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.