Early in my editing career, I often moved too slowly in making hard decisions. Sometimes I simply didn’t know what to do, of course, but mostly it was a case of fearing the disorientation or disruption of enforcing an unpopular decision would negate the benefits of the move. I left people too long in jobs I knew they should have vacated. Too often, my decisions were overly influenced by staff opinion, and not the readers’ interests.
I got better as I matured in the job, and though it’s been some years now since I directed a staff, I know it’s harder today. Editors must move faster and act more decisively than ever.
Time is not our friend. Mark Zieman in Kansas City introduced me to the poem Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day, which includes the memorable couplet, “Time is the school in which we learn/ Time is the fire in which we burn.” (I think Mark probably heard it on Star Trek, but maybe he was an English major.)
That works well with some advice I offered a young editor at a non-McClatchy paper in an email exchange earlier today. Maybe I got a little wound up in my argument, but I closed by writing, “My current metaphor for our business is this: We have to move, and we can see a secure spot for ourselves right across the river. The good news is, there's a bridge; the bad news is, it's on fire. There's time to get across, but not to [screw] around. I intend to get to the other side before the bridge burns up. Who's coming with me?
The drumbeat of of depressing news about newspaper layoffs and other cutbacks grows louder by the day. Just this week we learned about about a huge cutback at the Palm Beach Post and a 25% reduction of staff and newshole at the Hartford Courant. (Since the Courant had recently been highlighted as an example of good productivity by some TRB executives, other Tribune papers are now fearing their cuts may be bigger than in Hartford.)
The crisis in our business today is about revenue, not journalism. We’re not doing everything right on our side of the house, but the fact is that total audience – newspapers plus unduplicated digital reach– is growing. More people want what we do today than ever before.
But cash flow – the fuel that keeps our engines running – has fallen by hundreds of millions of dollars. I’ll say that again: hundreds of millions of dollars. (Anybody who thinks our layoffs and other expense controls are occasioned by corporate fat cats staying in $200 hotel rooms is dangerously delusional. That might be stupid, but it’s not the problem).
Neither is it a question of profit margins. “If the company wouldn’t try to maintain historically exorbitant margins, we’d have plenty of money,” newsroom critics maintain. But margins are a derivative of performance, not an objective. If you invest a dime and get back 15 cents, your profit margin is 33% [corrected, thanks KA]– but you still can’t pay back the quarter you owe me. You can’t spend margins; you spend cash flow, and that is what’s declining at alarming rates throughout the industry, partly as a result of new competition from the internet and partly due to specific (presumably temporary) downturns like California and Florida real estate.
If you and your spouse make $100,000 a year and one gets cut back to half-time, you’d only have $75,000. You wouldn’t starve, and you could probably make the mortgage payment, but you’d sure take cheaper vacations and eat out less often. You’d also start looking hard for ways to make more money.
That’s where we are as a company today. We are working hard to increase revenue, though we’re sailing into a headwind blown up by the collapse of real estate prices, auto sales and hiring. We’re filling all sales jobs, retraining sales people to sell online products better and changing commission structures to reward growth there. Our Yahoo partnership, now in its earliest phases at a few papers, promises to bring significant improvement as we deploy demographic and behavioral targeting to online sales.
In the meantime, we are controlling expenses, because we must – and that includes painful cuts in newsrooms, the heart of our public service mission.
This is doubly painful because we’re demanding more of you at the same time – once again, because we must. The bridge is on fire, and we have to keep moving across it. Some of what we’re carrying will need to be tossed aside to speed the crossing, because failure to reach the other side is fatal.
This “crossing” is our conversion from a once-a-day printed paper to an integrated, 24/7 multimedia company. We are well launched on that journey, and successfully so. Even as things get harder, we’re moving forward.
It will require bold moves to keep moving across ahead of the fire. Raleigh and Charlotte are pioneering an intimacy of shared news and effort we’ve never tried before. Others will follow. We’re contracting outside printing for some papers in the Northwest, and may be looking to do so elsewhere. The Miami Herald delivers the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in Dade County (and visa versa); we may well see far more along those lines.
I mention these specifics (and foreshadow more to come) to make the point as forcefully as possible that our talk of reinvention is not a simple smokescreen or mere bravado. When it’s accomplished, we’ll be a smaller, more sophisticated company, honed and optimized to perform our core mission, highly efficient in production operations and aggressively skilled in selling an integrated media package nobody else can offer. The staffers who make the crossing will understand (and help create) a new relationship with audiences, with competitors, with partners.
That is the destination across the burning bridge.