McGuire on Media

Speech to Society of Features Editors argued for a changed journalism mindset

This was presented to the convention of the Society of Features Editors, Saturday, Aug. 27, in Tucson, Az.

I spoke to the predecessor of this organization in fall of 2001. It was a hard time. We were reeling from the events of Sept 11. The newspaper business was in what we thought were the pits. The future was in grave doubt. Most of us believed if we weren’t in hell, we could certainly see it from there.

I now laugh frequently at the people who tell me those were the “high times.” We speak of the journalism business of those times in hushed, reverential, even joyful tones. “Those were the great days!”

They didn’t feel so great at the time but who knew the crash that awaited us? The last five years or so have been incredibly difficult for everyone involved in newspapers from CEOs to news clerks. Uncertainty, fear, precipitous declines in revenue, a complete revolution of how we relate to readers. They have all bedeviled us. All those things have led us to today and you’ve survived. Pardon me if I don’t give a big hip, hip hooray for survival.

My task today is formidable. I was specifically asked to inspire you. I am going to decline that invitation. If you get inspired by this speech, I won’t argue, but I am far more interested in provoking you.

I want to confront some ugly realities. Then I want to probe some possible ways to think about changing those realities. I‘d kind of like to tick you off along the way. Tick you off enough that you consider new attitudes, new actions, and a new battle plan.

Let me first explain my current outlook on life. I emphasize current because I am not ashamed to say that for better or worse I have changed. I hope I have grown, adapted and I see the media world far differently than I once did.

I am a lifelong newspaper guy and for a long time that was my exclusive frame. I literally quit my paper route on Saturday when I was 17 and started to work for my local newspaper as a prep sports writer on the next Monday. I didn’t leave the newsroom for 36 years until I retired in 2002. I could see that the business was changing. Editors were being treated differently.

After retirement I explored some possibilities but I soon gravitated to the Academy. Thinking big thoughts has always appealed to me and affecting young lives who want to affect society through journalism was even more attractive.

As a professor specializing in the business and future of Journalism I was forced to confront some startling realities. I had to come to terms with the remarkable pace of change. I say with some pride I had to reinvent myself to shed knee-jerk journalism reactions.

The intimidating power of technology overwhelmed me at first and our relationship is still casual. I am not a techie or one of the “left-wing technologists” who I sometimes think are rushing the future.

Most importantly to our discussion today, on Aug 27, 2011 I am not “a newspaper at all costs” guy.

I have come to agree with the guru, Clay Shirky, who advises us to save journalism, not newspapers.

Shirky argues this in a seminal piece that chronicles the history of newspaper’s demise: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable.”

Shirky continues, “When we shift our attention from ‘save newspapers’ to ‘save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.”

I want to leverage off Shirky’s very important admonition today.

I don’t have to tell you that you are in a daily war. You battle for resources, you battle for people, and you battle a society that has devalued your work and that of your institution. You battle to protect what you had.

I understand your sense of siege and I applaud your determination, but I think we have to be cautious about fighting the wrong battles. Figuring out our true, correct fight is going to determine if we go down thrashing helplessly or if we genuinely reinvent.

I remember years ago attending one of those umpteen leadership sessions that had all the answers, most from people who had never even led a three person band! But this one was different because I actually retained something. I’ve retained it for 20 plus years.

The leadership coach told us that it was not our job to lead people through the forest.

It was our jobs as leaders to find the right forest.

The coach said we needed to get way above the trees and scan the horizon to determine the right forest for our team to compete.

I think that’s what Clay Shirky is telling us. When we’re obsessed with fighting newspaper battles, we’re in the wrong forest.

We have to come to terms with the fact that the forest has changed. As I tell my students four or five times every class session, we are in a Schumpeterian moment. The Schumpeterian moment is that seminal moment when the old gets destroyed and the new gets created.

I explain it to students by focusing on the horse drawn wagon business the day the first automobile put-putted through town. A lot of things people valued, from horse shoes to wagon wheels, were destroyed in that dramatic time but so much was created too. What was a multi-day trip from Phoenix to Tucson in 1900 took me about under two hours last night.

