McGuire on Media

Economic angst sharpens focus on newspaper budget debate

Crash, bang, thud goes the ol’ net worth. The Fed is dropping interest rates in late night meetings and the stock market is scrambling for some sense of sanity. Al Tompkins apparently got up before the Florida Sun and told news directors and editors how to cover the mess in clear, coherent terms, once again distinguishing himself as a journalistic MVP.

And newspaper executives say “welcome to our world.”  The economic world has been crashing in on newspapers for the last two years, so the first reaction may be relief that newspapers are no longer rowing the boat alone.  That would be the wrong reaction.  A depressed national economy, an even more skittish stock market and an unhealthy economy for adding jobs and purchasing homes and autos is not the prescribed medicine for newspapers. A national recession is going to hurt even if the newspaper crash is cyclical, which I don’t think it is.

What a fine time for the Orange County Register to drop its business section and move business news into the A section.  Terry Horne is one of the most progressive thinkers in newspapers. He’s the original brain behind progressive changes at the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, AZ.  But, this move away from covering a subject that is rapidly becoming more important than government in our society is another example of “duck and cover,” rather than launching top-line enhancing offensives.

That same “duck and cover” or “move ahead boldly” squabble marks the LA Times drama. You might be reading the back and forth between Jim O’Shea the ousted Editor of The L.A. Times  and the Times Publisher David Hiller as an interesting little soap opera. Don’t. Yes, there is nice theater in Hiller calling Shea “sadly unrealistic,” and O’Shea accusing Hiller of “‘retrenchment,” but there is a fundamental business argument beneath the surface of the battle. Don’t let it get simplistic.

O’Shea is arguing that cost-cutting for the last five years has not made a stronger business.  Hiller is looking at eroding revenues and saying these revenues can’t support these costs. In isolation, an economist would nod approvingly at both positions.

This little melodrama is definitely going to have a cliffhanger at the end and the industry could well go over that bloomin’ cliff. While the economic positions make textbook sense the issue that is getting lost in the argument is franchise strength.

Publishers like Hiller enthusiastically mock editors like O’Shea for “not getting it.” They believe naive editors just don’t understand the “business imperatives” which demand cost-cutting. I argue O’Shea is reacting to another business imperative. “Understand your core mission and produce the highest quality product that fulfills that mission in the interest of protecting the franchise.”

You read it here first. More editors are going to bite the newsprint dust in coming weeks and months, and many publishers are going to celebrate the demise of the “impractical” editor because publishers are focused on the cost/profit  debate. Most editors I talk to, and O’Shea seems like one of them, are terrifically concerned about the bottom line, but they are convinced the long-term health of the franchise must be protected while we search for top-line solutions.

Right now, the debate is destructive and mean-spirited.  Real leaders have to step into the fray and declare a unified mission that includes profit, top-line growth and enhancing the core mission of informing and entertaining readers.

Every decent leader knows either/or thinking will kill an organization. It is time editors and publishers remember that and recognize that there is wisdom in both arguments.