Missing the forest for the dead trees

The American newspaper industry has only itself to blame for the fate it faces.

I wrote that line above this weekend as the start of a post that turned out to be rather pissy, and so I’ve tried to tone it down. But when newspapers most need brave strategic action, bold reinvention, and new blood, I saw too much evidence in the last few days of the business still whining for sympathy, praying for unrealistic rescue, hopelessly grasping to hold onto old ways, and trying to blame others — mainly, stockholders — for their problems. Instead, I believe, they should be digging deep to rediscover their true value, reinvent their relationship with the public they still want to serve, and rethink the business around the new opportunities more than the challenges of the new media world.

I see the evidence of this Eeyore thinking from the industry Sunday in Richard Siklos’ York Times story about newspaper companies and Wall Street; in Jon Fine’s Business Week column about the complete pickle the Los Angeles Times is in; in a survey of newspaper executives who realize — about a decade too late — that they should have been cooperating; and mostly in a $2 million American Press Institute consultant-and-task-force industry extravaganza just released.

It’s sadly fitting that the API report, called Newspaper Next, landed as a 91-page PDF, requiring me to print it out on paper and run out of ink just to read it, with no opportunity to interact with it. I won’t say that there aren’t some good ideas in the report or in newspapers today. But as Susan Mernit says, the industry’s $2 million might have been better spent on real development instead of just blather.

Yet the real problem the report exposes is cultural inertia, the inability to think in radically new ways and to blow up old assumptions. I feared when the project was announced that they saw their job as fending off threats to newspapers rather than exploiting new opportunities for journalism. When I heard an early version of their recommendations, I warned that they were taking false comfort from making tiny steps when what is needed is an atomic bomb.

But I fear it’s worse than that. From the evidence of the report, the industry’s elders still have not broken out of their old worldview. They still look at us as an “audience” and “consumers” (or, more often now, “nonconsumers”). They believe that we want them to — this is their alliterative festival — enlighten, educate, enrich, entertain, engage, or empower us. Past a few references to the ability of the public to create content now, the greatest value they see in this trend is that we can provide them with free content to save money. They still think their core product is papers and news web sites and believe their salvation is in developing portfolios of products. For that matter, they think they are in the business of producing a product, still.

But isn’t journalism a service more than a product? And doesn’t this new world enable us to expand journalism through collaboration? What’s lost in this is the essential value that I believe news organizations provide: connecting people with information and each other. And I think what’s moved off centerstage, ironically, is journalism and the value it brings. Yes, of course, they are trying to preserve journalism by preserving the business. But they’re so busy trying to protect the “core product” and the old businesses that I don’t see them ask the real core questions: How can we expand journalism? I’ll spare you my screeds on networks and relationships.

One bit of good news is that they see the bad news; they are willing to criticize themselves: “The public is migrating away from us, happily discovering new freedoms, opportunities and choices in a new world of infinite information. . . . For newspaper companies, the very newspaper itself — its form, function, history, role in society and demanding production processes — creates blinders that make it hard to comprehend the fundamental changes happening around them.”

But the task force that made this report and many of the projects that come out of it are still insular, with very little effort to get new voices, fresh blood. One company did not seem to involve its online people in new products. Another focused on changing the paper’s own internal structure for innovations. Another redesigned its existing web site.

By contrast, WickedLocal.com in Plymouth, Mass., is a promising attempt to build through collaboration in hyperlocal. Nearby, the Boston Globe serves small advertisers by placing ads for them in Google and Yahoo; the fact that the ads aren’t in the paper or its site should give one pause but this is an attempt to serve new advertisers in new ways in an open world and so I’ll applaud the attempt. As I said above, there are some good ideas here.