Despite some accusations, I did not date both Polly and Anna. Focusing on creation is damned difficult when destruction of things we love is occurring all around us. I get that.

In old media the formula was simple. We edit. You read. The newspaper was edited on a 24 hour cycle. You will read when we say you can read. TV also brought you news on THEIR schedule

The interactive web made that forced relationship of pushing news to audiences a joke. Now audiences “pull” news. People can talk, share, argue AND do business with each other any time they wish and oh, they demand immediacy!

I lived and edited a newspaper in a world where the media controlled the message. All pretenses of that control are gone. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook advocacy sites, etc., ended that control forever.

And let me burst that bubble that says this is all about you.

This is not a media issue. The Digital revolution has diminished the control of every industry you can mention from insurance to retail.

The world I addressed at this conference in 2001 does not exist. For scores of reasons, newspapers have been seriously damaged by this tsunami of digital and economic change.

There is a tremendous tendency to want to blame someone for newspapers’ fate. Fairly often I read tweets and snarky comments that anyone who was a CEO, Publisher or Editor in the 90’s should be summarily shot, jailed, hung by the thumbs or at least shamed into a commune in the desert.

Go ahead if you must. Whip away. I’ll take the blame and I’m sure many more powerful industry people than I, would step up too for your brickbats.

Now did that fix anything?

Assessing blame on editors, publishers, CEO’s, staffers, readers, the Internet or God, strikes me as a massive waste of time. We don’t have the time to waste.

What should be painfully obvious to us is there are many new media arrivals who are handing newspapers their collective lunch. That’s because their success markers are invention, innovation and risk. Yesterday is not their albatross.

While I think historical blame is folly, newspapers and its brain trust will certainly be held accountable in the future if we journalists keep cheering for the wrong thing and focusing on the wrong solutions.

To me, cheering for newspapers over journalism is the wrong thing. Cheering for doing your job in the same way you’ve always done it, is the wrong thing. Cheering for publishing companies to stop the painful wheels of change is the wrong thing.

Since I have been out of the business the survivors have done a solid job of adapting, innovating tremendous and working smarter. I take nothing away from the accomplishments that have started redirecting the ship.

I know some of you are pretty convinced your degree of change has been dramatic and you’ve done all the transforming you can.

My contention, and I will invite you to argue with it when I end, is that nothing newspapers has done is nearly big enough. Little of it is revolutionary enough. Little of it throws out what you know and starts over.

When I talked about this speech to some industry friends they immediately wanted to know what my prescriptions were. They wanted to hear my plans. They wanted a tactical report on their desks by Thursday.

That’s such a “newspaper’ thing to do.

If I had those plans this speech would cost you about 25 grand and my consultant retainer would be even higher.

Instead of giving you a blueprint I’d like to offer a way to think about this challenge a little differently.

The key to future is mindset. We have to change it. It’s negative. It’s fatalistic and it’s defensive.

I do not pretend this is a new thought but it can’t be said enough. The only sliver of a chance newspapers have, to be the players that save journalism, is to fundamentally change the mindset we bring to the task. We must release ourselves from the manacles that bind our thinking.

Let me give you an illustration.

This summer I was the lone attendee at the Minneapolis Star Tribune annual meeting. I have a few shares of their stock and I was curious about how a newspaper that’s been through bankruptcy is talking about the future.

As Michael Sweeney, CEO of Star Tribune Holdings and Michael Klingensmith, Publisher and CEO of the newspaper talked strategy; they focused on their commitment to increase the share of consumer revenue as a percentage of total revenue.

The light bulb went on for me. The brass bands played. Eureka!

I found the Sweeney/Klingensmith strategic construction brilliant.

Now you’re probably thinking what my good friend, John Dille thought when I recounted this to him. John, an adjunct business and future professor at the Cronkite school and the owner of the Elkhart Truth, thought I was off my rocker again for being so enthusiastic and said, “well yeah, a pay wall.”

