McGuire on Media

Newspaper circulation leaders need to make their own sandwiches

Speech to Northwest International Circulation Executives

Vancouver, WA. May 6, 2008

By Tim J. McGuire

Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism

Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University

©Tim J. McGuire. May 2008

One of the things I like to do when I take a speaking gig like this one is to ask what the people who invited me hope I will say.

All Eileen Widdison needed was an invitation. Her keyboard must have exploded when I inquired. She said she sure did have thoughts on what I should talk about! With all the colorfulness and certainty you have come to expect of Eileen she responded with these fiery words:

“I’m tired of hearing about how we’re slated for death. I’m sick to death of people telling me that video is the answer. We’ve watched the buyouts, the layoffs, the wailing, whining and complaining. I’m starting to get numb. Throw me a lifeline! Is there a future for us poor print dweebs? Is it intensely local?

Eileen continued: Do you have something in your bag of tricks which would give us some hope? You’re going to start the conference off. Could you attempt the bootstrap pep talk? Could you try to remind us that we’re worthy and venerable and credible? The circulators need to hear from someone of your experience and stature that we have meaning.”

I think I have something to say on the subject of the future, but we have to get something straight right here at the beginning. Please understand I say this with all the respect and affection I can muster for my new phone friend Eileen and for all of you.

Find your own stinkin’ lifeline!

Build your own damn hope!

Discover your own worthiness.

Stop waiting for it to be conferred on you by an aging, retired newsman or by your confused, beyond-desperate corporate owners, or by a besieged management team which has watched its own individual personal worth go up in so much digital vapor because they really don’t know up from down in this revolutionary moment.

Pardon me the First Testament of the Bible references, but they seem so obvious. Too many of us in the newspaper industry are in the midst of a futile search for a Messiah.

Others are intent on holding our breath until we return to the wonders and safety of Egypt or, in this case, yesterday.

Others think they are so certain of the future they are worshipping false idols and making fools of themselves.

I do not say any of this to be cruel. I say it because victimhood is ugly and unbecoming.

I say it because critics of newspapers are being too simplistic.

I say it because newspaper people are wallowing in self-pity and wishing for a return to a yesterday that is gone. It will never exist again.

I say it because every human being has a vital say in his or her own future and you’d never know that talking with too many newspaper folks.

I think there is a media future for newspaper folk even if it looks a lot different.

I think bright, entrepreneurial people are going to create that future.

The victims are going to get run over!

First, let’s examine the current reality because I don’t think it is necessarily the Romenesko reality or the media critic reality. I also don’t believe that it is the reality of the Pollyanna’s who believe we’re just in a bad business cycle.

Newspapers as we know them have a problem. It is a big, nasty, transformational problem. Arguments about whether it could have been avoided are the territory of second-guessers with too much time on their hands. The fact is newspapers have this problem because the world marches on.

All products have life cycles and the golden age of the newspaper product was from the 1950’s through the mid-to late 90’s. There is a lot of loose talk about newspapers being dinosaurs. If that is true, the meteor hit newspapers in the mid-90’s. It’s called the Internet.

Our entire society and scores of other industries were hit by the same meteor. Tom Friedman of the New York Times, wrote a tremendously important book a few years ago called The World is Flat. Tom argues the dynamic force in Globalization 3.0 is the newfound power for individuals to collaborate.

To cut through all of Friedman’s amazing insights what this means for media is that the consumer now has the control and we don’t. When I was editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis my colleagues and I decided what readers would read and when they would read it. We pushed information to readers. Now readers are in control. They decide what they want to read, how and when they will acquire it and their choices are limitless. They “pull” information.

That push-pull dichotomy has shifted control in ways so fundamental that everything from the insurance business to retail sales to newspapers have been profoundly shaken. None will ever be the same, and we’ve got to come to grips with that. Let it go!

Friedman tells us that because everything can now be outsourced more efficiently and more cheaply Americans must focus on their VALUE-ADD. We have seen how news has been commoditized by 24/7 television and by the Internet. Somehow newspaper folks have to figure out how to ADD value and CAPTURE value.

