A gate into the Harvard Yard.

A few (not so) random things I learned at Harvard

Some inspiration from my year as a Nieman fellow

In her farewell address to us, the Nieman class of 2018, Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, said we are now among “the enlightened who will more fully value time” and will be “wiser” in the use of it.

That it is perhaps a big lesson from this year’s experience of time well and richly spent, a challenge but also an aspiration going forward. Among her many words of wisdom in that speech and throughout the year, Ann Marie, who was the editor of The Chicago Tribune, also said: “Journalism, more than most professions, is one where the work of individuals could speak much louder than the institutions or the people who run them.”

That’s something I do believe too even after some disappointments. So I am hopeful about what will come out from this fully lived year of reading, studying, discussing, writing and BBQing.

My project as a fellow was to explore tools and business models to rebuild trust in media and I studied that extensively at the Harvard Business School, the Kennedy School of Government and the MIT.

I have also found many unexpected things along the way. I rediscovered the joy of writing non-fiction with a more intimate touch thanks to Steve Almond as I became obsessed with the story of a forgotten female war correspondent, Ruth Cowan. My Music class, From Bach to Beyoncé, showed me how to reflect about gender and race in a constructive, informed manner. I marvelled at the case-study method to debate at the Business School as a model to cut short meetings and make them effective. Reverend Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at Memorial Church, made me appreciate the value of uncertainty. I fell in love with theatrical journalism thanks to Pop-Up Magazine, the original live show with non-fiction stories that others are emulating in Europe right now. I learned so much from fellows and their partners, journalists and non-journalists.

Trying to fight the post-Nieman depression, I went through my notebooks and wrote a list of some of the many things I learned throughout this year, perhaps as a way to fix them in my mind and as an impulse onwards.

1. To lead, make your team think about the mission

The lessons on leadership from courses, talks and inscriptions are constant around Harvard. Every school has some reference to this in its slogan and there are multiple versions of leadership teaching inwards and outwards. My favorite examples were from real life.

After her 11 year tenure, Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, shared some of her insights when she handed our certificates at Nieman. “Listen,” she said. “Listen to the people in your team to understand where they are and bring them to where you think they should be.” She told a tale of three masons working on a piece and apparently doing the same kind of job, a favorite story among executives. One mason, unhappy about his job, says he is hammering a rock, the second one, more engaged with the task, says he is molding a block so it could go into a wall. The third one, enthusiastic, answers: “I am building a cathedral!” For Faust, her mission as a leader was “to make people understand why their job is important.”

2. Never deviate from your values, not even once

That’s a recurring lesson from the Business School, and also from Clayton Christensen, one of its most famous professors thanks to his theory on disruption.

3. You are not who you think you are, you just fell into a pattern

Break it, embrace everything. That’s Confucius according to Michael Puett. In the first day of his Chinese Philosophy class he committed to change the lives of the large audience he faced in the fall twice a week at Sanders Theater, the place for big lectures and concerts at Harvard. I am still wondering if he did it, but his class pushed me to make other academic decisions that I am grateful for.

4. Focus on one side of the market

I learned a lot about how to analyze broken markets and taylor (profitable) solutions in my Business School class Making Markets with Tom Eisenmann and Scott Kominers. One of the biggest lessons was that in a new market or a in broken market, there is often a side that matters a lot. That’s the one you have to focus on. It’s often the one that’s scarce and doesn’t need you.

Perhaps the lesson for media companies is that we should focus on readers, not advertisers. Even more on our most loyal readers.

5. FOMO means fear of missing out

6. If disintermediation is a risk, lean into it

Be open and transparent, don’t try to block your customers. In face of competition, what could save you is the trust in the relationship you build, the key is what additional value you create. That’s true for GoFundMe (the donation platform), Onfinestay (a luxury Airbnb), Poppy (a babysitter app) and also for a newspaper.

7. Watch out for Frankensteins

The solution must fit the failure. Don’t try to solve all the problems at once. They could even mean contradictory paths of action: pick one and act accordingly.

