Thursday, November 5, 2009

What If... Again

Returning to the theme of the Sept. 3 post "What If," about Howard Owens' view that online should have been set up from the get-go as a separate unit:

Judy Sims, who alas was recently relieved of her job at the Toronto Star (which, even more alas, seems ready to relieve all of its copy editors of their jobs, too, sending them to Bengaluru or someplace), comes to the same conclusion. And while both are people who occupied the "online guru" jobs at their respective organizations, it's clear from her blog that Sims is more of a futurist, and more utopian, than Owens.

But she cites Owens as well, and expands:

"Economic pressures over the past few years have led many newspaper execs to convince themselves that the integrated organization is the best option.

"This will not work because the disrupted cannot manage their own disruption. Most newspaper employees are not qualified to do the strategic thinking required to manage disruption let alone create it in the form of new products that may challenge the core because they still see themselves as print newspaper employees. Just stating that you are a “news” company instead of a “newspaper” company doesn’t make it true.

"I couldn’t agree more with Howard Owens analysis. The only way newspapers can ensure the survival of their brands and the journalistic principles they hold so dearly is to separate the web organization completely from the newspaper.

"Clay Christensen talks about the “sucking sound of the core”. That’s exactly what is happening at news organizations around the world. The print product will always win because it still makes the most money, has the most people and cost associated with it and is where everyone feels comfortable.

"It would be very difficult to sit at a boardroom table and convince the room that the focus should be on the thing that makes little money, has unlimited competitors and a very unclear future or path to profitability. Michael Nielsen gives a nice explanation of this here. The sensible manager will focus on managing the core even if it is in decline and that’s why the two operations cannot co-exist."

She goes on to note why she believes print salespeople can't sell online, which is beyond my sphere, except to note that she also mentions why print people can't sell print either: "Because most print reps at most newspapers have not been sales people at all. They have been order takers. I remember several years ago hearing of the executive who quipped that his reps 'aggressively answer the phone'."

(At some newspapers in my area, my own included, this is changing. The question is whether it is too late for anyone to notice.)

What I appreciate about Sims' analysis is that she doesn't say that we "printies" (to take that term of opprobrium and claim it as a point of pride) win in boardrooms because executives are simply gutless wonders and news-paper folks are closed-minded nostalgists. As she says: "the sensible manager" will focus on the largest part of the business. Even if it's going downhill. The newspaper is still a business, and it is still unclear if online news and information will develop into a business or will always be a philosophical undertaking from which one may happen to eke out a living, somewhat like a religion. (If your margin is always going to be zero, are you a business?)

Early experiments like Nando Times were skunkworks. I once visited Tribune Interactive, which had 50 people who had nothing to do with the Chicago Tribune. But the change to make the newsroom the online driver wasn't just cost pressures. It was the belief also that 1) all we're doing is transitioning to publishing the newspaper online, as it is -- a belief that has been shown to be as absurd as building a five-story department store in a shopping mall and thinking it would function just like a downtown department store, ignoring the fact that the store's context was completely different --

and 2) the reason we are doing that is that what the newsroom is doing, right now, as it is doing it, is so beloved by readers that it is exactly what they want online. If it was that beloved by readers, they would be willing to pay for it. Hell, they'd be willing to get it in print. Time has shown us that the newspaper -- particularly one without classified ads -- is not as essential to most of its readers as journalists believe it should be. But heck, we knew that in 1980, and we ignored it then, too.

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