Write that down we’re going to need that later—add value and capture value.

Newspaper circulation at our biggest newspapers IS declining precipitously. Driven in large part by classified ad revenue declines, revenues are sliding off the cliff at those big newspapers.

Many newspapers are still making a fairly decent profit. But let’s be honest, the negative rumors about the financial status about newspapers in places like San Francisco, Minneapolis, and San Jose should put a lump in the throat of anybody who loves newspapers.

Honesty must exist on the other side of the ledger too. I sat across the cocktail table from the owner of five small newspapers two weeks ago. He grinned like a cat in a barn full of mice when he told us his newspapers had their best year ever last year.

And, that’s a key part of the current reality that simply does not get discussed. When we talk about the state of newspapers we might as well be talking about the state of the human body. If you look at me you would probably decide the human body is in pretty bad shape. If you look at that guy over there the prognosis is really good.

I think it is mandatory that we stop obsessing about the health of the newspaper species. Some ARE dying. The next several months will likely bring several to the brink of death and some might die. At the same time some medium size and smaller newspapers are going to rock along for a very long time and reward owners handsomely. All newspapers are not created equal and it is naïve to condemn all with the fate of the few.

That is why my second topic area is so important. We have to define what it is about newspapers we need to save and what we should not want to save.

I argue we do not want to save fictional romantic notions of the movie The Front Page and Lou Grant. If newspaper ink is in your veins, you desperately need a blood transfusion.

We do not want to save the way we did the job for thirty years. The top/down, assembly line nature of work throughout the newspaper has been on the chopping block for the last 15 years and it’s time we finally killed it without all sorts of bleating about change and tradition.

We do not want to save a 13 and one half inch by 21 inch sheet. We have to be open to things like e-papers and the Kindle and scores of other potential technological breakthroughs which will provide portability, ease of access and consumer friendly access to information and stories.

We do not want to behave as if our only goal is to save our own necks. There’s way too much concern about “my job” and “my role’ and not enough concern about reinventing them. And the worst offenders on that “save my own neck” measure are the management of big companies who seem obsessed with their own personal wealth.

My wife always had dreams of writing a book about “Stupid Parenting Tricks.” It won’t be long before someone writes a ‘Stupid newspaper management tricks” book, and greed will be at the center of it. When greed surpasses morality your industry is doomed.

I know those are strong words, but some of the things occurring in the newspaper workplace these days are nothing short of reprehensible. When certain people decide to go on the record about the way people are being treated the embarrassment is going to be acute.

We do not want to save a product that does not serve. Serving democracy, serving community and serving readers and advertisers has been at the core of what newspapers do for the last 80 years or so. We cannot focus on saving one part of that equation and sacrifice the rest. An unbalanced attempt to save advertising and an outdated business model will result in something that does not preserve community, democracy and an undying commitment to the First Amendment.

Finally we do not want to be so hell-bent on saving a product that damages the environment. My Arizona State Cronkite School students display genuine excitement about the positive environmental impacts something like an e-paper would create. They’ve helped me understand that migration of the newspaper product to something that saves trees, trash and pollution might be a very good thing.

Here’s what we do want to save.

We do want to save the ethics, values and principles which guide modern day journalism. Yes, I know that the public rates us down there with used car salesmen, lawyers and politicians. And, yes I know that many right thinking people see the press as rumor mongering, divisive and opponents of civil discourse rather than as advocates for dialogue that will pave the way for democracy.

Despite those charges, American newspapers are our best shot at being the news medium that adheres to ethical standards of fair play, respect for personhood and as protectors of freedom.

That will remain the case only IF newspapers show some backbone and resist the headlong plunge into gossip, mean-spirited “gotcha” reporting and a Charles Gibson-like obsession with minor campaign peccadilloes. Instead, newspapers must focus on what matters to the real people of this country who are devastated, rather than bemused at the high cost of gas, food and health care.

