Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I was wrong

Last week I railed against newspaper CEOs and their Nov 14 confab at the American Press Institute on how to salvage their industry. It was the blind leading the blind, I said. How could these guys, who'd driven the newspaper business into the proverbial ditch, ever be the same folks who'd be capable of figuring our way out? A summit among them, I declared, was a waste of time.

Well, I was wrong.

I'm still going to hold on to my reservations about the CEOs themselves. I need to see concrete proof that they know what they're doing before I'm willing to give them a by. But Steve Miller and James Shlein, the turnaround specialists hired to lead the meeting, actually do seem to be on the right track. API published a summary of their recommendations. I have to admit that a lot of the things they're advocating are things I've called for myself.

  • Act like an entrepreneur; stop thinking first about why a new approach won't work.

    I talked about the value of experimentation and not waiting until something is fully baked--even at the risk of failure--in this post about how to think like a designer and
    this post about two newspapers' different approaches to using Twitter.

  • Create a portfolio of initiatives; recognize that some will fail and kill those quickly.

    "If I were a newspaper publisher today" talks about the need to create just such a portfolio.

  • Don't wait for every data point before taking action. "Ready, fire, aim" should be the operating principle.

    "How to think about the new WaPo political aggregation site," I noted how polished the new "Political Browser" site was and indicated that that was a red flag for me. A polished design could indicate that someone thinks they've figured it out when, really, we all need to be in "throw it up against the wall and see what sticks mode."

  • Use downsizing as a tool when necessary to achieve a larger strategy, not simply as a cost-cutting goal.

    I haven't really talked about this, but I totally agree. Downsizing without restrategizing just doesn't make any sense. If you're going to downsize, if you're going to leave yourself with fewer staff than you need to deliver a quality product, you need to rethink your product and come up with one that you can deliver with quality, given the amount of people you have.

  • Figure out how to leverage core competencies into new directions and new niches.

    In "The end of news *as we know it*", I talked about how the demise of newspapers doesn't mean the demise of news. News will continue, but in new forms. The mission of people in the news business today needs to be to find those forms.

  • Be honest with employees, and get ideas from those on the front lines.

    See my
    "How about Googling up?" post for ideas on how to leverage Google's "20% project" idea to get great ideas from the front lines.

  • Don't sit and cower and weep about your problems. Inspire.

    "Who, exactly, is the problem?" I talked about the need to put the recriminations aside and dive in and try to find the future.

  • Collaborate with outside entities that can bring expertise or resources.

    Yup, agreed with that in
    "Getting ahead--and producing better journalism--by letting others help us." Also talked about how Dan Rather might have avoided getting fired, if he'd brought in the wisdom of the crowds before he put the Bush/National Guard memo story out into the world.

  • Pay attention to, and leverage, the brand.

    I haven't addressed this, but I agree that, in the future, brand will be an important competitive advantage.
In sum, then, these strike me as extremely wise guidelines. Every news exec, whether on the business side or editorial, and, come to think of it, every person working in the news biz, should post this list on the wall next to their desk, fold it up and stick it in their wallets, and slap it on their bathroom mirror. And then they, we, all need to strive to live by these rules every day until we find the future of this crazy, struggling, but not hopeless business of ours.

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