I just finished reading about the latest round of layoffs in the newspaper industry, in this case Gannett, arguably the most powerful media organization in America today. Props to Jim Romenesko for breaking the story, which is Brutal–just brutal. As a journalist based in Florida (where Gannett owns seven newspapers, three TV stations and four radio stations), I’ve watched in horror as this process has unfolded over the past decade.
This is the first generation of newspapermen who’ve proven incapable of doing business correctly. The number of veteran reporters, photographers, cartoonists, etc. laid off over the past decade could fill a medium-sized arena–and the papers and magazines they left behind are, in most cases, either shells of their former selves or just out-of-business altogether. A number of papers have installed pay-portals in hopes of increasing revenue, but that has the effect of limiting the size of their audience; even The New York Times, the greatest newspaper of all-time, is suffering, although it appears new editor Jill Abramson has done a really great job getting the “Old Gray Lady” back in fighting shape.
Consumers of media need to be more aggressive about using their power to make clear what they want from the product, and editors and publishers around the country need to grow some balls and stop playing a defensive game with new media. The web caught fire in the late-’90s, right as the old guard of print media management was exiting the stage; having weathered multiple storms in the post-war era, they might have managed the transition more effectively, but their replacements seemed to instinctively view the Internet as an existential threat to their operations. Around the country, editors and publishers alike were largely dismissive of the potential of “new media”, and the bias can still be discerned from their public statements. As a result, most papers did not begin to develop their digital game until it was almost too late–and once they did, the transition was handled badly, because their heart wasn’t really into it.
I’ve always likened the dynamic to that of the radio industry at the dawn of television. Many performers and executives for those networks similarly dismissed the new technology’s potential, and either refused to familiarize themselves with it altogether, or waited until it was too late. As a result, many careers ended, and several companies went defunct. But those who were open to the new technology, and made sincere efforts to acclimate themselves to it, ended becoming the people we now recognize as the pioneers of television; most of the top stars thus remained viable for the rest of their lives, and their families benefit from the royalties to this day. Likewise, print media outlets should stop thinking of the web as competition for the business, while engaging in counter-productive, reactionary decision-making, and instead start appreciating it as simply a powerful new tool to augment and enhance their business. Those who prove capable of doing this correctly will end up as the dominant forces in the media environment of the future–a future that may already be upon us.