It’s not the economy, stupid

I’m sorry, but every time a newspaper executive discussing layoffs and buyouts blames things like “a drastic economic slump and the meltdown of the Bay Area housing market” I laugh.

Are you kidding?  Is that a joke?

Your profits are shrinking because The World Has Passed You By.

For more than ten years newspaper companies have done Not Enough, and now they (uh, we, I suppose) are paying for it.

So please, folks, when you talk to reporters and give them your quotes about why your company has to cut costs, put the blame where it belongs: On the long series of short-sighted people who have pulled the strings with one eye on quick profits and the other eye on the expense report.

Real estate downtown? Economic slump? Was that really a factor in 2004 or 2005 when the wider Web sped past your pressroom window while you were focusing on making a 20% margin?

It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s that you missed opportunities and continue to miss opportunities to grow an online audience.

Advice to newspaper executives and publishers: Don’t miss too many more opportunities.

Debunking the coulda-shoulda-woulda myth of online news

I’m trying quite hard to stay out of the business of chasing after curmudgeons with a laptop in my hand, shouting “But you got it all wrong!”

Trying. Quite. Hard.

So let this be just a generic blanket response to a common misconception about the business of online news.

The premise, as laid out in hand-wringers running in handsome op-ed columns in handsome print editions all over the world, periodically:

If only newspapers had charged for online access to the news when this whole Interweb thing got started, they wouldn’t be in such a mess right now.

This, my friends, is a false assumption.

So here’s the deal: Putting the news behind a paywall as early as, say, AOL’s heyday – or earlier if you prefer – would have actually served to accelerate the rise of blogs, citizen media, and flight away from news-on-paper.


Because pulling your content out of the stream of connections that is the Web would have led to members of your community making even more connections themselves, without your help.

Newspapers would have essentially ceded the public forum to the public, an admirable and honorable move, but not a profitable one.

Make it harder for a person to get informed about their surroundings through your product all you want, but please don’t walk around assuming you’re The Only Game In Town.

That’s a topic for a different post, but rest assured that your readers know how to communicate with each other without your help.

They’re not as dumb as you think.

Your real competition

You *think* your competition is the guy at the TV station who always rip-and-reads your stories, or the reporter on your beat at the major metro from the big city 12 miles away, or that alt-weekly with the nasty cartoonist, don’t you?

Sorry, but that’s simply not the case.

Oh, sure, your ad reps and their ad reps might be calling the same local businesses and trying to squeeze a few more upsells out of them, and in that sense, yes, you’re competing with other local news organizations for advertising dollars.

But what are you doing to compete for the attention of your audience?

Your competition is the Web.

It’s Facebook and MySpace and Twitter and blogs and iTunes and IM and Ning and Digg and Delicious and e-mail and Flickr and Yelp and Amazon and now is not the time to wave them off as something someone other than your readers spends their time doing.

If you’ve said the words ‘Oh, well we’ve always done it that way’ in the last FIVE YEARS, you have a problem with addressing the question of who is competing with your organization.

If you’ve said the words ‘Oh, but that won’t work here’ in the last THREE YEARS, you definitely have a problem with addressing the pace of change in the news business.

Paul Conley says the time for training dinosaurs is over. I say it’s worth the effort, but the first step is helping them understand they have a problem.

Dave Cohn says the time for evangelizing for change is over. I say he’s right that it’s time to put up or shut up; my job is to do shepherd along journalists who are quick to pay lip service to the Web, pushing them through the next steps of actually changing the way they work, every day.