8. The current stock-exchange is broken

Short-termism is killing companies as they are too focus on the next quarter results instead of being driven to invest in Research and Development, marketing and people. That creates a potential snowball for companies in the stock exchange. A solution may be a new market that rewards companies for a long term strategy, as a start-up called Long Term Stock Exchange is trying to built.

9. The Brave browser blocks almost everything

The founder is the creator of Mozilla and JavaScript, Brendan Eich. The browser is an attempt to block intrusive ads and help publishers get more direct revenue from readers.

10. Don’t be afraid to give away your best stuff

Some advice from the PBS Frontline team, explaining how they advertised their profile documentaries for the 2016 election. Their message: You are the only one who knows it’s your best stuff and using it is your best chance to get people to watch it. This is an important message also for every news outlet trying to hide its best content behind a paywall: don’t.

11. Pick issues where you can move the agenda

An advice for every columnist by one of the best ones: Nick Kristof.

12. Think strategy means think how you are different

At least at the Harvard Business School. And they know what they are talking about.

13. Bury sunk costs

Companies are about what happens today or tomorrow, not about what you have done in the past and may not be working now even if you have invested a lot in that. It’s a pity, but that’s life.

14. One of the biggest traps is thinking about what others are doing

Don’t try to just emulate The New York Times. Before you introduce a paywall, think about how are you going make people pay.

15. An Iceland volcano holds the key to success in media (maybe)

The real promise of digital is not greater reach but greater connectedness, according to Bharat Anand, the Harvard Business School professor who is also behind HBX, the online project from HBS.

“If you want growth, innovate. If you want exponential growth, connect,” he said. He was really impressed by the work of Schibsted, the newspaper chain from Sweden and Norway who built a connection app in seven hours to help stranded people to organize car rides after the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 (I covered the thing when I was a correspondent in Brussels so I really liked this example).

Another tip from him: complements can create value in declining markets. What would you sell with movie theater tickets? Childcare!

16. Build a routine, build a community of interest

That’s key for media companies, but almost for everything. That’s why OpenTable is successful or why GoFundMe, the donation platform, is concerned about Facebook.

You need to give a reason for your users to check you regularly. There’s a figure that is true for almost any kind of content business: 7% of your audience would consume most of your content. Those are the people around which you can build a community, even a profitable business.

17. Online advertising sucks, even more than you think

A big lesson from Nicco Mele, the head of the Shorenstein Center. Among the many aspects we discussed in his class on media business models: the metrics are outdated, there are no clear standards, the user experience is bad, the inventory is unlimited, the revenue is very scarce, there is plenty of fraud and there is a risk in blurring lines between editorial and advertising.

18. Email newsletters are a great way to get subscribers (and even some good ads)

Mele talked a lot about his good experience with newsletters at the LA Times. The key to success is to have a good team with experience in editorial, revenue and technology. Some of their newsletters were very niche, as Hollywood classics or rollercoasters.

Repeated exposure, repeated experience is the way to go.

19. Engage with readers. Actually do it. Not just say it

20. Physical interactions are more powerful and a better predictor of voter behavior than any demographic pattern

You learn from the people you hang out with.

21. If you are in a system that cannot tolerate nuance, you are a danger to society

From the many interesting things Jonathan Haidt said at the MIT class Depolarization by Design.

22. Algorithms don’t work they way you think they work and they are not that bad

From Cass Sunstein and Daniel Kahneman new book. We got a preview at the Kennedy School as they have started working on it.

23. Limit the choices

Jonathan Zittrain, the Harvard Law professor, defends to do that when talking about privacy and Facebook. Endless choices that people don’t really understand equal no choice. Instead, Facebook could behave as doctors, who offer by default the best option to protect their patients. That should work for media companies too.

And that’s also a business model. “I want solutions, not choices,” said Avni Patel Thompson, the CEO of Poppy, a babysitter app founded in San Francisco with the idea to create “a village” experience for young parents in urban areas who didn’t have that kind of network anymore.

24. Slow down, make the reader pull, use librarians

One of my favorite solutions to misinformation and the limited impact of fact-checking came from Zittrain too. He suggested offering people a box to check and know more about some piece of news or topic even facing a misleading headline or misinformation.

