News Leadership 3.0

December 02, 2008

As the past contracts, the future may grow

As advertising revenues plunge, news organizations are slow to drop old attitudes and develop new mindsets

The weekend brought several thoughtful posts about the print industry in crisis. I’ll look at them as a tableau of dealing with the past to tapping the opportunities of the present and then envisioning a future.

First, dealing with the past. Alan Mutter reports that “Newspapers eye extreme cuts as crisis grows,” Specifically, Mutter says, people inside print organizations are telling him 2009 will be the year when whole daily editions of print newspapers vanish.

“In the best of cases, publishers will continue aggressively nipping and tucking at staffing, benefits, newshole, and the footprint of their circulation areas. In the worst cases, some newspapers will be shut down - or endure only as skeleton-staffed online operations.

“In one of the most startling of the potential initiatives, an amazing number of publishers of all sizes are giving serious consideration to eliminating print editions on certain days of the week, according to private conversations with operators who requested anonymity.

“Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday editions, which typically carry the least amount of advertising, appear to be at the most risk.”

(Update: Also see Mutter’s additional post “Where extreme cuts may come at papers.”)

It is unlikely that dropping editions—and the resulting cost savings—will forestall significant staff reductions next year. As Mutter reports, quietly released NAA figures show news revenues dropped like a rock in the third quarter of 2008 and the final quarter promises be worse. Growth in online revenue that many organizations have banked on seems unlikely in the current economy and unless news organizations radically improve the way they sell advertising and deliver it to their Web users.

What a conundrum. Still, a print only or even a “print mostly” organization can simply watch itself shrink into oblivion as Web access and usage grows while environmental concerns about paper, plastic covers and energy costs grow. Better to focus online—the opportunities of the present. Mark Potts argues established news organizations still are not committed to online with the focus and scope that is necessary.

Here’s Potts in “What It Takes”:

“How many newspapers have a sizable staff responsible for managing print circulation? All of them of course. Now, how many have even one staff member responsible for managing online distribution via RSS, e-mail or Facebook? Damn few.

“How many newspapers have a department devoted to fixing and painting news boxes? Just about all newspapers of any size. Now, how many have any staff devoted to thinking about how to optimize their site’s placement in Web searches? Not many.

“How many newspapers have an advertising production staff that can churn out a good-looking ad for any advertiser? It’s essential, of course. Now, how many have anybody thinking about new forms of Web advertising that take advantage of tools like search, widgets, Flash, interactivity, data-mining, etc.? Very few.

“How many newspapers have copy desks that work hard at presenting news to readers in a clear, understandable form? 100 percent. Now, how many have even one staff member whose job it is to find ways to place the newspaper’s content on other Web sites, for maximum visibility and to create incoming links? Or to aggregate content from multiple sources into a one-stop local news portal? Almost none.

My own conversations with newsroom editors confirms what Potts is saying. Many top editors don’t recognize how quickly Web dynamics are changing, much less what they might do to respond. Other editors do recognize new requirements but are slow to shift resources amid cutbacks and protracted discussions of what print to let go of.

Potts’ post suggests an important question for news organizations that are going to drop the print newspaper one or more days per week. You cannot stop there. Assuming these organizations do not also cut staff, do they have a strategy and a plan for effectively using those resources to make their online operation more successful? Are they ready to take the news to users rather than relying on those who happen to stop by? Are they ready to fully exploit Web developments on the horizon including mobile locative media and the semantic Web?

Potts outlines some ways to get there. Now.

A third post, from Charles M. Peters offers a vision of a future. Peters, President and CEO of The Gazette Co., is making the effort to become a true denizen of the Web and his Complete Community Connection blog reflects a willingness to put thinking out for comment rather than standard corporate practice of huddling behind closed doors before announcing a plan.

Peters argues that he and the rest of the news industry need to develop a new mindset:

Newspaper executives from around the world are trying to implement new business models. However, it is hard to implement a new model with an old mindset. Many are trying to arrange the concepts for a new ecosystem of local information. What I hope to do here is share my thoughts, and connections, as we explore these new frontiers.

Peters also offers one of the most astute descriptions I have seen of the awkward state of the culture of news organizations:

As we work to develop this new game, or business model, within our own company, conflicts arise.  Those who see the future, but can’t articulate it, are frustrated.  Those who see the future and want to make it happen quickly are very frustrated by those who don’t even perceive the need for a new game.  Those who don’t perceive the need for a new game are frustrated by all the commotion.

Key to Peters’ thinking is the idea that news organizations must move away from a product focus.

“We cannot continue to focus on products. Products are just nodes on the network, promotional flags to local intelligence, in context.

“So, the game is changing from a reliable cash-generating franchise focused on broadcasting authoritative snapshots reflecting the community to an entrepreneurial “elegant organization” to provide platforms that enable communities to do what they want to do, share what they want to share, know what they need to know together.

“And, we cannot define these communities.  As an individual, my interests are not easily discerned by my geographical location or demographics.  So, I am looking for a way to keep up with friends, neighbors, certain local organizations, and certain local issues, while getting the overview of key issues that an editor thinks I should know.  We need an elegant organization of information to make that happen.”

Peters doesn’t stop there. He has begun to envision the new tasks to be performed within news organizations to shape and carry out this mission. The Community Liaison tops his list, and, guess what? It’s the CEO.

He closes with a list of questions that each person in the organization can ask him or herself going forward.

1.  Do I understand that I am a participant in an organization trying to create tools to be used “with and by” the communities we serve, to allow the individuals in those communities to know what they want to know so that they can have the power to do what they want to do?

2.  Do I acknowledge that I will get to participate in the creative evolution of my job, key tasks, reporting relationships and organizational mindset as we evolve into a new C3 organization?

3.  Do I want to?

What a great list for the conversations about change in your organization. It’s a piece of the future you can start on today.

 

Comments

I think the news people “get” the Internet more than the publishing/ad people. As you say, the amount of energy put into boosting site readership is tiny—probably less than is spent on painting newspaper vending boxes.

And then, the ad departments. Can’t speak about the whole world, but where I live in Florida, their online efforts are sad.


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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