News Leadership 3.0

October 31, 2008

On the other side of the burning bridge

As news organizations struggle to outlast a failed business model, the Monitor may breaks free to create a safe spot on the road ahead

On the “NewsHour” Wednesday night, Christian Science Monitor Editor John Yemma looked tired. Very tired. But his smile was the smile of a winner and rightly so—Yemma,  a longtime print journalist, gets to march toward a media future without a ton of newsprint strapped to his ankles.

The Monitor announced earlier this week that it would drop daily print publication starting in April, build up its Web site and publish a weekend edition. Rick Edmonds of Poynter Online details the changes here and here. My own initial thoughts are here.

Editors may focus on why the Christian Science Monitor’s plans are not immediately relevant to their world regional or daily newspapers. There are big differences. The Monitor doesn’t draw much advertising. It has expensive national distribution. It gets a multimillion-dollar subsidy from the Christian Science church ($12 million this year to be reduced with the shift to digital).

I would focus instead on this key difference: More than any traditional print news organization I am aware of, Yemma and the Monitor crew have a chance to envision a Monitor (dot com) that could be viable five or 10 years from now and make it so.

Howard Weaver, the Vice President News for the McClatchy Company, once drew on the image of a bridge afire separating traditional news organizations from their future:

“My current metaphor for our business is this: We have to move, and we can see a secure spot for ourselves right across the river. The good news is, there’s a bridge; the bad news is, it’s on fire. There’s time to get across, but not to [screw] around. I intend to get to the other side before the bridge burns up. Who’s coming with me?”

Reading this now, I see the flames rising and I wonder whether Weaver or anyone else can really see a “secure spot right across the river.” It has been more an article of faith than a proven business model that the future—that is, the future revenue to pay for future journalism—resides online.

Liberated from print, journalists at the Christian Science Monitor have a chance to define that ground across the river.

I fear, increasingly, that able and dedicated editors in many newsrooms are not getting that chance. Instead, their job seems to be propping up the flaming bridge for one day, one week or a few months at a time while the future races farther ahead.

Consider:
—Buyouts in 2006 and 2007 cost newsrooms valuable experience and institutional memory. Bad enough. Now layoffs increasingly take the new hires—predominantly the young, digitally saavy journalists newsrooms need to shape a viable future. In Spokane, innovative leaders Steve Smith and Carla Savalli saw this non-future very clearly and left. Just today, I scratched my head when I saw several online producers would be part of the latest round of layoffs at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.
—Tribune’s much publicized newspaper redesign efforts have a decidedly 1998 feel to them. They may slow readership losses but they are unlikely to staunch the bleed of advertising. How much does tinkering with print take away from moving more aggressively online?
—Progressive editors talk about a goal of 50-50 effort for print and online effort in their newsrooms. But even in 2008, they’re hard-pressed to tell you even 25 percent of their staff time goes beyond print.

Mindy McAdams recently reported: “Yesterday a journalist who (still) works at a big Florida newspaper told me, ‘Last year we were trying to shoot as much video as possible. This year, we’re trying to save the paper.’ “

That is sad. And scary. It heightens my fear that we are at or close to a tipping point where demoralized news organizations will stop trying to innovate and will simply man the waterhoses while their owners stoke the fires of the burning bridge.

Update: Here’s an interview with Yemma about plans for the Monitor.

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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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