Saturday, July 15, 2006

Evolution, revolution
& hand grenades

Dean Singleton, sitting just to my right on a panel discussing “the future of news” at the AP Sports Editors convention last month, served up a fat pitch I just couldn’t resist.

As he so often has, Dean illustrated his call for fundamental change with the comment that, "We have to throw a hand grenade in the middle of the newsroom, blow the place up, and start over again." That gave me the opportunity to come out foursquare against murderous explosions aimed at our colleagues.

I don’t disagree about the imperative of fundamental change. I’ve been thinking about these issues since 1995, when I worked for Gary and had the somewhat grandiose title “assistant to the president for new media strategies.” We knew then and have become ever more urgently convinced that a digitally networked world changes everything.

Maybe Dean and others employ metaphors about hand grenades and revolutions simply to make the (correct) point that change is imperative. But I’m afraid they actually believe it, and that is dangerous and wrong.

The big mistake is assuming that fundamental change requires wrenching, violent revolution. Everything we know about life on earth tells us evolution is a better bet.

Revolutions generally (and hand grenades in particular) bring change indiscriminately. In rejecting the status quo, revolutionaries abandon institutions and disciplines that have evolved successfully after long testing and experimentation. These things usually became successful for a reason, and even if their time is past, the vacuum created by their absence isn’t likely to be pretty. Put it more simply: a revolution is far more likely to end up with the Reign of Terror than an Athenian Senate debate.

Critics say evolution is too slow and gradual to cope with rapid change. Not true.

While most people think of evolution as a sequence of minute changes iterated gradually over an unimaginably long time, it doesn’t usually work that way. As Stephen Jay Gould and others discovered, evolution is better understood as a process of punctuated equilibrium, where the equilibrium is long periods of stability and the punctuation is relatively rapid change and adaptation when required. (Gould’s book Wonderful Life, and especially his discussion of punctuated equilibrium in the Burgess Shale, is one of those books that changed the way I see the world).

In other words, evolutionarily successful organisms naturally carry on until conditions change, at which point they adapt pretty quickly to accommodate it.

Think newspapers.

There wasn’t a lot of imperative for newspapers to change when they had 80% reader penetration and 40% profit margins. Nestled securely in an evolutionary niche protected by geographic monopolies, exclusive classified advertising franchises and high barriers against competition, we ruled infoworld between WW2 to the internet.

Not now. The disruptive technologies born of digital networks have changed the climate, and the old order is no more. Change we must.

But our change will be more lasting and better constructed if we apply the time-tested lessons of evolution and eschew the flashier but less productive posture of revolution. As we apply lessons learned from the changing climate to adapt our sturdy, battle-hardened structures, we’ll end up with operations that meet changed conditions without abandoning valuable lessons from our past.

It’s hard for a hand grenade to make that kind of distinction.

I believe we’re smart enough and disciplined enough to pull this off – and with all you folks on the team, I’m ready to take on the hand grenade crowd any time, any place.
–Howard Weaver


  1. Anonymous10:49 PM

    I agree absolutely with your point here. It's so hard, after more than three decades in the business,to think that simply doing the best journalism we can is no longer enough to ensure our survival. Just blowing up things won't work. After another discouraging report on circulation declines, it's impossible not to recognize that something fundamental is happening in our marketplace, that a lot of these forces are beyond our control, and that we have to adapt to a changing world. But if anyone ever suggested that survival meant anything less that doing the best job of journalism than we possibly can, I would just throw in the towel. I don't want to live (or at least work) in that world.
    What worries me the most is that we are devoting so much energy to adapt to the Internet, but we are so far away from figuring out how to make money from the Internet.
    My own sister, in my own hometown, reads the paper online because 1) she doesn't have to pay for it, and 2) she doesn't have piles of newsprint cluttering up the house.
    How are we going to make money off this reader, who wants what we have to offer but knows how to get it for free?
    Why is it the responsibility of people who see themselves foremost as journalists to figure out how to make money in the new paradigm. Why can't we be just good journalists anymore?
    Suffering editor

  2. We're already making money off that reader. In year one of the new McClatchy, we'll have internet revenues of more than $200 million. Because costs of production and delivery are so much less, the profit on that $200 mill is more than $200 million pront revenue. And internet sales, while stil less than 10% of our total revenue, are *by far* the fastest growing, accounting for most of our revenue growth year-over-year.

    We don't make money selling newspapers. It costs us more to make and distribute them than circulation revenue brings in. So we've been living (comfortably) for decades in a world where aggregating audiences and selling them to advertisers paid the fright.

    Still true.