And it’s good to hear the industry talking, at long last, about trying to cooperate with each other. I lived through too many hellish task force meetings in the ill-fated New Century Network industry consortium, which proved nothing but that newspapers cannot get along; they all think they’re special and they’re all quite addicted to the independence of operating as local monopolies. Now they realize that they’ve made it too difficult for advertisers to give the industry money. I fear this realization comes too late. Google has long since brilliantly exploited that weakness — to the point that Google is becoming a sales agent for newspapers and newspapers a sales agent for Google.

: Now let’s get real and go to Los Angeles, where the Times is battling for its body and soul. This is being painted too often as a fight among shareholders — in Tribune Tower, in the Chandler family, and in Wall Street — but as Siklos’ New York Times story says: “It’s tempting to paint Wall Street as the bad guy in this, but the relatively brief history of the Street and the press is more complicated.” Jon Fine’s column makes it clear that private ownership for the paper is neither likely nor a panacea.

But I say that the rescue of the LA Times has nothing whatsoever to do with ownership or share prices or EBITDAs or newsroom staff sizes. No, the only thing that will rescue this news organization formerly known as a newspaper is innovation. Make that revolution. Instead of standing up to Chicago to save heads in the old newsroom, the editor and publisher should be looking out into their communities and figuring out how to reinvent what the LA Times can be with new (and often more efficient) ways to gather and share news. They should be trying to find new ways make connections among people and enable them to do what they want to do, whether that involves information or commerce.

But it’s hard to manage and even harder to innovate in a crisis. But that’s where the American newspaper finds itself today: in the 9th inning of a game of crisis. Their Newspaper Next PDF might have been an acceptable step in a process of change in, oh, 1995. But now, I fear, it’s just a beach towel on the Titanic.

: So what the hell would I do? What would you do? In subsequent posts, I’ll suggest we explore that.

  • http://leatherpenguin.com Staten Island guy

    Err… you were inside at Newhouse, and you bailed out.

  • http://www.pjnet.org Leonard Witt

    I spent the weekend reading the Newspaper Next report and my first impression was to do a spoof on all the lingo that is used. And I did write that and I will be posting it tomorrow at my PJNet.org site.

    Today though I argue that: Look, this project will make money, time and resources available at newspapers for innovation. Smart folks in newsrooms will jump in and turn that to projects that make sense for good journalism, civic life and community building.

    Newspapers needed something to get them started. This might be it. Most importantly, built into it is finding innovative ways to grow an innovative culture, which could include everything you want.

  • Guy Love

    Recently I had an interchange with a local metro newspaper emloyee who was trying to give their newspaper away for free at a Wal-mart supercenter. It was in the afternoon and he had failed to give one paper away all day. He was discouraged and became agitated when I suggested that newspapers were no longer relevant. He immediately claimed they were doing better than I thought. I asked him how many of their readers were below the age of 30 and he angrily said “More than you think!”. I couldn’t help but think to myself that newspapers are in complete denial as I wished him good luck on giving his papers away for free.

    Can you teach an old dog new tricks this late in the game? Will the newspaper industry survive into the future? Will there be newspapers in 20, 30 years? I believe they are heading for complete implosion before any relevant change will occur.

  • http://Alreadyoutthere R Rainey

    Jeff always brings a macro, industry-wide view to these issues, and his take on that is always right. What I think he fails to appreciate is the aggregate of the micro anxiety felt by each journalist. This accumulates to the paralysis he notices. It should not be unexpected because today’s reporters enjoy barriers to competition against their livelihoods that were built up over decades. These are being torn down now and journalists (a) don’t know how to compete yet and (b) know they will have to compete with a whole new universe of people tapping away on keyboards. A natural human reaction to this is resistance. A natural human reaction outside of this industry is Schadenfreude.

