“We won’t save journalism the way it was,” he wrote on his blog back in March of 2005, sounding a little less confident than he does nowadays. “We shouldn’t if we could. The business must change. Some in newsrooms think they should not change, that change is sacrilegious. Of course, that’s ridiculous. From a consumer perspective, if the habits, needs and abilities of the audience change, then so must journalism. From a business perspective, if every other industry in this country has gone through restructuring as it finds new ways to do business, then why shouldn’t journalism? From a journalistic perspective, well, wouldn’t you hope that journalists would be the most curious, the most eager to explore the new? O.K., that last one is a straight line.
“But here’s the news: I am starting to see executives in old, big media figure this out and seek out this change. Will it work? Who the hell knows?”
Three and a half years later, it’s old news. Mr. Jarvis’ message is penetrating.
“I think he’s done a good job translating Internet commonplace into language that traditional publishers can understand,” said Mr. Denton.
Even at the heights of American journalistic success, the air is getting thin. The Times Company stock has lost roughly 65 percent of its value this year, Standard and Poors lowered the company’s credit rating to “Junk” bond status and its marketing capitalization is dangerously close to falling under $1 billion. Last week, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. announced that there would be a 75 percent cut to the company’s dividend, the pool of income that brought the Sulzberger-Ochs family $25.1 million last year.
Mr. Sulzberger, who attended that session at the Plaza and is a personal friend and former colleague of Mr. Rattner, stood near the back and left shortly after that Q&A session, his reaction inscrutable to our spies in the room.
“He’s an ideologue,” said Jon Landman, deputy managing editor for digital journalism at The New York Times, who is answerable for much of the newspaper’s own emergent Web strategy, when The Observer interviewed him on the phone. “And the world needs ideologues. He has bright ideas. I would say, actually, he’s a utopian.”
But when utopians win, he said, “they turn into Mao Zedong.”
“Jarvis’ own career depends on a permanent revolution,” said Mr. Denton. “He needs it to be 1792 [in France] so he can continue to get his consulting gigs and so people can listen to him when he says, ‘The system is broken! It’s broken!’”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon at the CUNY School of Journalism, Jeff Jarvis sat at the front of a classroom, conducting a three-hour seminar on entrepreneurial journalism.
Mr. Jarvis was listening to each of his 10 students, one by one, give presentations on Web sites they will compete for funding to develop.
They were listing specifics on how much traffic their site would generate, where they’d get ads—a lot of them think Nike!—and how much it would cost to get their site going. One person wanted to create a site that would report news from Washington Heights; another wanted to create a New Yorker-like news site in Denmark that would start with virtually no overhead and open its editorial meetings to the public.
The workshop was meant to prepare the students for a final presentation next month to determine who will win the grant.
As each student presented, the classroom looked less like a grad seminar than it did the set of a reality show, like Project Runway. Student prepares news outfit; advice is handed out; judgment is rendered.
And Mr. Jarvis was playing the role of the tough-love, good guy Tim Gunn.
“I really think you’ll need to whiteboard this,” said Mr. Jarvis, in an incredibly deep anchormanlike voice, to one student.
Mr. Jarvis is preparing to send out the next generation of journalists. Also revolutionaries: This is the generation that will finally transform journalism, and rescue it from financial failure, topple its accepted hierarchies and put the field back at the service of the people.
But for most newspaper editors, he remains like that lovable and incredibly intelligent Marxist history professor from college, whose ideas leave a lasting imprint but whose total philosophy reeks of a certain simple-minded completism.
“He’s an all-or-nothing thinker,” said Mr. Landman. “I think subtlety isn’t his greatest virtue.”
“I still think his concept of a minimally edited, largely self-regulating information world tilts too far toward a romantic’s vision of anarchy,” wrote Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, in an email. “And the proliferation of blogs, while wonderful in many respects, has yet to make a compelling case for the wisdom of crowds. Sometimes citizen journalism resembles mob journalism, or vigilante journalism.”