Desperately clinging to the past, Newspapers struggle to preserve their legacy

Newspapers struggle to preserve their legacy

Raymond Alvarez:  The White House says there will be no bailout for newspapers.

The media has languished in the grips of depression for 15 years, shedding jobs, and losing ad dollars and subscribers. Indeed, print publishers lately are showing themselves to be yet another example of an old line business that won’t survive.

The rallying cry has been “innovate or die.” Yet, print has done little and nothing particularly bold. It is one of the great non-mysteries as to how the newspaper industry came to find itself  in desperate straits today. Three missing ingredients could have been the difference and we might not be writing the obituary for the print medium:

  • 1) vision
  • 2) appreciation for technology
  • 3) lack of entrepreneurship

Any casual observer knows Google and Craigslist put the hurt on media. More than a decade after Google first appeared on the scene, publishers still have no answer for doing battle in a plugged-in, caffeinated world.

The qualities that produce good print and earn Pulitzers are not the same qualities that make a successful business. After all, how do you hold onto the past and reach for the future? Very carefully it seems. Merit, especially pay, seems hard-earned for hard-driving reporting in a no-consequence, data snatching world.

Could it mean fewer and fewer are impressed in these increasingly skeptical times we live in? Maybe killing trees for a living is just too far out of sync with the rest of the world. Or an even harsher view: the business side of print hasn’t earned its pay in a long, long time.

The picture is all the more grim in the 2009 first quarter numbers. They were worse than expected.

While the not-so-sudden and dramatic demise of print is concerning, it’s not tragic. In the shifting economy, the harsh reality is this is a normal process. New and more efficient business models replace sluggish, old line models. Print, it seems, is doomed. It seems only a large failure – one bigger than the Rocky Mountain News shutting its doors – will finally shake up the industry enough to fire up creativity.

It has been suggested that media combine forces to research and experiment with new products. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal plans to begin charging non-subscribers micropayments for articles. The online Journal already charges for subscriptions. Newsday announced in February it will begin charging.

The incredible story in all this hand-wringing is the fact that as newspapers are dying  interest in news grows. This is a serious disconnect. How to capitalize on that growth may well be the billion dollar question. But, rest assured. If there is a need, someone will find a way to fill it.

Friend Thomas Frey, who is the lead futurist for an organization called the DaVinci Institute, believes Kindle will help the print media find its place in the lightning fast future. The price of the devices will come down once critical mass is achieved, he says. I believe that, too. But that day is not coming soon.

What happens next?

The Associated Press chairman gave us a picture of what media will be doing in the interim. Dean Singleton, owner of a print empire stretching from Denver to Los Angeles, fired the shot across the bow of content thieves. No more free lunch, he declared. AP will go to war.

I can respect the need to protect property. But this kind of response is unproductive and may tarnish an already badly damaged public image. That’s right. Forget the reader surveys. Strike up a conversation in any Starbucks. Print is no darling to be sure.

I’m a former journalist. I can only shake my head when I see headlines about the industry I left. It didn’t surprise me when the Rocky Mountain News folded. I knew it was doomed five years ago when an interviewer asked me how print media was going to stay alive. My reply was stay alive till 2010. What I had hoped for was five years was enough time for media to innovate.

Clinging desperately to the hands of the clock is not the answer. AP and Singleton just don’t get it.

AP carries a recent conversation with Charlie Rose at

Ariana Huffington joins AP CEO Thomas Curley in discussing what change has wrought for media.

Is there a new model? Huffington, who stiff arms saying there will be more than one model that will work, implores AP to embrace innovation.

I agree, Ms. Huffington, print media is wasting precious time (and money) taking this course of action. 

From the Huffington Post: “As writers, editors and publishers try to make sense of the new media landscape, they should ask themselves: Who has the money and what do they need? The people who have the money are the people who have always had the money: Large corporations. What they need is what they have always needed: Advertising.”

My question: Can reporters and editors make it on their own, following bloggers onto the self-employed path? I think so. The work environment won’t resemble a newsroom (and that’s a good thing). The business model will be quite different, too.

Media today is re-inventing itself. As AP scratches its head, innovators are looking at taking a slice of those shrinking ad dollars (dollars that won’t sustain big media), which were down 9.2 percent last year, TNS Media Intelligence reports. The sunny spot in the TNS data: Internet ad dollars were up 4.6 percent.

Newspaper publishers might be asking how do you get in this war for ad dollars if what you’re selling is free?

You begin by cutting advertising sales people, press men, circulation service people,  human resources staff as well as publishers and other highly paid executives. They’re dead weight. The job cutting has targeted the wrong people. Sell real estate. Invest in new technology.

More bad news for print: Technology continues to change the game. Just when slow moving corporations catch a clue, the game has changed again. It is said, big slow moving operations are no competition in an innovation rich environment. This is the troubling fact that lies behind AP’s complaint about content theft. For AP to succeed, it needs a closed environment it can control, the very thing social media hopes will fade away.

