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Watching an industry pass on in slow motion

Submitted by on Tuesday, 3 March 2009 3 Comments
newspaperMy God, this is like watching an old lover stricken with cirrhosis and emphysema hobble around with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Your heart aches for him. You want to help - you wish he'd accepted offers of help years ago when there was more time. You're numb as he reels off all the desperate measures he's pondering, and you wonder if any will work.

You fear they won't.

Such has been the case with me this week and my long-time beau, the newspaper industry. I thought I was on my way to getting over him when I walked out the door in September. Yet here I am, six months down the road, caught in the "why" whirlpool again.

The Rocky Mountain News: Dead. Its former owner eulogized it as a model of what a newspaper will need to be in the future. Try to make sense of that one.

The San Francisco Chronicle: Critical condition. Ready to jump the shark and charge for Web content in a desperation move.

McClatchy, my employer for a decade: Teetering. Some papers got the layoff news today. Other unionized shops face tough votes: Plan A, which includes pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs, or Plan B, which leaves out the pay cuts and furloughs but includes heftier layoffs.

You can blame McClatchy's tumble on its 2006 purchase of Knight Ridder, but there's more at play than that. E.W. Scripps Company, former publisher of The Rocky Mountain News, didn't have McClatchy's debt problem but it still managed to lose $11 million in nine months in Denver.

You can blame it on the economy, but that's like blaming the cirrhosis on the last drink. The economy didn't cause the disease; it just hastened the dissipation.

Even as they published their last edition, Rocky Mountain News staff lamented that the business model had changed and the industry hadn't changed quickly enough. It was only five years ago that newspapers realized this net thing was going to challenge them, one worker said.

Fair enough. Everyone misses a trend sometimes, so let's not fault them for not getting on board earlier. But let's do fault them for what's happened since. Even as recently as the past two years, when it should have been crystal clear that events were leading up to today.

Two years is a long time to pay lip service to the medium that's going to clean your clock eventually if  you continue to let it. It's a long time to put off even simple changes, outlined here by a former colleague, that could make online work better. It's a long time to balk at easy fixes that could improve your Web site because someone on the print side didn't want the inconvenience of changing that half of the equation. I bet unemployment will be a lot more inconvenient.

It's a long time to still think bloggers have cooties, as two former Rocky Mountain News reporters clearly indicated in the paper's farewell video. No, bloggers are not trained journalists for the most part. But, yes, they can learn the skills. Why not bring them into your online communities instead of being so damned snotty?

So now the industry's left with pure panic. Many preferred solutions would be funny were they not so dangerous.

Charge for content on the Web, because the product has worth! There's no arguing the worth, but I will argue with the notion that print subscribers have ever paid for content. They've largely paid for delivery.

Stop other sites from linking to our content! Actually, that might be a good move if it would end the gleeful stats-driven euphoria every time a viral story artificially boosts numbers.

Block the evil aggregators from getting a Yahoo! or Google search into your site! Um, hello. Google is an aggregator. Try using "no follow" on every new page on your site for a day and see what happens to pageviews in a Google-free world.

Implement a 24-hour moratorium on the Web site, limiting access to subscribers only for the first day! Another grand idea, except first consider the previous note about pageviews falling off a cliff after a competitor with a similar story digs you a Google rank hole you'll never crawl out of.

It's as if Atlanta decided to torch itself in anticipation of Sherman's arrival.

Even now, five years after the point at which journalists are conceding they missed the game-changing play, it's not too late if someone would just come up with a plan that goes beyond freaking out.

Study the folks who are cleaning your clock. Instead of dismissing Huffington Post as an evil aggregator, get past its ugly design and figure out why it appeals to readers.

Look to your own past when page after page in print was filled with the work of correspondents and then explain how that would be any different than incorporating community bloggers today.

Use your Twitter and Facebook accounts to interact with your community instead of sitting there waiting for folks to gravitate to you. They won't automatically do that anymore. They've found other online pursuits in the while you've ignored them. You'll have to win them back.

Instead of focusing strictly on revenue, look for content-driven solutions and for God's sake implement them.

What ever you do, put down the Jack Daniels and unfiltered Camels. Please, please, please, I'm begging you to understand that these habits are killing you.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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3 Comments »

  • Posts about Huffington Post as of March 3, 2009 » The Daily Parr said:

    [...] about Huffington Post as of March 3, 2009 Watching an industry pass on in slow motion – debralegg.com 03/03/2009 My God, this is like watching an old lover stricken with cirrhosis and [...]

  • Frymaster said:

    Um, Debra, I think you need to lay off the logic and common sense a bit. This is the newspapers we’re talking about.

  • Debra said:

    He he he. I’m trying to cut back. I know too much of that stuff isn’t good for my health.

    Problem is, there’s Common Sense and then there’s Common Sense 2.0. Common Sense insists on doing things the same way they’ve been done for decades, with either a refusal to accommodate or downright hostility toward Common Sense 2.0. And now that Common Sense is collapsing, there’s a great rush toward Common Sense 2.0 but without understanding all the tenets. Understanding can be reached with not too much effort, but the chief barrier is that getting there requires blowing up past assumptions and practices.

    It’s astounding that even as dire as the circumstances are now, too few people are willing to look into Common Sense 2.0