Sunday, November 19, 2006

Is this the generation
called to save

About 11 years ago, working on McClatchy's strategic plan for internet publishing, I left Manhattan to interview Jim Wilse in New Jersey. I got on the train in Times Square and got off in Star-Ledger Plaza. I wondered even then if there’d ever be another time when newspapers were powerful enough to etch their names thus on the civic landscape.

In Chicago Friday for a meeting with our MCT partners, I waited for an elevator in the lobby of Tribune Tower and felt an even more powerful, more foreboding question about our place in the scheme of things.

Have you seen the tower? Modeled after Rouen Cathedral in France, the Tribune’s headquarters stands as an icon for Chicago and the newspaper world. The 36-story tower grew from a 1922 competition seeking nothing less than “ the most beautiful and eye-catching building in the world.” Col. McCormick surely did not doubt that his newspaper deserved that. As if to punctuate its grand, self-confident style, the building incorporates stones from famous locations around the world – the Alamo, the Coliseum in Rome, the Great Wall of China. Apollo 15 obligingly brought back another from the moon.

And today, of course, the fate of the 159-year-old company the gothic tower houses is very much up in the air. The marketing of Tribune Company is the biggest in a continuing series of seismic events that have rattled media companies of late. Dow Jones sold six newspapers, and Copley is trying to sell seven. The New York Times sold its television stations and the Boston Globe may be in play. Belo eliminated its pension plan, Cleveland and San Jose added to the growing ranks of laid-off journalists. Akron and Contra Costa decided they could do without executive editors.

More and more, it looks like we are going to be the generation called on to save American journalism. It’s a nice honor and all, but it’s not going to be easy.

In fact, it will be brutal, as the sad litany of recent events well illustrates. McClatchy hasn’t escaped unscathed, either, and we know there’s more pain to come. Revenues continue to erode, undermining the business model our traditional operations were built on. If we make a lot less money, we’ll have to spend a lot less, too.

And that leaves fewer resources for the crucial fight at hand. “Business as usual” isn’t possible, and “journalism by attrition” – doing everything 10 percent less well than we did it yesterday – is inadequate.

How do we handle that?

Partly by reaching out on new platforms and in new channels. Partnerships are sure to play an increasingly important role. We can be even more relentless in expense savings, negotiate better rates, learn to share content more regularly. Although people are working hard and productively, we all know we can manage to a higher standard.

Most fundamentally, we need to reinvent the way we do things – where we focus the resources we have, how we manage our newsrooms. If you were starting from scratch today, would you build a newsroom exactly like what you have now?

That's a question we should be asking all the time now, adjusting operations constantly as the answers change.

Most importantly, we have to keep the mission at the center of decision-making while we adapt: how can we continue to hold government accountable, give voice to the voiceless, speak truth to power? How do we build community cohesion, inform civic debate, make life better for the average person? If we can answer those questions well, we're winning – no matter how hard the fught becomes.
–Howard Weaver

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