Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Real McGuire

GE, etc., will have to wait.

I started doing this blog because, like everyone who does a blog, I thought I had something to say that at least I would be interested in saying, and maybe one other person -- the usual readership of blogs -- would be, too. And apart from the department stores, what I was trying to say about newspapers was: There's what we should and can do online, and there's Internet craziness. There are things you can do with print media, but there are a lot of people online who believe the only thing you can do with print is bury it. There's 90 percent of your income coming from your print newspaper and half the city reading it, and there are people who will say: "Who cares? Shut it down tomorrow! Everything now lives online, because -- well, I live online and your teenager does, too."

Just like the hammer and the nail, to the man with a cursor, there's no problem that can't be best solved by a Web application. And it seemed like people were being cowed, because journalists have a tendency to be cowed by people who say: I know the future with certitude.

In other words, I've been doing this for months to try to say, half as well, even half of what Tim McGuire said last month to the American Association of Independent News Dealers. It got posted late Monday on Romenesko and thus might be overlooked. But -- drumroll for sweeping universalist statement -- everyone who works in newspapers and everyone who cares about newspapers and journalism should read this speech, and read it again when the next teardrop falls. McGuire indicates he's said much of this before. But has it been said in one place quite this clearly?

He says there are seven realities. To encapsulate: "We are not the alpha dog anymore—the consumer is. ... News online is here to stay and no, that does not mean print is dead. Smart newspaper executives need to create a future which makes both online and print essential building blocks of a completely integrated information strategy. ... It’s the advertising business model, stupid. ... This has everything to do with distribution. ... The key to any new business model for American newspapers is content and we’d better stop killing our golden goose. ... Great leadership is required... An industry in crises takes a huge psychic human toll on long-time practitioners and you need to either leave or take personal responsibility for your own success."

He addresses Dean Singleton and others:

"I think he’s missing the whole point when he attacks reporters, editors and unions as whiners. I just don’t see very many people wishing for yesterday. I do see people frustrated with corporate leadership that has amassed incredible debt and CEOs who want to correct their own failures on the backs of the working folks. ... I think what newspaper people want is aggressive corporate leadership that is driven by an interest in saving the journalistic franchise rather than being focused on greed and self-interested management preservation. ... I know the clock is not going to be wound back. ... Journalism and the newspaper business have changed dramatically, and it is far wiser to look forward rather than back. Newspaper people should understand that things are going to get worse before they get better, if we measure better and worse by the 1990s."

He says, let's see what's happening but keep it in perspective:

"Content is indeed moving to the web. That is undeniable, but it can also be overstated. Not all content is best suited for the web, and a lot of consumers are not ready to consume all their new information on the Internet. ... Undeniably, a certain part of our audience is growing more dependent on the choice offered by the web... The question is how fast does that move occur? I don’t think the move of all content to the web is going to come as fast as some people think. A lot of consumers still want mediated news... A lot of readers covet the prioritization offered by a newspaper. There are still large audiences for things like comics, crosswords, sports, entertainment calendars and local news that are best consumed in a newspaper. ... Mass distribution of messages and products will have its place for a long time."

He says, Internet gurus are simply gurus and, more important, online news at this point is still a technology in search of a business:

"Ballmer is pretty darn sure of himself for somebody who can’t make Vista work. The technical gurus often vastly overestimate the computer savvy and comfort levels of consumers. Just because we have great technical capability does not mean consumers enjoy wrestling with technology. ,,, The second reason I think it is premature to write off newspaper delivery is there’s no business model for online delivery of news. The business model for newspapers is battered and tattered, but there is still a model. The business models that are working online do not currently support news. ... Finally, newspapers still have strength. Stop laughing! ,,, I think newspaper readership, while declining, is staying ahead of advertising declines. As I have said many times this is a business model problem more than it is a readership problem."

He says that just because print isn't dead doesn't mean that it doesn't need a different approach:

"When we talk about the newspaper we should not start with what we have now. We have to reinvent print just as much as we have to reinvent electronic delivery of news. Innovation is essential. ... Everything we do with our print and electronic products has to ADD value for citizen readers. ... It is essential that the newspaper of the future be a convener of people online and in print. Newspapers must convene all sorts of audiences in all sorts of imaginative ways. In a fractured media world it is incumbent on the democratic responsibilities of newspapers that newspapers lead, guide and direct everything from democracy to knitting clubs."

Because he's talking to delivery folks, he talks about how one of our great strengths -- our production and delivery network, the pipeline that we control as opposed to the Internet -- can be put to better use in the 21st century:

"Daily distribution of a one size fits all newspaper is not necessary and it is not the smart business decision. Publishers need to be willing to print sheets of varying sizes and shapes on different days of the week. ... Those choices should be made according to news demand AND advertiser demands. Customized special products delivered to different subscribers also have to be a part of this imaginative print approach. ... I think the smart companies are going to ask you to deliver a main sheet of varying sizes, and lots of auxiliary products aimed at specialized audiences. The business models of each product and each day might be dramatically different, from mass, to target, to circulation-based, to advertising-based, to sponsorships."

And, yes, he says that despite all the talk about business models, this is about more than business:

"One of the greatest threats to democracy is that our long-tailed world might destroy all sense of community. ... The journalism that shores up democracy is currently driven by newspapers. Nobody else, not citizen journalists, not bloggers, not television and not Google, Yahoo or Microsoft seems capable of protecting our society from governmental excess like newspapers do."

Now, one can quibble with his specifics. He says printed newspapers have a life of about 20 to 25 years and that there's no point in trying to market them to younger people or come up with products for them. Well, the people involved with Red Eye and the Philadelphia Daily News would argue with that, with some justification, and let's see how Baltimore does with its new B. Maybe Giner's 3030 format could be a hit. You can't try to reinvent print and not hope that it draws a wider audience. What we certainly know is that the current broadsheet formula isn't making it with younger people. So maybe he's right, but let's not put the kibosh on print innovation -- to freeze it in 2001 just to appeal to the geezers.

And while he takes Dean Singleton to task for calling "whiners" people who are merely pointing out Singleton's mistakes in management and finance, he does seem to underestimate how one or two old heads can thwart change. In addition to futurologists, journalists can be cowed by people who state with certitude that they hold the moral high ground. "If you ask me to change what I do, you are trashing the ideals of" -- oh, Joseph Pulitzer, Adolph Ochs, Otis Chandler, Gene Roberts, you name it. And some journalists will then run for cover. Journalists are always susceptible to idealists, because they fear they aren't idealistic enough themselves.

But those are quibbles. If in the next five years someone makes a breakthrough with print and younger readers, McGuire will jump on board. If they don't, well, they don't. His points are: Be realistic, pay attention to what the reader wants, the first problem is advertising, don't turn away from our strengths while we build new ones, don't look for a single magic bullet, be part of what happens, and what happens to newspapers matters to us as our business but it matters more to the country.

Yeah, THAT's the press, baby.

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