McGuire on Media

Worrying about Digital First, simple explanations and proper recognition

I woke up worrying the other day. I have plenty to worry about on my own personal plate but I was bedeviled by a few journalistic issues as I got ready for work.

Digital First Media has announced it is researching strategic alternatives for its individual newspapers and the parent company. The company’s leader, John Paton, has been an industry scold urging a total shift to digital  in America’s newspapers, thus the name Digital First.  

My worry is that a lot of vindictive people who oppose change in the newspaper business are going to use Paton’s latest predicament as an example of the failure of a digital first strategy. That would be utter nonsense.

It is true I worried for a long time that Paton and Digital First should moderate its tone. In May of 2012 when I wrote a blog post entitled, “This I believe, I wrote this:

However, Digital First is not necessarily the Holy Grail and I will be more comfortable when they lead more by example than by mocking. Preaching collaboration in your work environment and then giving the finger to the industry seems short-sighted. I like it when they modulate and take this approach. The news industry desperately needs constructive leaders, but I do understand the frustration when print publishers don’t follow because they are desperately clinging to the past.

And that’s where I still stand today. Digital First did a lot of important things for the industry including wagging its digital finger. Things are dire for newspapers as I wrote a few weeks ago. The example Digital First set in refocusing newsroom efforts was a good one. Through Steve Buttry the company shared a lot of important ideas about reinventing newsrooms and the company reoriented a lot of thinking.

What did not work for Digital first was the print dollars to digital dimes strategy. It was a noble effort but, in the end, there weren’t enough dimes and not enough leverage to switch out of a business model too long dependent on advertising. The ad model is close to bankrupt and the magic bullet remains elusive for everyone.

Just as Alan Mutter did in April I worry that some of the folks who can’t see the future will delight in what seems like Digital First’s demise. That would be a tragic mistake. Digital First should be viewed as the organization that took a good hard push at the applecart and got run over by reality.

That should not stop other companies from following their courageous lead perhaps with a little less hubris. Digital First’s digital only approach was correct.

I guess I fear and worry a lot about oversimplification. Another thing I worried about this morning was something I read  in a paper a student produced evaluating The book Page One, edited by David Folkenflik. The student quoted James O’Shea former editor the Los Angeles Times and managing editor of the of the Chicago Tribune who wrote this in Folkenflik’s book: “The lack of investment, the greed, the incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy of people who put their interest’s ahead of the public’s are responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.”

O’Shea may have had as bad a day as I had this morning. He might also be guilty of either omission or gross oversimplification when he fails to mention that the people who ran newspapers saw their ad model blow up.

I would argue O’Shea touched on some real truths but then fell off a cliff. The single-minded focus of Publishers and CEO’s on short-term profits and the total refusal to hear dissenting voices was shameful. And, the lack of investment was a joke. But corruption and hypocrisy seem to require more proof for my taste. And, O’Shea’s failure to discuss the total collapse of advertising because of the digital revolution, which affected countless industries,does a disservice to students. I will need to fix that this week in class.

A lot of people are trying to explain the last 20 years in journalism, but let’s not take shortcuts to the whole truth. There are lots of culprits to go around including editors. Solely blaming publishers and CEO’s is inaccurate and self-serving.

Finally, I worried this morning that the journalism industry does not appreciate the gift that is Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Institute. Early this morning I read what I found to be a brilliant essay on how the ethical philosophers give us clues on how the video in the Ray Rice case should have been handled.

I have been in some debates recently with people who are not totally convinced the great philosophers are particularly relevant to teaching modern ethics. I tell those people unequivocally they are wrong and Clark eloquently explains why and how the great philosophical thinkers can be terrifically relevant to a current case in the public eye.

Roy Peter and I are friendly, but not close. Yet, whether he’s commenting on writing, arguing with the best and brightest in our business or representing Poynter with class, Roy Peter Clark deserves a toast from our industry.