articles (and books) for a group of people (readers and other learners) eager to find out what is going on in the world.

What is the purpose of a university?

To establish a network of fact-seekers (researchers and students) who pass on information to a group of quality control processors (faculty members) who repackage the information as articles (and books) for a group of people (students and other learners) eager to find out what is going on in the world.

So what is the difference between these two institutions?

Most of them are rooted in history and the physical (and thus economic) limits to the collection and transfer of information.

Universities were invented in the ancient world and again in the Middle Ages.  They were designed to collect elite learners around a library, which is a big building full of information packaged into scrolls or books — the earliest form of a server. As libraries got bigger, information became harder to locate, which launched the new profession of librarians. And because the increasing quantities of information became difficult to navigate on one’s own, universities created separate, epistemologically bounded “disciplines” with professional guides and explorers, known as “professors.”

Newspapers were invented in the age of greater literacy and decentralized printing to communicate information rapidly. But to gather that information they needed to disperse correspondents, send information back to a centralized group of editors, who sorted it into “news” articles that were redistributed back to a dispersed group of learners. Getting the newspaper delivered to your front door is perhaps the earliest form of the Internet.

Of course, there were and are some important differences.

Journalism, in its rush for the new, is often seen as the “first draft of history.” Academic research, through its slower, more deliberative pace, weighs information comparatively, over a longer arc of time, disconnected from some of the passions of the moment.

But both of these are really points on a continuum. Journalists have found that in addition to breaking stories, they need to do analysis. Academicians have discovered that in addition to reviewing the past, they need to pay attention to the the future.

And everybody writes articles, whether for academic journals or magazines or blogs.

What are some of the other similarities that might move the notion of such a merger from a bizarre idea to a practical possibility and then to a necessity?

• Students in universities are eager to keep to track of what is happening so that they can find their way in the world outside their institutions.

• Adults outside instiutions often want to share discoveries and wisdom and continue learning in greater depth throughout their lives.

• Currently both universities and newspapers rely on the same old-fashioned and restrictive business model: they try to channel the flow of information into a bottleneck which they control, and then they charge people for access to the information. We know that some forms of learning can only take place among actual human beings learning from each other in “meatspace” (though I prefer the term “meetspace.”) But as both the news and the human intellectual genome bottled up in colleges are increasingly released on to the Internet for free, the justification for these forms of restriction will begin to fall. And more and more are recognizing that global free education is a right, not a privilege. Equally important, it is possible.

• Newspapers are trying to shore themselves up by competing with universities for endowments. Universities are trying to earn more money by competing for readers with newspapers. Newspapers take money for corporations for advertising. Universities take money from corporations for research. Why not set good, strong, ethical guidelines — bring the two together, so that both are enabled to become less reliant on commercial interest?

Here’s the thought experiment: if Harvard University formally merged with the New York Times, then every Harvard student could potentially become a reporter for the paper as they roamed the world.

And every reporter could take time off and be refreshed as a teacher, a learner, a researcher not driven by deadline. And every professor could become a potential Paul Krugman (though admittedly, Krugman is formally at Princeton).

Both institutions are committed, in theory, to objectivity and fairness, in other words, to veritas. And now “all the news that is fit to print” can no longer be contained on a few sheets of reprocessed dead tree.

Yes, yes, I know that there will be debates about quality and access, about the role of advertising, about competition (what about other newspapers and other universities?), and especially about the other purposes of education – such as passing on the values of moderation and citizenship. Those debates should happen.

But there are 6.5 billion people on the planet – including more than 420 million people in India under the age of 18. 96% of the world’s human eyeballs are not American. The current model is only slightly better at passing on information to the majority of humans as the European monastery was for teaching the great masses of serfs and peasants.

If everything were working fine, the idea of merging information-gathering and information-processing entities might be absurd.

Instead, as universities struggle and newspapers collapse, it may end up being our future.

In an era when it would be cheaper for the New York Times to buy a Kindle reader for every subscriber rather than to keep cutting down trees, when more and more people get their news on Google than through a subscription to any one paper, and when universities are trying to blow up the walls and silos that keep their brilliant employees from solving multidisciplinary problems and to share the courses openly on the Internet, we need to rethink how information and education are linked — from scratch.

If Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust doesn’t call publisher New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. soon, he should call her. And then some very, very interesting things will happen.

And remember – you read it here first!

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  1. I’m sorry. but no.

    Universities and newspaper do not have a parallel definition. Your attributed definition of each is a wishy-washy play on words. There is a reason both have flourished as separate and prestigious institutions throughout their existence – each have entirely different outputs, missions and management structures.

    The best description of a big national newspaper like the New York Times, is as Arthur Miller famously quipped, “A nation talking to itself.” We want our biggest newspapers in the free market and miles away from a cosy endowment because we want the fear of God in each and every editor. It’s the only way you will get smart people to cut the pontification and dig up interesting material in whatever beat they are covering.

    “every Harvard student could potentially become a reporter for the paper as they roamed the world.” BARF.

    Merge Harvard with NYT and instead of a “Nation talking to itself” you get “People who think they are brilliant talking to themselves.”

    “every reporter could take time off and be refreshed as a teacher, a learner, a researcher not driven by deadline. ” Good idea – and you already have it. It’s called the Nieman Foundation.

  2. Interesting extension of the sentiment behind newspapers as information companies. Does Wired get MIT? ;)

    My big issue would be with state schools. What are the implications for an independent press if the press becomes an arm of the government? There’d be some big First Amendment issues, and we’d need some serious firewalls.

  3. Hi Bob,

    Very interesting idea. But I wonder if maybe you’re not going far enough. Having groups of universities (rather than individual institutions) merge with major news sources might work better. The costs would be spread out, and there would be much greater diversity and cross-checking in the reporting and editing. Most importantly, there would be less chance of the newspaper becoming a victim of one university’s budget and politics. (That’s assuming the group of universities would be able to create some sort of independent board/corporation to oversee the newspaper.)

  4. [...] the Internet, we need to rethink how information and education are linked — from scratch. – “BREAKING NEWS”: Why the New York Times and Harvard Should Merge 7 Feb [...]

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