We do want to save newspaper’s role as a community builder and emcee for the community discussion. That will only come if newspapers attempt to truly reflect the diverse needs of all the people in their audience. It will only come if newspapers stop pandering to what people click on and start creating compelling content which fills needs rather than satiates curiosity.

It is crucial that newspapers serve as the emcee for the discussion, but that requires some real backbone too. It’s time for newspapers and every other adult working on the web to realize and admit that we are not fostering democracy when we encourage and enable vicious, anonymous comments.

That’s not building community. That is encouraging hate speech. Let’s all grow up and admit it. I cringe when editors tell me how much their traffic has increased since they allowed anonymous comments. I can probably draw a helluva lot of people to a pie fight too.

And now here’s where I get really radical and where I start to speak directly to you as circulators. We do need to save the newspaper’s role as an intermediary. Let me modify that just a bit. Someone’s going to have to be the intermediary and newspapers are as qualified as anyone else.

Yes, I know that all the Internet gurus tell us intermediaries are dead. I understand that newspaper’s role as a facilitator for buyers and sellers has been deeply eroded, And yes, I know that in an era when information gatherers can get anything they want, when they want it,  the patriarchal role of media providers has been radically redefined.

Mrs. McGuire raised no fools. I understand that the Wikipedia age has put consumers in charge. Consumers are now producers and all the experts tell us that intermediaries are dead. I don’t buy it.

I am not nearly as smart as those Internet gurus, or the smug seers who seem to be the masters of media doom, but I am convinced that we are on the brink of informational chaos without an intermediary function.

Let me be clear. I am not trying to be a 59-year-old fuddy- duddy here. I get progress. I like it.

I am completely comfortable with the transfer of informational power to citizens. I can easily accept that the arrogance of the media has catalyzed citizens to express their own voice and seek their own solutions. I can even celebrate that. As a true “small d” democrat I exalt the voice of the people.

Here’s the rub for me. I think people are oversimplifying the future. At least SOME conversations need to be moderated. SOME knowledge needs to be managed and mediated. Some information will be produced and managed by the masses, but I am betting there will always be a substantial need for guides, directors, synthesizers and organizers. And, yes, despite the rise of Google and the database of intentions some mediation between buyers and sellers is going to be necessary for a long time.

Okay, write that down too. There is going to be an important place for guides, directors, synthesizers and organizers and for some mediation between buyers and sellers.

Before I talk specifically about the future and YOUR future as circulators I want to say a few things about the current journalism practitioners.

Fear is gripping the industry. It was obvious in Eileen’s email to me. It is obvious in the drastic cuts in product quality. It is apparent when editors and publishers claim they have the answers and nobody else does.

I refuse to join the Jeff Jarvis’, Kill the Newspaper camp. He writes eloquently that we should pick a date in the less-distant-than-you-think future and unplug the press. And then ask: What’s a newspaper? What’s its real value? And how does that value live on and grow past paper?”

I understand Jarvis’ attempt at being a super-provocateur, but I don’t buy it. I don’t go that far because I think the newspaper has a lot of profitable days a head. I‘ve been saying for months, and now I hear Gary Pruitt CEO of McClatchy says it too: “If you killed your newspaper today someone would start a new one by next Thursday.” That is a competitive truth that tells us there’s still a place for newspapers.

But here’s what I think we should adopt as a mission statement for the industry and it is what I traveled 1,350 miles to say:

The newspaper will eventually die and so will you! The fountain pen died and we still write for heaven’s sakes! Newspaper companies will remain a crucial part of the consumer information media equation with a lively mix of electronic and printed products, distributed in an unfathomable number of ways which place the newspaper company in an intimate relationship with information consumers and advertisers.

Let’s face it, one of the biggest fears newspaper folk have is dumping a product that is troubled, but still fairly effective. Killing that newspaper just to start over doesn’t make sense to me. But holding our breath until we turn blue and hoping things won’t change anymore is not a viable strategy either.

So, let’s move into the last phase of this speech and explore the ways we can make the future work for you, circulation executives. We want to explore personal ways you can become media problem solvers rather than barriers to change.

