Sunday, October 08, 2006

News crush

Barb and I have a weekend house nestled amongst vineyards in
California's Shenendoah Valley, about 60 miles east of Sacramento. I no longer drink, but Barb tells me the neighbors make fabulous wine from the Zinfandel and Syrah grapes they grow nearby.

Right now, they're involved in "the crush," a frantic time of year when the grapes have reached optimum ripeness and the vintners are working around the clock to turn them into wine. A year's work and millions of dollars will hang on how the magic of chemistry and taste evolves over the next few weeks.

Our neighbor Elisheva describes the crush simply as "war," and we have all learned not to interfere or expect any significant interaction until it's over. For instance, we really need to have a road committee meeting to get started with some repairs before the rainy season – but there is no point at all in raising those issues now.

What's that have to do with the news business? Well, it seems like an apt analogy for the management challenge you're all facing. Welcome to the news crush; clearly, this is war.

You’re all in the midst of building budgets you know will be hard to live with. You’re dealing with publishers and ad directors focused intently on revenue growth and with circulation departments nervously watching the losses mount. They all want you to satisfy yesterday’s readers in tomorrow’s paper.

And you must, of course, or we won’t make it. But you also have to change how we deal with audiences going forward:

  • Your front page needs to be more compelling, starting tomorrow. You have to encourage new voices, tune the coverage to include new reader preferences, compete more effectively with alternative sources of information and new distractions.
  • You have to move swiftly to fill the new channels we know audiences are moving into: 24/7 updates and alerts; video; cell phones and other mobile platforms.
  • You have to give up the idea that we can serve as ultimate gatekeepers, while not abandoning the sense of standards and professionalism that make us unique and valuable.

Last week an unexpected rain fell on many of the vineyards here. Wet grapes, left unpicked, quickly develop mildew, so other plans went out the window and important tasks were left undone while crews were mobilized to harvest. They might not be able to save all the grapes, so they started with the most valuable. They prioritized quickly and worked furiously.

I watched all this from the sidelines, of course, my only contribution being to stay out of their way.

And our neighbors – smart, politically active people and avid news consumers – are on the sidelines for our fight. We have to figure it out for ourselves.
–Howard Weaver

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