Newspaper people nowadays are understandably consumed with questions and debates about the future of their business, often conflating that with the fate of journalism or even democracy itself. That linkage is not without merit, but it introduces an unfortunate “either/or” argument that obscures many possible alternatives.
The construct that says something must be either up or down, dead or alive, old or new dominates Western thinking, but it’s at odds with observable reality. Life in general and questions like this in particular rarely resolve into tidy binary conclusions: Yes/No. Most of life is Maybe/Sometimes and Partly/Not Quite.
Digital triumphalists, who always seem to handle hyperbole better than subtlety, delight in apocalyptic views. Print revenue is falling faster than online revenue is growing to replace it, therefore newspaper companies will fail. (This ignores the fact that expenses and margins can also fall, as they are). Older people read newspapers more than younger ones, therefore newspaper companies are doomed. (This suggests we give up our 50% print readership base before extending to other platforms as well. Huh?) Some newspaper companies are stupid and slow, therefore all newspaper companies will be eclipsed. (Just watch).
Every painful bend in the road between yesterday’s newspaper and tomorrow’s new platforms will be over-interpreted as definitive. Circulation falls? Death spiral. Layoffs? Told you so. Stock price plummets? See, Wall Street agrees.
On our side of the debate, sadly, there are still influential voices who seem to argue that all will be fine if non-profits just subsidize newspapers so we can keep doing exactly what we’ve always done. They argue for an immutable law that says sports news, city council stories and classified ads ought to be bundled into one, ultra-profitable package, and no other arrangement is allowed. Citizens who don’t read the paper ought to have their voter registration cards taken away.
God, what a lot of crap it all is.
Real life doesn’t come in such tidy packages, and real answers don’t emerge from smug commentary. In this world, the work of the Lord gets done by the hands of human beings, and we’re on our own in slogging the twisted, muddy road to salvation.
As McClatchy navigates that path, here’s what the landscape looks like from where I sit. While we’ve often been insulated from the worst traumas in our industry (Knight Ridder and Times Mirror, for instance, are gone), we’re certainly not immune. Revenues continue to be bleak, and it is increasingly apparent that fundamental shifts in competition and audience (combined with cyclical economic woes) demand permanent structural changes. Though many encouraging signs point us toward future success (total audience and online revenues are indeed growing at double-digit rates, for instance) the overall picture is undeniably changing.
Put it plainer: newspaper companies will make less money, get smaller and face greater competition. As a result, we’ll have to become more efficient, make smarter choices and allocate resources to our essential activities.
But shouting “Death spiral!” every time we make those adjustments is either willfully ignorant or malevolent.
I wrote here in 2006 about how I thought the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium described the process we’re going through. I believe that more today than I did then. The theory holds that evolution advances in bursts of adaptation and cellular creativity brought on by changed conditions; in that respect, we’re in a Cambrian explosion in the media business nowadays.
McClatchy's adaptation is well underway. We’re becoming an integrated multimedia company that delivers value-added news and information across many platforms – filling a niche that didn’t exist 10 years ago, but now holds bright promise for companies who can make the necessary adaptations. We will be a smaller, more efficient company serving an expanding audience. We’ll leave some traditional functions behind (think stock tables) and embrace new opportunities like online database presentations. The work will grow more sophisticated and staffs, even if smaller, will need to be smarter and more sophisticated, too.
And we will do all this from an unchanging base of public service journalism. Matt Thompson and others are rightly asking, “What is it about newspapers (or journalism) that needs saving?” My answer is that it’s the animating principle – honest, independent, trustworthy information that advances the public interest – that matters most. Given that foundation, we can build all kinds of structures that meet specific needs.