  • http://billhobbs.com Bill Hobbs

    I’m a former newspaper reporter who is now part of that “whole new universe of people tapping away on keyboards,” and it occurs to me that the future of newspapers will be brighter once the people who own them recognize – and act on – the truth that the key part of the word “newspaper” isn’t “paper.”

    http://billhobbs.com/2006/10/lets_give_them_something_to_ta_1.html

  • http://Alreadyoutthere R Rainey

    I just had the opportunity to read the Times piece on newspaper ownership. It tries to draw a distinction between public and private ownership of papers, but utterly fails. This can only be the case because every private equity buyer I know (and it is a fair number) use the same analyses to value an enterprise as do public company analysts as well as financial advisers. The only difference is that the stockholder/management drama is played out in public for public companies, but the NYT reporter fails to appreciate this. The piece also conflates that public/private distinction with the one between the ideals of a newspaper – to serve its owners or the public at large. Compared to the blogging of Jarvis, Rosen and other industry puntits, it is a truly unintelligible mishmash of topics. That this is the best our premier newspaper can do in analyzing its own industry, merely serves to underscore how uncompetitive print journalism really is.

  • Dave Moelling

    As a reader of the formerly mediocre but now terrible Hartford courant (and later in the morning the very good WSJ) I have watched how the Courant began to become a plaything for the writers. The weekend magazine (now thankfully cancelled) was filled with specials on poetry and long wordy expositions on social issues. The weekend editorial section has been running a two-three page “new urbanist” special for months now. You want to scream at them that THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE A NEWSPAPER! WITH NEWS!

    They have a business reporter that might as well be with the IWW, no one that knows military affairs in a state with heavy defense industries, and only the sports section truly publishes facts.

    Yet there are stories on local news that you know have really great stuff just underneath (scandal perhaps, or just plain facts) that the reporters can’t be bothered to check out.

    The lack of basic reporting is what will kill the newspaper, not bias. You can always disregard the opinion part, but not if no facts are reported. A great example is a local battle to retain Air National Guard units in the state. The current wing of A-10 Attack Fighters is being consolidated in Massachusetts. The governor and legislative leaders all are trying to take credit for gaining a unit of small transports. No where was there any photos of the planes, description of their missions or rationale for basing them here. All this info could have been obtained in a few minutes from the local public affairs officer with the guard. Sheer laziness.

  • Vulgorilla

    “the truth that the key part of the word “newspaper” isn’t “paper.” – Bill Hobbs”

    So right you are! I used to subscribe to a local newspaper … no more in recent years! Why? Because I couldn’t get the real, factual news. I could get left-wing biased reporting where only the facts that fit the paper’s political agenda were reported, with the facts that didn’t, tossed in the trash. I don’t want, nor will I pay, for propaganda. I can’t subscribe to any local newspaper that truly strives to print the truth regardless of the political implications, because there aren’t any newspapers that do that anymore. Almost all newspapers subscribe to such organizations as AP (Associated Phables) and al-Reuters, so the chances of getting the real scoop on international events is almost impossible as well. That’s why I’m up here on the web. In the words of Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday … “I just want the facts, sir, just the facts”

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  • Dave the H.

    Language counts. Just downloaded the API report, Newspaper Next, and before reading it, did a search of the PDF.

    Zero occurences of these three words:

    Internet
    Online
    Video

    How can they discuss “next” and not mention the Internet?

  • mark

    Try again, Dave. Your computer must be busted.

    Internet: 39
    Online: 115
    Video: 11

  • http://www.syracuse.com/news/tracker/ Brian Cubbison

    Here are some thoughts from one editor who has been in the trenches of print and online journalism, whose motto is: “How crazy would it be…”

    There are two parts to this: Paper, and Beyond Paper. For a lot of folks here, the short answer to saving the newspaper is: Don’t be one. Become something else. That’s Part Two. But if you’re going to print on paper at all, let’s ask, Why, and For whom, and What’s worth doing on paper?

    Here are 10 revolutionary things I’d like to see a newspaper try, on paper:

    1. Explode your newspaper into different publications for different people, instead of trying to be everything for the downtown clubgoer who doesn’t want stock listings and sports agate.

