Monday, June 30, 2008

It's Only Logistical

After last week, one hesitates to say anything other than "collapse." Newspapers looked in the coffee can and found nothing. It doesn't matter how much of this is caused by the economic doldrums; it's a question of whether that business ever comes back. And to what business.

On our road trip to Long Island last week, I drove down the wrong road at Newsday's office and we ended up passing their truck parking lot. One after the other, blue delivery trucks parked, ready for service, still distributing more than 350,000 copies a day despite all the trauma that paper has been through, much of it of course self-inflicted.

That was when it hit me on the point that Doug Fisher and I have been going back and forth on, about core competency. And it brought me back to another low point in recent newspaper history -- when I was the newsroom representative to the committee planning operations if there was a strike. (The possible strike was not the low point, the company's putting me on such a committee was.)

I learned a lot about non-journalism operations during my year-plus on this group, whose goal was -- how do we not get shut down? My editor and managing editor, however, were of a different mind than the group. The committee had drawn together a plan to publish with our nonunion staff. "But if we just posted stories online," my bosses said (yes, this is a collective quote, a copy editing sin, sorry), "we wouldn't need layout people and photo toners and someone to gather sports agate and all the rest." We could divert most of the people we had assigned to produce the paper to reporting, keep a few of them to edit and post online, and double the number of reporters. We could just tell people, the paper's on strike, go to our Web site for news updates, run whatever we could gather with the AP feed, and there we are. Journalism is produced, major events are covered, the public is better served.

So I presented that to the committee, and there was one of those silences, whereupon the discussion returned to the previous point, which had been how many papers could be printed by the hour by nonunion supervisors.

That was when I realized that to the rest of the people in the room, the company was an enterprise that, yes, collected information and sold advertising, but it was primarily an operation that produced, distributed and delivered a physical product. That product contained information (whether it be news or ads) but the point was that we owned presses and we owned trucks and we owned inserters and we employed drivers and platemakers (back then) and we bought ink and diesel fuel. Oh, yeah, and we had to produce the content. But our main business was producing and delivering the product.

So sure, we'll hold to get in a late ball game, but we have to get the trucks off the dock by X time to get them to the carriers to get them to the homes. That is the core business of the company -- getting a product to the customer, particularly getting the paid-for advertising to the customer.
Endless conversations on the committee concerned how we could devote enough resources to do a Travel section, even though we were going to be overtaxed simply to produce 12 daily pages of news, because they needed a wrapper for the inserts.

Hearing that, online news advocates may rise up and say, "And that's why newspapers must die!" Even in the worst of situations, the point was the mechanical problems -- which is why printed newspapers, when they arrive at your house, are old news. They ask, why does such madness exist?

But newspapers are essentially a logistics business that happens to employ journalists. That's why newspapers didn't invent Google. That's why journalists, most of whom have little idea what an inserter is, always seem ahead of the business side folks on new technology. (Journalists have no idea of the technology used on the other side. It's overwhelming. It's also largely mechanical or in the service of a mechanical technology.) That's why, in the end, you can lay off reporters easier than you can lay off truck drivers. You have less in the paper, but you get it to the dropoff site on time, because the core financial contract (for 80 percent of your money) was always -- we distribute the ads to the right place on time.

Now, this may not be the core competence of journalists -- who may be collecting, evaluating and presenting news and information to people in whatever form they wish and at whatever time they wish, doing it for themselves or in the pay of all types of companies. And in today's environment, perhaps journalists and their work would be better served by an employer who had different competencies. But of all their employers, the newspaper company also knows best how to run a factory, and the bigger ones know how to run a trucking company.

It's true that many newspaper companies are trying to figure out how to unbundle themselves from this. Outsource printing, contract for trucking, At the same time, others are trying to make themselves into more of this sort of company -- take on printing of other papers, distribute other newspapers through their carrier network. (After all, most of the moves in printing have been to other newspapers. Rare is the company that, like the San Francisco Chronicle or now the Boston Herald, contracts with a third party, and the Herald tried to get a deal with the Globe. Why keep it in the family? Well, who else understands inserting?) Usually this is to eliminate press downtime or get out of union contracts. But it is still unlikely that a newspaper company can suddenly stop being a newspaper company.

When Sam Zell says that newspapers should have awoken from their monopoly stupor years ago, he's talking in part about the Internet, but he's also clearly talking about print -- being responsive to readers. Internet wisdom changes that to say he is talking about how stupid print is, which is not what he was saying.

I didn't like being on the strike committee that much, but I never again saw our paper in the same way. Like any journalist I saw the company as existing to present the news, to the indifference of many of its employees. Afterward I saw the news as existing to draw customers to the product. That's why newspaper companies need to figure out how to save print as much or more than they need to figure out how to dominate online. The "product" online will always be unbundled. No one knows what its business model will be; it changes from year to year. As Doug has noted, when analog broadcasting goes away and more avenues open up for cell-phone transmission of data, no one really knows what happens. We do know how to create and distribute a printed product that still reaches more than half the people in most communities -- an incredible reach. That part, the mechanical part, isn't broken. At the moment, though, we don't know how to satisfy advertisers profitably to pay for it.

Next: GE, the Monitor and mass transit.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Quote: "because the core financial contract (for 80 percent of your money) was always -- we distribute the ads to the right place on time."

Exactly. And that, together with your thoughts about how journalists really don't know what goes on behind the curtain, highlights my points. The newspaper-as-manufacturing operation's core competency isn't really -- or shouldn't be -- manufacturing a newspaper but getting the ads in front of the audience on time. Problem is, newspapers keep defining themselves by "big iron." And newsrooms' core competency isn't in producing a newspaper but in getting valuable and valued information in front of the consumer on time.

That the two married nicely was a happy coincidence of the 20th century industrial society. As we head deep into the post-industrial world, their objectives remain the same, but their methods diverge.

And that's what I've been trying to say all along -- as a journalist, stop defining your core competency by your medium. Define it by your journalism. Then figure out ways to help the media you need to distribute your information survive and thrive.