Thursday, June 19, 2008

About core competencies

My friend and ACES colleague David Sullivan has a wonderful blog you should read occasionally. That's the Press, Baby is thoughtful, insightful and passionate. David's long-running commentary drawing parallels between the department store and newspapering business should be bound and required study in newsrooms, boardrooms, business schools and J-schools (and besides, it's fun to read).

David also has another meme -- we're not going to save journalism by rushing helter skelter headlong online. And I've agreed with him in the context that too many journalists just seem to think that if we "just do good journalism" we will write our way out of this. If that were the case, I argue, we would have been selling individual stories on the street corners all these years; but the reality is that much of what we do has little intrinsic value or that the value is so difficult to recover economically that we have to package it in an aggregator, which until now we have called the newspaper.

But David, in his latest post, regresses, in my opinion. Using the latest McClatchy announcement of a 10 percent work force cut, David again notes how relatively paltry online revenues are (a few hundred million) compared with the industry's overall revenues of about $42 billion. He then takes off on a plea that get us -- well, exactly nowhere.

We've believed for a decade that at some point in the future, we'd strike online gold and clean up there like we cleaned up in print. It's not going to happen. That doesn't mean, forget online. It means we need a strategy based on what we are, and not based on a complete metamorphosis into something else that in any event hasn't happened in the last decade anyway. In the end, our core competency is that we publish newspapers. Let the people who want to be something else be something else. (Emphasis mine.)
I will politely, but firmly disagree. Here was my response in his comment section:

Our core competency is that we gather news and information efficiently, effectively and with as much veracity as we can muster -- and then that we distribute it in a way that maximizes the economic benefit to the organization and, we hope, the social benefit to the community.

Saying we publish newspapers is not that. Neither is saying we publish online. Both are "buggy-whip" strategies.

You publish where your audience is and with what they want to pay for. If that means posting it over the urinals in the men's rooms of the local bars or buying billboards with constantly rotating headlines, then so be it.

Problem is, too many few places -- and damn too few journalists -- still don't know exactly where there audiences are, how they exactly use our product (info, NOT the paper), or where they are going (hint: it may not be online in more than a few cases).

Nah, schlepping up to the Internet bar as though it will drown all our sorrows isn't it, but neither is focusing on the "core competency" of publishing newspapers -- because that is NOT our core competency.
Here's something to chew on: Perhaps the money isn't there and never will be again to do journalism as we have come to know it. Perhaps this is just a "few" billion dollar business, not the tens of billions we suckled on as the millennium came to a close. If that is the case, then our core competency is going to have to be how to get the most from less. It is not going to be tying our core competency to a mature and increasingly marginalized (though likely profitable in some form for at least a couple of decades) technology.

In reflecting on the recent dustup between AP and bloggers, John C. Abell at Wired News has some wider thoughts, similar to mine, about the economics of this business.

Let's turn this flame war into a teaching moment.

Here is what Topic A should be: the bifurcation of publishing and news-gathering is disrupting the journalism eco-system as never before. Publishers with neither journalism traditions or aspirations are making money aggregating news, while news organization revenues decline. ...

Here is the problem: if nobody pays for news –- or rather, if the people that gather the news aren’t paid -– then there is no business model for journalism. ...

But free often only means that it isn’t me who has to turn my pockets inside-out, that someone else is paying what amounts to a subsidy. In all media – online and offline -- that subsidy is generally advertising.

But there is a rub: pre-internet, that subsidy always went one way – straight to the content creators. Now, it can go in infinite directions. It can even go to a site that makes use of what the market determines are the most valuable bits of a news package and not to the writers and producers.

Is that wrong? This is more a matter of nature than the law; you can’t make hurricanes illegal.

Please, read the rest of it. And don't stop reading David's blog, either. He is right when he says online is not the end all and be all. But let's stop with this idea that publishing newspapers is our core competency. It's the journalism. Yes, we won't get out of this hole with great journalism alone, but great journalism distributed intelligently might just do it. Hooking our horse to one medium -- paper or digital -- and grabbing our buggy whip won't.

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