Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Cool nerve and
steady leadership

In January, 2000, the Sacramento Bee Forum section for which I was responsible published a speech by Time Magazine’s director of new media, Daniel Okhrent (who would later become the NYT’s first public editor). Our headline posed his conclusion as a question – The death of print? – but even so, I was publicly chastised by other editors for daring to publish even a suggestion that newspapers were in trouble.

Here’s part of what the Okhrent piece said:

I will assert once again that The Death of Print is going to happen, far sooner than many of you may think. The word Internet was all but unknown in the U.S. six years ago, and Time Inc., which had not yet even imagined its potential impact, had no one working in the Internet arena. Today, the Internet is inescapable; through the advent of e-mail, it is ubiquitous. In the financial markets, it as essential as dollars. Throughout Time Warner, more than 1,000 people are developing copyrighted Internet product, or marketing it to consumers. Someday, we may even make money at it.

For now, though, all of this is destabilizing, particularly for those of us who are investing substantially in a future so tantalizingly clear in the ultimate goal, but the path to which is so tangled in thickets of doubt, uncertainty and confusion.

But despite such growing awareness of the gathering storm, just a few months later the dot-com bubble burst. The irrational exuberance with which the stock market had embraced the emerging online marketplace evaporated. Many of the dot-coms became dot-bombs almost over night.

And a lot of newspaper people said “I told you so,” breathed a sigh of relief, and relaxed.

Of course, what the bursting bubble did was weed out stupid companies and punish stupid investors – leaving behind smarter companies and smarter investors, who quickly proved that customers really did want the benefits online media could bring.

Since then, newspapers have made incremental progress toward becoming more multiplatform, but the pace has been inadequate. I introduced what we called “the urgency agenda” a couple of years ago, but let’s be honest: we didn’t always behave urgently.

Now we’re at another, perhaps decisive tipping point. Our world is shifting under us, faster than we imagined it could.

What now?

One of the continuing bright spots we can point to these days is the fact that when you combine print and online reach, our audience is growing. As we never tire of saying, more people want what we do today than wanted it yesterday.

Which is why, even in days when talk about reducing expenses is inevitable and necessary, we need to remember this: we have to keep investing, too. Yes, we have to pay the bills. Yes, we have to preserve our base. But we will surely fail if we don’t extend quickly into these new digital channels and build audience, as well.

So, who’s going to do that?

Our newsrooms. Nobody else.

The good news is that we can do that with fewer people than we employ today, but we cannot do it simply by cutting staff and layering on assignments, and we can’t do it without staffers’ enthusiastic engagement.

We must all understand and accept the financial emergency. I am ready for us to reengineer the newsrooms fundamentally, approaching this as genuine reinvention – and with the urgency to which we only pretended up until now. Our newsrooms are ready for fundamental change, particularly if it is presented as a full-faith effort at the long-term survival of our mission rather than a reflex effort to prop up margins. As one of our editors puts it, we must “[m]ake growing readership and online revenue Job One. If we’re truly at war, turn [our] auto plants into tank factories. Ration scrap metal and sugar. If you launch troops on too many fronts, but also cut taxes back home, you end up losing the election – or your company.”

Here is an instructive example about failure to adapt, drawn from another media industry (emphasis added):

"It would be unfair to say that the music industry was full of stupid executives. Instead, the people at the top were well-paid pashas who lived and died by short-term results. They’d attained their lofty posts by cunning and a gut instinct for what the public wanted. If the glaciers that supported their current business model were to melt, the smart play for an executive was to hope that there would be sufficient ice to support him until retirement … [T]he music industry reluctantly began [to offer products over the internet]. They were pathetic, half-hearted efforts …
Steven Levy in The Perfect Thing, p.91

We used to wonder about other newspaper companies for their frequent, shortsighted shifts in strategy. McClatchy has been steady and consistent by comparison, and I think we should continue to embrace the “athletic company” model we have long espoused.

Like any athlete, the newsrooms must shed any and all fat; they can and we will. (Maybe we argue a bit now and then about the definition ...) They need a game plan that pulls maximum effort from every team member; we’re ready to reorganize them in ways that would have been unimaginable five years ago. They need to work harder and change priorities; we can do without unproductive bureaus; share travel sections and regional food pages; update websites 50 times a day instead of 15.

Nobody gets a no-cut contract – from the coach (that’s me) on down; let’s reward winners and dismiss failures.

But it makes no sense to take the court with four players when the game demands five. The amount and quality of work we require of our newsrooms is not decreasing. Success demands enthusiasm and innovation and we all need to understand that while things aren't perfect, we have the tools we need to win.

We can reassure staffers about that even while optimizing operations, trimming staff and saving money. But doing so requires cool nerve and steady leadership, especially right now.

I felt a tinge of hyperbole when I said, not long ago, that it looked like it would fall to our generation to save American journalism. I don't feel like that's an overstatement any more.

Our task is to preserve the values of honest, independent, public interest journalism. In the end, it's not about saving newspapers, or titles, or jobs. It's about the mission.

And for now, the very best thing we can do to ensure it is to work urgently and intensely to preserve and grow the audience for what we do. That's the focus of all our efforts from here on out.
–Howard Weaver

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