I want to see news organizations grow again. But first, they must finish shrinking. They must decide what they can afford to be.
That is what is happening with Advance reducing publication schedules and resources in New Orleans and other of its markets. That is what happening with Journal Register as it declares bankruptcy to restructure its liabilities given present reality. I recommend you read Josh Benton’s and Rick Edmonds’ analyses of this latest business move.
Now please take what I say here not just with a grain of salt but with a salt lick as I advise both Journal Register and Advance, where I also worked for a dozen years. I was not part of these decisions. But I support them because I want to see newspaper companies find their water level of sustainability so they can again invest in the future.
Of course, there is not one answer to the question of what they can afford. In his statement on Journal Register’s move, CEO John Paton said that legacy costs undertaken under different circumstances are now unsustainable. Bankruptcy presents an opportunity to renegotiate many of those costs, including leases, contracts, and pensions.
These are hard decisions with difficult consequences for many people. But not addressing the issue will only turn out worse, squandering dollars every day the tough decisions are put off.
After too many years in denial, we all know now that newspapers, no longer monopolies and having lost their pricing power in the face of abundant competition, must be smaller if they have any hope to survive; there is no magic bullet that will set things “right” and return the business to what it was. They must find new efficiencies through consolidation (see Digital First’s Project Thunderdome and other companies bringing together shared work), collaboration (with the community and a larger news ecosystem), and specialization (do what you do best — in the case of local newspapers, that is being local — and link to the rest). They must reconsider their business models, looking for new opportunities, and also their relationships with the public.
I do believe that newspapers, rethought, can be sustainable — that is, profitable. The first step is to make hard financial decisions such as the ones discussed here. The next is to make the transition to digital, to put digital first, to become sustainable digital enterprises.
But all that gets us is survival. Then comes the real work: rethinking what a newspaper is, what its relationship with its community can be, where it adds value and how it may then — and only then — extract value. That is why I also spend my time trying to challenge assumptions about the forms, relationships, and models of news, asking unpopular questions such as whether we should even consider ourselves a content business. That is why I teach entrepreneurial journalism: to empower students to start new businesses based on new visions without the drag of legacy assumptions and obligations. But I do believe that newspaper companies can also find their sustainable future. That’s why I work with them as well. I want to see them survive and once again prosper, innovate, and grow.
None of this is easy. Much of it is unpleasant. But it is necessary.