A lot of you are going to find this discussion uncomfortable. Remember at the beginning of this speech Eileen asked me to throw you a lifeline and I told you to find your own stinkin’ lifeline!

I meant that.

Before I joined the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State I wrote a syndicated column on values and ethics in the workplace. Here is an excerpt from one of those columns from 2005:

Three women walked into a public restroom to find the water running. They complained loudly and continuously about the horrible people who left that faucet on. They kvetched about the insensitivity of the horrid perpetrators. On and on they griped. What, indeed, was the world coming to?

A fourth woman walked into the restroom, looked at the running faucet, and turned it off.

There are complainers in this world and there are doers.

One more story from that same column:

Recently, a friend of mine told me a story about Mike who went to Seattle to visit a friend. Mike encountered an old priest who got up early every morning, made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and walked downtown and gave them to the homeless.

Mike was moved by the old priest’s good works. So when he got home Mike wrote the priest a check and sent it to him saying it was to help his ministry. A few weeks later Mike got the check back in the mail with a note written on the check – “make your own damn sandwiches.” 

If you are honest, I bet each of you saw yourselves in one or both of those stories.

Few of us really want to “make our own damn sandwiches.”  We want other people to get their hands dirty with the tough, hard details of life and work. We stand around and watch the water run from the faucet and it never dawns on us that we have to take the responsibility to turn it off.

That’s what I meant when I said “build your own damn hope!” If you want the newspaper business to survive, you have to be doers, you have to make your own damn sandwiches. I can’t fix this for you, and every indication is your bosses can’t either.

In this speech I have detailed the seminal, revolutionary moment we face in the newspaper business. It can be survived, but only by resolute people who are ready to shrug off victimhood.

My tough message for you today is that the newspaper business is not going to suddenly get better and return to the joys of yesterday.

There is a positive journalistic future out there for entrepreneurial souls who want to take the responsibility to turn the faucets off. Nobody is going to turn that faucet off for you. You must!

Look, a lot of people have already left the newspaper business. A lot more are going to go. Arguably, that’s a good thing. The people who remain have to be people who are not only willing to reinvent the future, but people who are enthusiastic about doing so.

I promised a toolbox. I am going to briefly suggest five ways to readjust your mind in ways that might allow you to be one of those entrepreneurial inventors of a new newspaper future.

Number one: You have to be young at mind.

The heck with that young-at-heart business. That’s fine if you want to play softball or video games. To compete viably in today’s changed world you have to THINK young.

Time to be brutally honest again. In industries facing dramatic change at the hand of the digital revolution, such as newspapers, we are facing a frightening age divide.

It is my opinion we are not facing it well. Young people are itching to lead, create and digitize and older people are too often blocking the way. I was stunned at the number of panels at ASNE/NAA which featured people over 40 talking about our future. I pray that is naïve and not mean-spirited. The future belongs to the young AND to the young thinking. I am not saying you can’t play if you are over 35. I am saying you have to reinvent yourself to be a viable player.

For example, circulation is an old game. Logistics, networking and navigation are the new realities. If you are going to survive you need to figure out how those three can make you and your organization more effective.

You need to use computers to figure out the best way to deliver. You need to reinvent your processes using the best logistics methods. Social networking is done on a computer, but does that mean there are not analog implications? I bet not. You need to know!

That leads to Number Two: Read, study, imagine, repeat.

I am too often amazed at the number of newspaper veterans who say they want to be part of a journalistic and newspaper renaissance and then make no serious effort to understand said revolution. Just saying you want to compete is not going to get it.

You need to read important contemporary books such as The World is Flat, The Long Tail, The Search, Everything is Miscellaneous, The Wisdom of Crowds, and every book you can find on innovation. There is good stuff on the NAA Re-imagining the Newspaper Future web site and the Newspaper Next stuff is good too. On that NAA site there is an article called Adopting New Rules of Consumer engagement by Jeffrey Rayport that is essential reading for any circulator who wants to rethink how we connect with consumers.

