Poor Chicago

Maybe it’s me: I’m the jinx. Every paper I ever worked for has now folded or faced mortal danger: the Addison (Ill.) Herald-Register (folded), the Detroit Free Press (came close and might as well fold), Chicago Today (which had no tomorrow), the San Francisco Examiner (no longer a real paper), the New York Daily News (resurrected from death), and the Chicago Tribune (now kneecapped). Three of them were owned by Tribune Company, a company I never did much like working for.

After Sam Zell shocked former news machers at Foursquare in his interview with Joanne Lipman – “he didn’t say the word journalism once,” one huffed – I told them, as I’ve blogged here before, that Zell might not be the disrupter you choose, but he’s the disrupter the industry has. Name three others, I challenged them.

Zell asked the right questions – about cost structure, ego, lazy ad sales, bad business practices. The first problem was that he asked them 13 years too late (see Clay Shirky, below). The second problem is that he had no answers, or the answers he had were uninformed. And the problem for the industry is that Zell is all it had to offer as a savior – and that’s saying a mouthful.

What genius has stepped up to rescue sacred journalism’s business? Philadelphia and Minneapolis are disasters. McClatchy keeps arguing, with ear plugs well stuffed and blinders tight, that the problems in the industry are not fundamental but cyclical (as Dave Morgan said to that at my New Business Models for News Summit, “bullshit”). Hearst has stumbled for two generations. Media News is still trying to make its business by cutting. The New York Times Company, for its vaunted leadership, is in many quarters shockingly incompetent (see: Boston). Gannett is as good as it gets in terms of innovation but it didn’t exactly start with pillars of the craft.

No, Rupert Murdoch is now the great shining hope of journalism. Ain’t that a mouthful of irony? After I left the Tribune and Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, a friend went over to work there and his Tribune colleagues sat shiva for him, as if he’d died. Another colleague who went to the National Enquirer was treated with less disdain. But now Murdoch is the one mogul with brains willing to invest in journalism. But note well that he’s investing in national journalism (and has long acknowledged that the local NY Post is just a bully pulpit).

Such is the stewardship of American journalism. And I won’t spare departments below the executive floor. To my peril, I’ve held journalists responsible for not innovating these last 13 years. Ad sales departments did nothing but take orders and had no courage to reinvent models or cannibalize before being cannibalized. Circulation departments did their best to torpedo the internet. Marketing departments never understood the value of journalism in the communities. Unions milked the cow wiht no-show jobs and waste. Analysts and institutional owners and reporters covered the industry never asked the hard questions.

It’s not as if the incumbents’ predecessors were much better. As Andrew Ross Sorkin pointed out the other day, it was Tribune’s former management that made money making this bad deal with Zell, screwing employees. No, it was the predecessors at all these companies who blew the chance to transform and grow journalism for the digital age.

When the history of newspapers is written – it’s about time to, as they’re about to become history – their golden age will probably be pegged between about 1975 (post Watergate, after TV had killed off multiple papers markets leaving monopolies, when cash was flush and was used to feed Pulitzer ego) to 1995 (when the internet earthquake hit and nobody saw the tsunami). But it was – and the Times pegs this more recently – a bubble, a false economy. If there was a golden age of newspapers, I say it was probably two to four decades before that, when cities had many papers, many voices, many views, and papers still spoke for and with the people.

Sound familiar? That’s where we’re headed again with the internet: many voices, many views, and now it’s the people talking.

I asked someone the other day what drastic step a newspaper could take today to stave off utter disaster and death. He laughed at me. Some are looking at stopping publishing a day or two (which is just stupid: news never happens on Mondays?). They can’t sell any assets when no one values them and even suckers can’t borrow money to buy them. Another round of huge cutbacks with no strategy for transformation only damages the product and brand. No, I fear it’s too late.

What saddens me even more is that we are not seeing investment to step into the vacuum. I know people who’ve worked on businesses to try to create new, online-one local news operations but they can’t get funding. I have no doubt that there is a sustainable business in local news. The problem is that, at least for the present, the current and former owners of local news ruined it. Thanks to them, news has cooties.