This active choice would allow the platform (or maybe the news outlet) to send more information on that topic with further developments or more context, including the fact that this may not be true. As curators, Zittrain suggests librarians as they are experts in research and “neutral tools.” There could also be journalists, but he really wants librarians to get involved. The fact that it’s the reading pulling information could be key to trust.

25. Technology could help to solve our trust problems. Even to be less polarized

That was part of my focus this year. I wrote about it in this piece for Nieman Reports.

26. You are humans talking to humans. Write accordingly

From the advice on how to write and deliver a speech by Stephen Krupin, Obama senior speechwriter and now professor at the Kennedy School.

27. The Brandenburg Concerto number 5 is the one with the flute

28. Erik Satie wanted us to listen to the same piece of music 840 times

We tried Vexations in class around 20 and it was relaxing, unnerving, weird, kind of relaxing again.

29. China has one time zone

Probably I should have known this before, but I didn’t. I learned this and much more listening to Odd Arne Westad.

30. If there is a short word and a long word, pick the short word

From Anne Bernays fiction class.

31. The abstract is the enemy of storytelling

Good to say it out loud. Especially if you are European.

32. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” is one of the best opening lines ever

33. Samantha Power is kind of fun off the record

I can’t tell you why.

34. The next President may be the beginning of a new cycle

Richard Parker teaches economic growth and Presidential history at the Kennedy School considering two big cycles since the 30s: The FDR era and the Reagan era. The big debate now about whether Trump is the last one of the Reagan cycle or the first one of a new one seemed to be solved when he passed his tax reform. He is probably the last President of a dying cycle as framed by Stephen Skowronek, a Yale professor. The question now is what kind of new political order will come out of the ashes of the Reagan cycle.

35. The Laffer curve is a scam

The curve drawn on a cocktail napkin by Arthur Laffer during a meeting with a White House staffer from the Ford Administration pretends to show that a reduction of tax rates could pay for itself by generating more revenue due to a growth rate strong enough to cover losses. It has never happened. What does even the curve mean? Where is the optimal tax rate to optimize supply? Not clear… Stories are important for leaders. But this is a weak one.

And even the napkin in the Smithsonian is fake.

36. Stock options was a bad idea

The alignment of interests between senior managers and shareholders of a company is at the root of short-termism, inequality and financial bubbles. An idea born at the Harvard Business School and pushed by Bill Clinton.

37. The history of the 90s needs to be rewritten

As Joseph Stiglitz explained in this article, many of current problems could be traced to the “roaring” 90s.

The deregulation and new accounting practices allowed banks to have less reserves and to engage in risky investments. Politics won over principle and stock options were not accounted properly so share prices didn’t reflect the best information available and became in practice riskier. Accounting firms engaged in auditing and consulting with less regulation. A misguided market liberalization ended up in a major economic crisis plus financial bailouts. That ultimately also relates to the current loss of confidence in institutions and the suspicion that the system is rigged.

38. Double Irish Dutch sandwich is a way for Google to pay very low taxes

39. Never wait for 51% before you think you should try an idea

Quoting Richard Parker. Minorities can change things.

40. Half of Americans don’t have 500 dollars in cash for an emergency

41. Check the restrooms

This is advice from a CEO guest at Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise, the classic course from HBS. Before deciding on buying into a company, she would check the restrooms. “If a company does not take care of its restrooms it does not take care of its people,” so it’s not a good company.

42. If you want to do a podcast, you should know what TuneIn is

That’s the platform used by Alexa, Amazon’s smart speaker, to look up for podcast. If you are not there, Alexa would have trouble finding it.

43. If you want to be successful in your career, keep learning

Regularly, ask yourself what I am learning, from whom I am learning, how much I am learning. If the answer is “not much” get out of there, said Tom Eisenmann in the last day of Making Markets.

The professor is very much into modern cognitive science, that has come with a thing called active retrieval learning model. The process that he applied in class is: pose a problem at the edge of capability, apply a model, get feedback, reflect, revise or reinforce the model. Sometimes it works with an easy exercise: think, then share what you’ve thought with someone next to you.