I grinned, paused and then said, “John would you rather work for a newspaper that is constructing a pay wall or a newspaper that has told you that increasing consumer revenue is your primary goal?”

John’s eyes lit up immediately. He got it. He completely understood the negative, confining implications of the term “pay wall” compared to concentrating on raising consumer revenue

John agreed with me that the Star Tribune idea of focusing on consumer revenue could be massively liberating idea.

That concept makes your Ipad and Kindle businesses imperative. It allows you to engage with consumers in much more targeted ways. Thinking about consumer revenue opportunities with every targeted content endeavor opens up your imagination and, hopefully, consumer wallets. Focusing on your content as a business center rather than as a cost center has to liberate.

Crucial to this mindset change has to be rejection of the one consumer idea that has hamstrung newspapers for the last decade—one size fits all.

An all-encompassing, make-everybody-happy approach made great sense when there were only a couple of scarce sources of news in a town. It makes no sense at all in an era of abundance. Your job is to rise above the cacophony of information and junk on the web and provide your readers with genuine value.

I told some faculty folks the other day that the key to engagement with students is to meet them where they live. Dille translated that as “enter through the consumer’s experience.”

If your features section and your newspaper entered engagement through the customer experience how would your work change? Could you make people pull your news ahead of other sources?

I submit that for most of you, your mindset and that of your superiors still assumes you are in control. It assumes readers have some basic obligation to your product the way you want to produce it. They do not.

When you get back home do me a favor. Go to the supermarket. As you shop, deeply study the consumer focus you’re seeing.

None of those products in that store assume you have to buy them. Notice there are several different toothpastes, all differentiated according to product benefit. Whiter teeth, cavity control, fresher breath, all those things in one. And then let’s talk flavors. Cinammon Rush is my favorite!

There are scores of cereals differentiated by bright, animated packaging and product purpose. Cherrios for cholesterol, Wheaties so I can leap building in a single bound and Bran flakes so I can….well…you know.

Then look at the products that differentiate by price and perceived quality.

Have you ever looked at your newspaper that way? I suspect you haven’t because we have been an advertising dependent business for 80 years. Few of us have ever been forced to think about competing on shelves for attention. And when we have, we’ve thought about our entire newspaper package rather than thinking about discreet offerings that might compete in the marketplace on their own.

Some of you are certainly thinking, well this little, fascist traitor is talking about mmmmmmmmarketing. There’s no place for that kind of language in a family newspaper!

Well, bucko, there had better be or we’re all toast. That smug conviction that its newspaper reader’s job to read us has been wrong for 25 years and it is simply addled fantasy now. You are in the competitive marketing fight of your life. And, please don’t think I am only talking about Sports and Features. News, business and local news can be effective consumer products too.

I do not contend that this particular mindset change will revolutionize your business.

I do contend that our newspaper mindset is holding us back in thousands of ways and we need to dump those limiting mindsets.

Now there may be some of you who are still dismissing my words because you are at your innovative apex. You are convinced that you have moved past that old-fashioned thinking and are innovative pioneers in the newspaper business. I apologize for underestimating you.

I am afraid I am operating under the impression that Google, Groupon, Apple, Facebook and Twitter, new media startups and scores of garage entrepreneurs are out innovating newspapers on a daily basis. I am afraid I find little newspaper innovation breath-taking. I guess I am convinced that risk-takers without the mindset boundaries of newspapering are legitimate threats to newspaper survival.

If you believe I have a point I hope you’ll consider that if journalism is to be saved by newspaper practitioners, the hand cuffs must come off. We can’t think like newspaper people anymore.

We have to have the open minds of entrepreneurs. We have to have the innovative imaginations of liberated explorers. We have to embrace risk like bungee jumpers. We have to listen to young people as if they are our saviors, because they probably are.

If journalism is to be saved by newspaper practitioners who bring the right values of truth-telling, minimizing harm, independence and accountability, then newspaper mindsets must escape the prison of day-to-day crises spawned by business troubles.

Your mindset about what you are doing and why, is going to be the difference between triumph and a slow fade to black.