Revolution is not for the faint of heart.
Two central truths about our business become clearer every day: first, that there is an enduring need and opportunity for public service journalism; and second, that the current transition, involving everything from audience relationships to revenue models, is indeed revolutionary.
It is our good fortune to be the generation entrusted with this rebirth, though not everybody will agree with that. Some of you will think we’re going too far as we transform our operations, priorities and relationships. Many will criticize us for moving too slowly. Tragically, some of you will give up and quit too soon.
But there’s a profoundly important role in the evolving information ecology for the journalism of verification, organized responsively in an outside/in relationship with audiences, drawing upon networked resources, founded on trust and reputation. We must be prepared to do pretty much whatever it takes to our business operations and organizational charts to get us there.
Nearly every day I discuss changes that would have been heresy for newspaper editors even 10 years ago. Things that once seemed like tenets now look like artifacts. The pace of change and the momentum of the imperatives we face truly are disorienting.
Our stock price is in the tank. Bummer. (I've been accumulating McClatchy stock longer than most of you). Year-over-year revenues have been declining. Businesses that were mainstays of our prosperity – Detroit car markers, real estate brokerages – are themselves in turmoil. Wall Street is not happy; the relentless downward trend is disappointing, no doubt about it. Investors who own millions of shares and employees who own hundreds all share the discomfort.
Some of this is the particular pain of the housing meltdown and related economic woes. Beyond that, many of our business fundamentals really are different now. As a result newspaper publishing is moving from being one of the country’s last vertically integrated industries to being something else – a model being invented as we go.
Some of the restructuring is easy enough to understand, even if it feels bad. People who answer phones in circulation are worth every bit as much as people in newsrooms, of course – but their jobs are not equally central to the mission of producing public service journalism. We serve our mission better the more efficient we become.
So we’re a mission-driven company, right? How do you decide what’s central? Does it matter if you compile sports agate and NBA game summaries on your own copy desk? If the state public offices commission has a transparent, easily accessible campaign finance database online, should you try to duplicate that or just link it? If there are already 50 photographers covering a wildfire, when do you send your own?
These questions keep getting harder. If the future of the enterprise depends on continuing to grow audience (and it does), is it right to reassign staffers from features to a social networking site for young mothers? In a culture that prides itself on depth and subtlety of its journalism, how much can you justify reassigning reporters to early-morning shifts to populate the website with breaking news for early risers?
Though it be littered with such tough questions, I am not afraid of our future. Every day I watch McClatchy newsrooms adapt and extend, producing sustained public service journalism for audiences that have never been bigger. These growing audiences are at the heart of both our mission and our business model, a congruence for which I give thanks daily. (It need not necessarily have been so). We’re getting better at selling and profiting from them, even as we get more efficient and less expensive to operate; those lines will cross, and meanwhile our legacy business produces comfortable profit margins to see us across the changes.
The music’s not in the piano. Storytellers always occupy a central role in society, and there is no story more compelling than the truth.