Newspapers: Seeking the Original Sin

by: Jeff Jarvis

Like priests looking for someone to sacrifice, Alan Mutter, Steve Buttry, Howard Owens, and Steve Yelvington have been on the lookout for the sin that led newspapers astray. For Mutter, it’s not charging; for Buttry, it’s not innovating; for Owens, it’s tying online dingies to print Titanics (my poetic license); for Yelvington, it’s inaction.

But I think Owens hit on it when he wrote this: “I realized I needed to flip the expense/revenue picture upside down. Instead of thinking about how to generate more cash, I needed to figure out how to create a news operation that could exist profitably based on a reasonable expectation for local online revenue.”

Right. In other words, the sin was not running a business. It was not creating a sustainable P&L.

Newspapers have been too busy trying to protect specific budget lines that protected specific interests – the size of the newsroom, the ego expressed in gross revenue that yields stock performance and salary bonuses, the size of unionized staffs (up or down), the rules that governed advertising relationships even as they disappeared. They made preservation their mission.

What they should have done instead is rethink the bottom line: How is journalism going to be sustainable in new business realities?

Said Owens: “In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn’t know — and still don’t — how to make $10 million. So if I can make a million online, why do I need to operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?”

He built a realistic budget based on new business realities. Now picture news executives across the country hitting themselves on the head saying, “Damn, why didn’t we think of that?” They should have. But to do so would have required them to completely tear apart their businesses. Witness Detroit, banking, retail, advertising, insurance, and every other industry undergoing upheaval – nobody wants to do that.

Just as the bloggers linked above took their share of blame, so will I. Owens suggests that the problem with tying old and new operations together. At Advance, where I worked for a dozen years, we created separate online companies, which had some benefits: enabling the sites to build what was right for online (that is, interactivity), creating real value for advertising (rather than throwing in online as value-added), creating smaller and differently skilled staffs. But it also created problems: sites that were dependent on newspaper content, rivalries that killed collaboration and limited the responsibility anyone would take for the future. In the end, everyone needed to rethink what they were creating and what value it had, how they were creating it, how they related to their communities, and how the business could be run. But I didn’t see that happening anywhere in the industry. Everywhere, I saw people looking for someone to blame and somewhere to hide. I don’t put all the blame on the individuals because that’s how companies and industries operate.

Individuals who want to succeed in this upheaval become entrepreneurs. That’s what Owens – and many others – are doing. That, I’ve come to see, is the basis of the future of news.

In our New Business Models for News Project at CUNY, we threw out the old business assumptions with the old business. That’s why we tried to answer the tough question people were asking: What happens to journalism if the paper disappears? (their implied answer was that journalism does, too). What we came up with was one entity being replaced by well more than 100 entities – 1,000 entities, perhaps – each run according to new opportunities and needs, each smaller, each contributing real value, each sustainable (some very profitable; some choosing no profit). Everyone in this ecosystem has to think about running a business rather than preserving one.

Someone else looking for sinners is James Murdoch, whose MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival excoriated the BBC for bigfooting the news market in the UK and the government for enabling it and for regulating everybody else. I agree with him to an extent, this extent: that profit, in his words, will make journalism sustainable, independent, and innovative.

Except I doubt that this sustainable, independent, and innovative journalism will necessarily come from Mr. Murdoch’s father’s business and its cohorts because they are the ones that even today are trying to maintain the scale and models for their old businesses rather than inventing new ones. Look, instead, to the entrepreneurs who are starting over and rethinking the business from the bottom up, as Owens is.