Dig­i­tal guru on why news­pa­pers will sur­vive

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PROPERTY - THOMAS HEATH

WASH­ING­TON: Ted Leon­sis calls Bill Ra­duchel “a tech­nol­ogy guru, a thought leader and an evan­ge­list for all things dig­i­tal”.

Ra­duchel, 67, is lit­tle known to the gen­eral pub­lic, but he is well known among de­ci­sion mak­ers who span the worlds of economics, de­fence anal­y­sis, com­put­ers and Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Ra­duchel is a self-de­scribed Sput­nik child. “I was start­ing high school just af­ter the launch of Sput­nik,” he says. “So I was sent to a sum­mer science in­sti­tute where I learned math­e­mat­ics and com­put­ers.”

Ra­duchel grad­u­ated from Michi­gan State Univer­sity, earned a PhD in economics at Har­vard and spent five years as head teach­ing as­sis­tant to John Ken­neth Galbraith, who “ex­posed me to peo­ple and ideas I never would have oth­er­wise en­coun­tered”.

He has been us­ing com­put­ers for 52 of his 67 years and has watched them evolve from a nov­elty to a crit- ical part of life. He has worked for or with cut­ting-edge com­pa­nies in­clud­ing AOL, where Leon­sis – then a top ex­ec­u­tive – in­tro­duced him to a young man named Sean Parker, who had just up­ended the mu­sic world with some­thing called Nap­ster.

Ra­duchel took Parker to din­ner, and their friend­ship has en­dured to this day.

His as­so­ciates in­clude the big­gest Sil­i­con Val­ley fig­ures of our time: Sun Mi­crosys­tems founder Scott McNealy, Mi­crosoft founder Bill Gates, for­mer AOL chair­man Steve Case and an­other Steve whose last name was Jobs.

Ra­duchel teaches at Ge­orge­town’s McDonough School of Busi­ness. He also sits on two pub­lic boards and one pri­vate one, ad­vises oth­ers and does some an­gel in­vest­ing. He has ad­vised Naspers – the gi­ant South African me­dia com­pany – for 15 years and ad­vises the Daily Mail in Lon­don. “Me­dia trans­for­ma­tion still ex­cites me af­ter over 30 years,” he says.

You are a strate­gic ad­viser to the Daily Mail and you con­sult with Naspers, the South Africabased me­dia gi­ant that has pub­lish­ing and pay tele­vi­sion and is the largest in­ter­net ser­vice provider in the emerg­ing world. Are you bullish on news­pa­pers?

Am I bullish on the need for in­for­ma­tion that is struc­tured, or­gan­ised and cu­rated? Yes. How else do we make sense of the world?

In 10 years, we will still have things that are called news­pa­pers. They may be elec­tron­i­cally de­liv­ered. His­tor­i­cally, peo­ple have read a morn­ing pa­per for 20 to 30 min­utes on aver­age and news­pa­pers ended up evolv­ing to fill that need.

You sat down and they tried to give you 20 to 30 min­utes. What mat­ters in most news­pa­pers is own­ing that habit. If I own a habit, that’s re­ally valu­able.

The Wash­ing­ton Post owns the habit in that I read the pa­per ev­ery morn­ing. I have al­lo­cated 20 min­utes of my life to The Post. That’s the as­set.

I start my day with the premise that I am go­ing to spend 20 min­utes or more con­sum­ing in­for­ma­tion that has been struc­tured and or­gan­ised for me by The Post.

It re­ally doesn’t mat­ter whether it’s on the tablet, on­line or on pa­per. Un­for­tu­nately, not many 20-yearolds have that habit. Now we are de­liv­er­ing con­tent in shorter bursts that are far more in­tense. What is the an­swer? If you lis­ten to the elites, they say you go on Twit­ter and get a list and track them and build your own news­pa­per. But those peo­ple are a tiny per­cent. Most peo­ple need struc­ture and cu­ra­tion and want to know what they should know.

What do you mean by struc­ture?

Why do you read a book? Be­cause some­one has col­lected enor­mous amounts of in­for­ma­tion and struc­tured and or­gan­ised it so that it is easy to ab­sorb. Au­thor­ship is vi­tal, but it is an art that we see in­creas­ingly less of.

I want an author to take a point of view and put ma­te­rial to­gether. That’s how I learn.

We all learn lin­early. I could give you 20 000 pieces of pa­per and say here is all you need to know about world his­tory. So why would you read a book that looks at his­tory? But they put the pieces of pa­per in or­der and ex­plain why one is linked to an­other.

Even if you mem­o­rised all 20 000 pieces of pa­per, it’s un­der­stand­ing how they fit to­gether and what the flow is and how one thing leads to an­other. Do peo­ple want to un­der­stand or just want a fact?

We all de­pend on news or­gan­i­sa­tions to help fill in those gaps. News per se is only go­ing to get more im­por­tant. In­her­ently, news­pa­pers have al­ways tried to build un­der­stand­ing. That means con­text, back­ground, im­por­tance and ve­rac­ity. But there is go­ing to be more change com­ing. The fun­da­men­tal need is not go­ing away.

What change are you re­fer­ring to?

There is no doubt about there be­ing a news­pa­per busi­ness. The ques­tion is how big a busi­ness.

If you look at the world, for 30 years peo­ple ask me, “Where are we in the in­for­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion?” For 30 years, I have said we are halfway through it.

What is the big­gest chal­lenge com­pa­nies face?

What do you do with some­body who is ob­so­lete? Maybe the per­son is a great per­former. Maybe the best em­ployee. But what you need to do in the next two or three years, maybe that em­ployee doesn’t have the skills that are re­quired.

It’s a hor­ri­ble prob­lem, but if you don’t change, you risk the en­tire or­gan­i­sa­tion. That is a so­cial prob­lem for the years ahead.

The idea that you come out of col­lege with a pro­fes­sion or de­gree that keeps you em­ployed un­til you re­tire is a lu­nacy to­day. The world is chang­ing too fast, too quickly, and is too dis­rup­tive.

You have to con­tin­u­ally rein­vent your­self to stay em­ploy­able, to stay pro­duc­tive, to stay valu­able. What is “the next big thing?” Sen­sors. Freescale in­tro­duces a pro­ces­sor that is smaller than an ant. It is de­signed to be swal­lowed. You swal­low this pill in the morn­ing and it tells your smart­phone how your health is as it goes through your body. This is not science fic­tion. You take a pill. It gen­er­ates a small elec­tri­cal cur­rent on your skin and you touch the phone and it senses an 18-digit num­ber and you don’t have to un­lock it.

Any­thing you touch, if it’s there it recog­nises the 18 dig­its. You go to work in the morn­ing and in­stead of log­ging in, you take a pill. It’s so eerie, you don’t even want to think about it.

What were your fi­nan­cial home runs?

I grew Fu­jitsu from $100 mil­lion in rev­enue to $1.4 bil­lion. I’m a mil­lion­aire. In the 1990s, you made an or­der of mag­ni­tude less money than you do to­day. Peo­ple at Sun were mak­ing half a mil­lion a year. To­day’s wages are so far be­yond what they were then.

In stock, over 12 years at Sun, I prob­a­bly made, af­ter tax, un­der $10m. So you don’t need to work? I’m not ready to re­tire. – Wash­ing­ton Post

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