    2. Instead of trying to attract online users to paper, create the best Web sites you can for those people and publish “The Traditional Newspaper for Traditonal People” (and here’s the really radical part) with no regard for whether a story has been “out all day” online or on TV. But print lots of health news so these people will live as long as possible.

    3. Go completely local and insert The Christian Science Monitor for your national and world news.

    4. Go completely online except for the Sunday paper with all those ads.

    5. Instead of continuing the industry’s grim drumbeat of a marketing message that says, “We’re charging you more and we keep giving you less,” take those things you’ve been taking away, like stocks and TV listings, and bundle them. They’re expensive, so charge more to those readers who must have it. This sends a message of premium value, instead of a message of shriveling up.

    6. Solve the jump problem, not necessarily by mangling and chopping up stories, but by jumping only when absolutely necessary and always to the next right-hand page for easy flipping back and forth. If you can’t solve the jump problem, you can’t solve the paper problem.

    7. If you’re going to have an editorial page at all, instead of navel-gazers employ reporters to report on real people’s opinions. I have a theory on why newsrooms don’t do a very good job of covering protests, but that’s for another time.

    8. If you’re going to print on paper, make it worthwhile. Nobody redesigns a newspaper to run more comics, or to make them bigger, but why not? You’re paying a lot of money for the newsprint, so don’t make it a dismal, difficult reading experience. What works best on paper? Great stories, powerful photos and comics you don’t have to squint for.

    9. Create a personal mix-and-match section for the person who wants more women’s sports, health reports and news from Africa, and for the person who wants more auto racing, gardening, and news from the Mideast.

    10. Tell stories in new ways, with databases, Google maps or investigative comic books.

    Some people will say that you can’t be revolutionary if you’re still presenting the news on the same old paper, but that’s for Part Two: Beyond Paper.

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  • http://www.OnDisruption.com Michael Urlocker

    Jeff:

    I agree the Newspaper Next report may be a bit mild and a bit late to preserve a declining business with an excessive cost structure. But I don’t think it is too late for companies to focus on new business opportunities to serve customers and non-customers. (The cost structure will have to change dramatically.)

    I think you overlooked some important elements in the Newspaper Next report, in that it raises some the right questions newspaper managers and owners should deal with immediately:

    *Are there under-served customers?
    *What are the information jobs that people are trying to get done?
    *How can we rapidly create new services?

    It is also important to recognize that the disruption framework and the team that worked on the report are not lightweights. This is a well-thought and tested-approach that has worked in many industries. Whether newspapers follow through is not clear. But I do believe that they have been given good ammo.

    Another approach to create disruptive new services is to ask these questions:
    *If we were to create a new company to serve customers in 6-12 months, what would the service offering and what would be the right structure to deliver it?
    *What are the attributes of news services that customers value and pay for today?
    *What are the growing news and information problems that customers seem to have and how can we solve them?

    I think the N2 report and a creative, business-minded approach that looks at what customers do and pay for, can pay off. Sorry, I am an optimist.

    More thoughts on the decline of mainstream media:

    http://www.ondisruption.com/my_weblog/media_meltdown/index.html

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  • http://freedomstruth.blogspot.com/ Patrick

    “Because I couldn’t get the real, factual news. I could get left-wing biased reporting where only the facts that fit the paper’s political agenda were reported, with the facts that didn’t, tossed in the trash. I don’t want, nor will I pay, for propaganda.”

    I agree, and it’s worse than even a matter of bias on another level:
    I’ve seen the New York Times biased blather dissected and debunked the night before on website discussion board before it shows up in dead tree form as a page one article in our American Statesman. Fact-deficient out-dated bias. And the fact that most of such articles are reprints from AP, NYT etc. that you can get from an RSS feed bespeaks of the hollowing out of real journalism in the newsroom.

    Harrumph, who needs it? My wife insists on the paper because of the coupons. I have a business plan in my hip pocket that would eviscerate even that excuse. One of these days, I or someone like me will execute on it.