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Leader in the Digital Revolution Will Teach It at COM

Martin Nisenholtz was the New York Times digital guru

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Boston University BU, College of Communication COM, Martin Nisenholtz, digital media, New York Times

In the beginning, there was no standard technology to distribute online content. Martin Nisenholtz changed that. Photo courtesy of Nisenholtz

You may not have heard of Martin Nisenholtz, but no less than Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab says that, in one crucial way, he “helped form the Internet we know today.”

That formative moment came a dozen years ago, when Nisenholtz, then overseeing the New York Times’ digital operations, agreed to put the newspaper of record’s stories and multimedia into RSS (rich site summary), then a newborn tool for automatically alerting readers to website updates. Techies argued about the best technology for this purpose until Nisenholtz chose RSS—and it’s “now-ubiquitous,” the Nieman Lab notes.

Starting in January 2015 at the College of Communication, Nisenholtz, 59, will become a professor of the practice of digital communication. He’ll spend the next year developing courses on the ways technology is disrupting and transforming media, from journalism to advertising to public relations and marketing.

“We are thrilled to have attracted Martin Nisenholtz to Boston University,” Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer, says. “He is an extraordinarily accomplished and versatile professional who led the New York Times into the digital world, creating many of the now commonly used structures for digital media in the process.”

Boston University “is a place that is willing to embrace the future,” Nisenholtz says of his decision to come here. “BU is an exciting place to be, one that will support me creatively and also understands the porousness between the university and the broader community. Digital technology has greatly affected traditional institutions of all kinds, and this requires an interdisciplinary approach. BU totally gets that.”

Nisenholtz is “someone who not only was part of the disruptive changes in technology but led a brand through that,” says Thomas Fiedler (COM’71), dean of COM. Overseeing the New York Times’ marriage of traditional print content to an online presence “was a very, very large portfolio, and one he handled extremely well,” he adds. “I don’t know that anyone else has that skill set.”

Nisenholtz retired from the Times in 2011 after 16 years, during which he oversaw the launch of its website, one of the most heavily trafficked and respected news sites in the world. (Two years ago, revenue from subscriptions to the paper, including online ones, outstripped ad revenue for the first time in the Gray Lady’s history.) But as Forbes noted of Nisenholtz, “There’s retirement and then there’s retirement.” He kept up a busy life of membership on corporate boards and also continued consulting for the Times and co-taught The Business of Journalism as an adjunct faculty member at the Columbia School of Journalism.

Nisenholtz will leave Columbia to teach at BU but will continue his board and consulting work to enhance his classroom expertise, he says. “It’s absolutely necessary to be a part of the digital business community in order to effectively teach it. It moves too fast to monitor from the outside.”

The Pennsylvania native earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, where he wrote a paper entitled “Journalism in the Age of Electronic Publishing”—in 1981. In the early ’80s, he was among the researchers into teletext and videotext whose work fueled the rise of cable TV and the web. He later worked at the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, leading its interactive media operations, before joining the Times in 1995.

Married and the father of two grown daughters, he will move to Boston while keeping his Manhattan apartment; he can enhance his teaching by staying involved with his professional network in New York, he says. He joins another digitally savvy Times-man at COM, media columnist David Carr, who became the school’s first Andrew R. Lack Professor in January. The hirings come at a time when the University’s revised strategic plan has targeted COM for more faculty and facilities because of the technology-spawned “revolution in communications” that has increased the school’s importance.

Nisenholtz runs and works out in his spare time. A self-described “travel junkie,” he also enjoys reading—“I tend to read electronic books unless there’s a reason not to.” The one medium he still enjoys on paper, however, is newspapers.

“I love printed newspapers still. I love the feel of a newspaper and the serendipity of it. It’s a very managed and curated view of the world. It has a beginning and an end.”

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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