You need to study up on social computing; gaming in journalism and crowd sourcing. Once you read and study you need to start imagining and creating, but that won’t come without really appreciating the incredible changes afoot.

The other part of this study thing is the one I admit gives me trouble; you have to DO. You have to go ding around Facebook and Myspace. You need to deeply understand the capabilities of your cell phone and go to web sites like Digg and other sites that 17 year-olds tell you are important. All of these innovations have profound implications for our business and its future. If you don’t appreciate the challenges, you won’t ever conceive the solutions.

Your boss is not going to like number three, and if you are a boss you probably won’t either. Ideas, creativity and risk have to permeate the entire team without being enslaved by process.

We have been a risk adverse industry. We have been effective at producing and distributing newspapers because we knew what worked. You don’t have to be an organizational development expert to understand that processes are set up to discourage change and innovation. They are designed to repeat the same thing over and over and over. The processes in your circulation department work because they discourage independent thinking and action. That’s efficiency and by God, newspaper people know efficiency.

The rules changed. Processes help organizations succeed when they face the same challenges they’ve always faced. Experts tell us that if those challenges change, disruption can result. Everything we once knew has been tipped on its head.

A perfect example is Craigslist. That tipped the classified world on its head and the newspaper industry has not developed a response yet. The founder of Monster announced the other day he’s coming after newspaper obits. Oh boy! I can hardly wait! That demands creativity that is not bound by rules and process.

We cannot just wish these challenges away. We have to turn the damn faucet off ourselves.

Well, maybe not really by ourselves. That leads us to number four. Partner with friend and foe. This is another hard one for us newspaper veterans, but partnerships are the way to go. Where we once looked and saw enemies, we now need to see potential partners with whom we can create synergy.

This partnership thing should exist on two levels. For my money, your best partners are in this room. What advantages for your newspaper could be created by a NICE alliance? What efficiencies could be attained if you partner with one another? I still believe my close friend Tom Mohr had it right last year when he advocated that newspapers put together a powerful coalition to compete on the web.

We have played lone ranger long enough. Now, with newspapers endangered, it is time to partner for greater efficiency and leverage. I was thrilled the other day when I saw the carrier on my block deliver three different newspapers. That eliminates a lot of duplication that simply was not advantageous. There have to be more cooperative solutions out there that will become possible with partnerships.

Partnership can’t stop there. Every organization in your community has potential to be your partner. What leverage do you bring to your partner and what leverage does that partner bring you? If you are better off and your partner is better off then the partnership works.

Again the old rules cannot contain you. Be creative and risk taking when it comes to partners.

Number five refers back to Tom Friedman’s admonition: ADD value and CAPTURE value. It amazes me that as newspapers face declining revenues and increased profit challenges the industry has seemingly adapted this mantra. Subtract value wherever possible!

Let’s conduct a little test:

Is your service better than it was five years ago?

Do you cater to customers needs more now than you once did?

If the citizens of your circulation area were polled on their favorite delivery service what would they choose? A) Your newspaper? B) U.S. Mail service? C)Fed Ex, D)UPS or E) Gino’s Pizza.

Those are very serious questions if you want to be THE intermediary between your customer and delivery of every print product or consumer advertising product in your region.

Delivering the newspaper at 6:30 in the morning won’t be the only skill required of you in a multi-product future. You need to figure out ways to add value to delivery, add value to sales and to capture the value of your services.

So let’s review Eileen’s mandate to me.

She wanted to me to tell you print is not dying and that there is a future for print dweebs. I couldn’t do that. What I told you is that newspaper companies don’t have to die because they can forge an effective mix of electronic and print products that help consumers navigate this challenging new world.

Eileen wanted me to give you a pep talk and tell you are worthy, venerable and credible. I can tell you that and I am sure you are honest, trustworthy and brave too. I am sure puppies love you all. That’s not the point.

The point is you are in an industry and a time in which everything—everything– is changing in revolutionary ways. Your jobs and career will only have meaning if you give it meaning.

You have to be doers. You have to become masters of your own future. You have to make your own damn sandwiches.