With the soul of an old-school news junkie, he's taking the biz into the heart of new worlds
In the news business today, there's old media, like newspapers and TV. There's new media, like blogs and Web sites. And there are a few clever people bridging the gap, like Mike Davidson, the 33-year-old chief executive of Newsvine, a Seattle Web site where people can act as editors and nominate the day's top stories. MSNBC.com bought the 2-year-old venture in October, so Davidson, an alumnus of the University of Washington and ESPN.com, might have more time to riff on the news business, tech trends and the startup world on his popular blog at MikeIndustries.com. Here's a sample:
Q: What are your daily must-read sources of news and information (besides Newsvine, MSNBC and The Seattle Times)?
A: I get most of my non-Newsvine news through the 68 RSS feeds (automated updates from blogs and news sources). That's down from about 125 I followed at the height of my blog reading. I prefer sources that publish only one or two items a week, but some of my favorites are Daring Fireball, Kottke and Freakonomics. Also, we're right in the middle of fantasy football season, so ESPN is near the top of the radar right now as well.
Q: Are you still glad you bought an iPhone the day it came out?
A: Absolutely. I originally drove our intern down the morning of that first day to wait in line for us, but when I got to the University Village Apple Store, there was just so much Apple love in the air that I decided to wait the whole eight hours myself as well. It really was a lot of fun. The iPhone is a device I've waited about 10 years for, so it felt fitting to stand vigil with everyone for the final several hours as we prepared ourselves to be delivered once and for all from poorly-designed-cellphone hell.
Q: What's the coolest thing happening in tech nowadays?
A: I think location-awareness probably excites me the most. Once you have a GPS chip in your camera, your car, your phone and your shoes, you can start doing really interesting things with data. We've already seen how in-car navigation systems can make our lives easier, but imagine going on a trip around the world and having the simple action of snapping a photo create a three-dimensional breadcrumb trail of all the places you've been. Now imagine crossing that trail with previous trails you've made or the trails of friends. Location awareness also has dramatic implications on commerce as you start to think of all the ways businesses can sell to you if they know you're in the vicinity.
Q: How will new technologies — besides the iPhone — affect the next presidential election?
A: The most interesting thing the Internet has done to the political process is to take control away from politicians and their handlers and put it in the hands of everyday people. One reason politics have never interested me much is that I can't stand how groomed and prepared everyone is. When I'm listening to a speech from a candidate, chances are it was written by a speechwriter. When I see an ad for a candidate on TV, there's a good chance the campaigner never even saw it until after it was produced. Even the debates seem banal sometimes. What I really want to see is how candidates act when they are caught off-guard. The Internet has given anyone with a computer the ability to produce their own political ads on behalf of, or against, any candidate, and that has led to some interesting work.
Q: You've talked about e-mail overload on your blog. How do you cope with the digital deluge?
A: I've gone with a decidedly low-fi approach, and now limit all e-mail responses — regardless of recipient or subject — to five sentences or less. It's the only way to keep my inbox under 100 messages.
Q: Mainstream media's been a punching bag in recent years. Will that ease up, now that the nation's doing some soul-searching over the war and election?
A: I think that whenever technology and tools make their way down the food chain, the people up the chain always get punched. Look what happened when the Macintosh introduced personal desktop publishing. People were saying, "Who needs designers anymore!?" 23 years later, we still have designers, and they are in higher demand now than they ever have been. When blogs and personal publishing exploded onto the scene, the first reaction was similar: "Who needs journalists and mainstream media when we can all write now!?" Well, guess what? Writing is hard. Journalism is hard. Everyone can do it, but professionals usually (though not always) tend to do the best job.
The key thing about big media and small media . . . is that they both work best in concert with the other. It's good to have citizens on the ground, breaking stories early. It's also good to have professional journalists fully investigating and blowing these stories out as much as possible. Other times it works in reverse as well, with big media breaking stories and individual bloggers fact-checking, correcting and expanding on them. It's a win-win for the news consumer.
Q: How are most people going to consume news in 20 years?
A: Well, the magazine you are reading this in, and the paper that contains it, will both be long gone. Any news company that still considers themselves a "newspaper company" should wake up and realize that their future is as a "news bureau" more than anything else. There may still be a printed newspaper in 20 years, but it will come in a customized form through your home printer. With the advent of ultra-high-resolution rollable screens, multi-touch interfaces and ubiquitous connectivity, though, it's hard to see how paper will even have any advantages at that time.
One thing that concerns me, though, is the question of customizable news and how healthy or unhealthy it is for society. When you start getting your news via RSS and other customizable channels, you tend to zero in on sources which are already in line with your own ideologies and tune out the rest. . . . It's important, going forward, to keep a mix of sources in your news diet which ensure you're getting a full picture of what's going on in the world, as opposed to a picture that just backs up your current opinions.
Q: If most of the ad revenue shifts to Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, how will the Fourth Estate be funded?
A: In the end, content is king, and the press is the creator of a lot of that content. The Microsofts, Googles and Yahoos of the world are great at doing interesting things with that content, distributing it more widely, and selling ads against it, but it's the content creators who are the catalysts of that process. I don't think you'll ever see all of the revenue moved over to the aggregation/sales side of things, but certainly the more value they provide, the larger their cut will be.
Q: If you were starting another business today, what would it be?
A: I can't give that away or somebody else might start it first!
Brier Dudley is The Seattle Times technology columnist. Thomas James Hurst is a Times staff photographer.