As print and the Associated Press go to war, and subscription only signs begin appearing on the information highway, one has to wonder if content will continue to stream, in spite of a press that becomes MIA. The response may surprise. Stay tuned.

An inexpensive Kindle could change the game yet again. Perhaps a new product in the Apple pipeline will keep the respirator pumping for print a bit longer. I’ve long thought that such a product would come from virtual reality technology.

Innovation, innovation, innovation. It has been the rallying cry. But, it is a no-show. Publishers think like a novice investor. They believe they can keep a foot on first and steal second base. Doesn’t happen in baseball, and won’t happen anywhere else.

My advice: Sell the presses to entrepreneurs who have the courage to innovate. It seems an outrageous idea but, manufacturing inexpensive microchips could involve offset presses. Outrageous? Isn’t that the first term we give to some of the more daring ideas in history?

Start thinking out of the box – something you will have to get used to because it won’t get easier from here.

Think social media. A business model involving Twitter seems the first tack for innovation. This is my favorite topic these days, because I am developing Twitter services. And yes, I am one of the six-month wonders who has hung out a shingle in social networks.

The bad news for big media: It turns out that Twitter is yet another labor intensive business, at least at first. The important work of news gathering consumes a lot of the clock. Hawking news online involves more work. Marketing and other important operations will be farmed out. Publishers, press men and buggy whip salesmen need not apply.

News aggregators, bloggers, journalists and pundits will thrive – without backing of big operations. Alliances will do the enterprise reporting of the future. Reporters will band together when necessary to take on the powers that be.

Lumbering and bloated multilayered business models are dinosaurs. Fight the good fight AP, but trends don’t favor jobs for paper pushers (your subscribers). The people who brought the newsroom such bizarre concepts as micro management are not innovators. If newspapers were automakers, would we have seen these insipid concepts take hold? Did management really need to stand over the worker and tell him how to turn a wrench? Never mind. Bad example.

Twitter’s promise for media is not that reassuring. Success will depend to a large degree on willingness to engage the public, something news people are only grudgingly embracing. The survival skills will include savvy street smarts in creating alliances and keeping up with the shifting landscape of evolving new industries, technology and disappearing industries.

Perhaps the Empire of One foreseen by Thomas Frey is actually an empire of a half dozen former marketing, public relations, broadcasts anchors and news people. By the way, the way Frey sees it, individuals will come together for single projects and then disperse much as they do for film productions. The news gathering industry of the future will seek continuity, and a firm of equal partners would seem a more promising arrangement. Then again, the empire model could reshape journalism. Perhaps regional news publications will resemble magazines that draw on different partnerships and alliances for single projects.

One thing that many in news will have to do if they are to succeed in social media is drop the arrogance. More effective social networking pros are more engaging. Future news people will not resemble the hard-living, no-holds barred species of today. People like pit bulls until they are bitten.

Guy Kawasaki, a news aggregator, is followed by 117,715 Twitter users. He follows more than that number, and is usually cited when users talk about celebrities who follow back (a Twitter thing). He’s an example of a very successful microblogger.

I am impressed, too. Guy is a very active user. What makes me warm to blog conversations on Twitter, is you get a turn to speak. You’re not merely a passive listener There is a dialogue. A culture of respect awaits news people willing to adapt.

The day of the lackey is closing quickly, too. A different culture emerges when individuals are responsible to partners instead of employers.

The effect has begun to show. Deb Frey, who communicates under the pseudonym DavinciDeb, has noticed a transformation in herself. After six months of “a severe Twitter habit” she is now teaching boot camps and has graduated to corporate consultant.

Huffington tells AP that building walls around content are not the answer to what ails it. How can partitioning content even make sense? I might start sending the Los Angeles Times a bill for all the free advertising I give its stories. I’m not that atypical. I pass along a lot of links I find on Twitter, as well.

The power AP is jealously guarding is no longer AP’s to keep. Can anyone blame a huge corporation for opposing losing business to thieves? Of course, AP is not going to follow advice from Huffington, despite her success.

In the perfect storm that is raking media as never before, publishers are struggling because they still do not understand electronic media, Huffington says. Shareholders should oust publishers and executives, who should have fired themselves long ago. The Rocky Mountain News staff may not discover a better life online, but I give the former staff workers a better chance than the people who ran the business side.

Interest in news on Twitter is phenomenal. Twitter users swarm to news. If this is a view to the future, there is a business model that will be invented, and will work.

AP’s Curley says it never has believed it could compete with free. The operative word in that sentence is believed. AP doesn’t believe and will continue down its path leaving itself vulnerable to new rivals.

Someone did believe at Apple and acted in dramatic style, Apple essentially stole the music download business, one that was building quickly on free content – all before the Cupertino company introduced the iPod. Who would have expected such a bold move from a big corporation? We know the rest of the story. In the most recent quarter, Apple sold 22 million iPods.

Stop making excuses AP.

Become an entrepreneur, or perish.

By Raymond Alvarez