How newspapers resemble the auto industry
In this month's Tennessee Press, the publication put out by the Tennessee Press Association, Jeff Fishman, publisher of the Tullahoma News, speaks truth to power in his withering comparison of the newspaper and auto industries.
Reprinted by permission:
Newspapers should learn from G.M.
The U.S. auto industry could have saved itself earlier by paying attention to the way its business was eroding and listening to the people who were stealing its market share. U.S. auto executives came back from Japan and refused to transform their work environments from lumbering, stodgy bastions of tradition into places where workers
were encouraged to be creative and innovative.
The situation bears a strong resemblance to the newspaper industry. Let’s take a look at the places where the news industry and the auto industry screwed up:
In the ’80s and ’90s, sales declined as customers were turned off by shoddy quality.
Auto industry: anyone who drove a U.S.-made car in the ’80s knows what I’m talking about. Everything about the cars was sub-par. The seats were uncomfortable; the controls made little sense and were hard to deal with. These were minor issues, compared to the engines seizing and misfiring, the electrical system shorting out, the windows not rolling up (or down), the doors sagging on their hinges.
Newspaper industry: the buyouts and mergers started and with the accountants in charge instead of passionate content creators, many papers gutted staffs and started to run big colorful graphics and lots more wire copy, instead of local content for and about their neighbors. Most papers had a monopoly position in their markets and could pretty
much be assured of making a profit, no matter what they did. Meanwhile, the readers were starting to notice that their newspapers were lacking…how should I say this…news.
The workers felt ignored and belittled, so bad attitudes and fear took over.
Auto industry: the line workers had no power to offer suggestions and, indeed, were punished for speaking up. All that mattered to management was churning out enough cars to meet the quotas, no matter how bad the quality.
Newspaper industry: a culture of irrelevance took hold in newsrooms. The reporters knew the bean counters didn’t care about real news; the accountants just wanted something that would generate money and not get them sued. Many journeyman news professionals I met would, with little encouragement, go off about the corporate “suits” that were putting the vise on the newsrooms to “pop a number.” Reporters that dared to try to make suggestions about long-term changes (like less coverage of city/county government and more enterprising reporting like the underlying reasons for the continuing erosion of middle-class opportunities) were ignored or worse, discarded.
Temporary economic bubble created easy profits thus postponing needed change.
Auto industry: America’s “let’s consume as much oil as we can” faction pushed through tax relief in the early ’00s that meant people who leased a “light truck over 6,000 pounds” could take advantage of tax breaks. What this did was support the Big Three, despite their declining market share. The Big Three were making so much money from SUVs, because they were pretty cheap to make, and Detroit was able to charge about $10-$20,000 more for them than a typical sedan. And, of course, when the tax break ran out and gas prices skyrocketed, they were without a viable product to sell as consumers looked for more efficient cars.
Newspaper industry: the mortgage/real estate boom created a huge advertising windfall for newspapers. Many real estate sections were often larger than the rest of the paper. Thousands of pages of expensive classified ads, paid for by realtor estate agents who were so awash in cash that they didn’t care what the cost was generated huge profits. Of course, the rest of the classified business was under siege at that time. When the real estate market imploded, advertisers abandoned newspapers, looking for cheaper ways to sell their products. Thus newspapers were also left without a viable product to sell.
The industry blamed others rather than conducting an honest self-appraisal.
Auto industry: the Detroit execs blamed Consumer Reports for pointing out that the cars they were building were utterly without redeeming community value (remember the Chevette or the Chrysler Cordoba). They claimed the people rating cars were biased towards the Japanese and were unfairly criticizing patriotic Americans. The U.S. cars were better, if only people would realize that! The industry was in complete denial about how the auto-buying public had turned against it as a result of its collective apathy. Long gone was the nostalgia of people who fondly remembered their first car as independence. They were fed up with cars that broke down as a result of shoddy engineering and the industry’s appetite for greater profits.
Newspaper industry: many publishers viewed competition from radio, cable news, shoppers and yes, the Internet, as being anti-newspaper. The truth was, they had stopped listening to the market, which was craving instantaneous, colorful, creative solutions for news delivery. Not listening to the market was a complete departure from the reason they were successful in the first place. They were successful because they listened and then responded to what they learned.
Transportation, not cars; information, not newspapers
Let’s stop building SUVs and listen to our customers and respond with relevant, thoughtful, engaging, vibrant products that meet the needs of our readers. The public’s desire for credible information has not and will not change even though the delivery method might. Newspapers have been a part of American community life since 1690 and will continue in one form or another for a long time as long as we continue to invest in our core product, information.
The US auto industry finally realized they are in the transportation business, not the auto business. They created innovative, solution-oriented products designed to respond to market changes. The quicker newspapers embrace the fact they are information brokers, not in the traditional newspaper business, the better off the country will be. Our customers, both advertising and readers, are not hesitant about expressing their opinions, positive and negative, on how we are doing our job. News organizations just need to listen and react to their customers’ desires.
For more than 300 years, newspapers have endured the scrutiny of many and will continue to bring relevant news to the citizens of the communities they serve, in print, online with video and audio, or some yet-to-be-realized technology. Newspapers must continue to illustrate a commitment to our trusted customers by respecting tradition while embracing change.