Mapping the future while underway

Dow Jones just set up a task force to figure out their future, with a senior executive, Paul Ingrassia, president of the newswires, and heavyweights from the various content companies, including my online pal, Bill Grueskin, managing editor of Task forces can be hell. When I was there, Time Inc. was ruled by task forces, which were the lowest common denominator of finding reasons why not to do something. But this one sounds different. Every media and news company should have a group assigned to reinvent the company… or else.

I’d like to be a fly on the wall at their offsites. Dow Jones has unique challenges in the financial data business (where the information is a commodity with a shelf-life of seconds); it has unique strengths (no one else has — or, I believe, will — successfully build an online subscription business); it has unique opportunities (imagine what a distributed army of stockwatchers and companywatchers could create).

But it won’t be easy. In today’s report on its rival’s planning, The New York Times had this good bit:

As an example, Mr. Ingrassia pointed to how Dow Jones News- wires now uses breaking-news articles about earnings releases or dividend announcements written by reporters at MarketWatch, an online property. That has freed up wire reporters to write personal-finance articles, like how to use an exchange-traded fund as part of an investment strategy, which Mr. Ingrassia said helped distinguish the company’s offerings.

And this bad bit:

The largest union at Dow Jones last evening expressed concern about the formation of the news strategy project, unsure if this was just another effort to save money, like the smaller format of The Journal that will have its debut next year.

Steve Yount, president of the Independent Association of Publishers’ Employees, Local 1096 of Communications Workers of America and the Newspaper Guild, said in an interview that the union would like a seat on the committee to ensure against this. In a statement, he warned “management must take pains not to mistake attrition for efficiency, or sacrifice quality in the pursuit of cost savings.”

“Too often,” he added, “efforts to improve the quality or scope of Dow Jones publications — including the recent start of The Journal’s weekend edition and, before that, Personal Journal — have instead left new ventures with fewer staff and resources than they need or were promised, and came with short-sighted cost cuts elsewhere in the enterprise.”

Often, announcements to better coordinate journalism across various media come with staff reductions.

Earlier this week, for example, The Financial Times said the integration of its print and online operations could lead to the layoff of 50 people.

But Mr. Ingrassia said cost reductions were not the impetus for the news strategy project.

“This is not French for cutbacks,” he said.

No, but maybe it should be German for out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new.

What do you expect in a crumbling industry? See this lede in another Times story today:

The rising cost of newsprint, flat or falling circulation and sluggish advertising growth added up to discouraging second-quarter earnings results for several newspaper industry companies.

While executives blamed a weak operating environment for low earnings, they also vowed to cut costs and focus on Internet activities in the coming months.

If the journalists truly want to be involved in the reinvention, perhaps their starting point should not be trying to preserve the past but instead ideas for the future or else their union’s best hope is to wait for buyouts a la GM and Delphi… if they’re lucky. These strategic task forces can’t afford to be about resisting change. They have to be about making change happen, and quickly.