Nicco Mele, the Internet strategist credited with pushing political campaigns into the digital era, has been named deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times.
“We intend to be one of the great journalism organizations of the 21st century, not just the 20th,” Times Publisher Austin Beutner said Monday. “With Nicco, we truly have a digital native to help us reimagine our business and develop new digital revenue streams.”
Mele’s primary role will be to craft business strategy across all digital platforms, Beutner said.
“We have a brand that stands for quality and integrity,” Beutner said. Mele “believes in high-quality journalism. At an organization like ours, we need people who believe in the mission.”
Mele, 37, is co-founder of Internet consulting firm Echo & Co., a Harvard University faculty member and author of the 2013 book “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath.”
Mele said he’s up for the enormous challenge the new job poses. “The basic business dynamics are a little scary and need to be reinvented,” Mele said. “Right now, overwhelmingly, the revenue is from print, but it’s clear that over time the future is digital.”
Above all, Mele said, he plans to ensure that The Times’ reputation remains intact as he helps guide the ongoing transition from print to digital.
“Nicco’s not a journalist, but he hears the music,” said longtime newspaperman John Carroll, who served as Times editor from 2000 to 2005, when the paper won 13 Pulitzer Prizes. Mele “believes in the social mission of journalism.”
The two met when Mele volunteered for the News Literacy Project, where Carroll is chairman of the board. The program helps middle and high school students sort fact from fiction and spin in the digital age. “He did it free and in good spirit,” Carroll said. “He’s not just a technologist or a guy who only wants to make money.”
Although print circulation at The Times has stabilized, ad sales remain under pressure. Ads will long remain an essential part of the mix, Mele said, but “squeezing precious dollars from many revenue sources simultaneously” will be required to ensure the future success of the news operation. That means more emphasis on subscriptions, new products and services, and corporate sponsorships for events and “certain content.”
Mele was born in Ghana, the son of a diplomat for the United States Information Agency. After years overseas, he attended William & Mary College. He took his first job as a webmaster for Common Cause, an advocacy group that seeks greater transparency and accountability in government.
In 2003, at age 26, Mele became webmaster for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. Dean was largely ignored by the national media until Mele and his team employed the Internet to fuel a grass-roots campaign that catapulted the former Vermont governor to front-runner status.
The campaign was the first high-profile political contest to use the Internet to connect supporters through early forms of social media and to raise significant donations from small donors. “He was the brains behind that,” Carroll said.
Publicist Hillary Rosen, who also worked on the Dean campaign, said “Nicco was the guru” for Internet strategy. “We hung on every word.”
Mele next ran Internet strategy for Barack Obama’s successful 2004 race for Illinois senator, and founded what is now called Echo & Co., which has worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies and other institutions on Internet strategy. He also teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School and sits on the board of the university’s journalism-oriented Nieman Foundation.
Mele is a computer programmer and Internet enthusiast, but he veers from the utopian view of technology popular in Silicon Valley and other tech centers. “The thesis of my book is that the end of big institutions is profoundly dangerous to our democracy,” Mele said.
Although he accepts that legions of Internet-powered Davids will continue to disrupt government, business, media and other large institutions, Mele also believes that big institutions remain essential for the smooth functioning of society and the economy — and that the need to adapt to new technology to stay alive and relevant is urgent.
“We can’t fetishize technology and say ‘to hell with our institutions’ without suffering terrible consequences,” he writes. If large media organizations like The Times falter, he said, “we might well leave ourselves open to corruption and abuses of power the likes of which we have never seen.”
Mele is married with two young boys and a baby on the way. A self-professed nerd and “maker dad,” he owns a personal 3-D printer on which he and the boys print toys.
His family will move from Boston to Los Angeles when he starts in January. He has roots in Southern California on his mother’s side, and called L.A. “one of the most exciting cities in America. It is culturally vibrant in a way that other cities just aren’t.”
Also, L.A. is “probably one of the only cities in America that [my wife] would get excited about moving to.”