Secret is as secret does.
When I first wrote about Thursday’s NAA meeting of newspaper executives, I had to confess I didn’t actually know what was happening, but was writing based on some blogs that were mostly based on speculation or rumor or on the agenda for the meeting, which James Warren of The Atlantic obtained. After some off-the-record emails and a phone call and after reading Editor & Publisher’s two accounts of the meeting, I know more about what was discussed there. My basic views remain unchanged: The meeting was misguided and newspaper executives’ heavy focus on paid content as a way of protecting the print product is wasting time and energy that we shoud focus on more productive innovative solutions.
I should clarify a few points that I neglected when I wrote my earlier post on the meeting:
- The discussion of paid content was part of a broader discussion of solutions to the newspaper industry’s revenue decline. (Warren’s account mentioned discussions of content models, classified advertising and aggregating user data.)
- The meeting continued discussions among newspaper executives that have been going on for years, including a “summit” of industry CEO’s at the American Press Institute (my old employer) and a similar huddle last month at NAA’s annual conference in San Diego.
- The problems the executives are trying to address are genuine. Print revenues are eroding swiftly, digital revenues are not rising to fill the void and we need to do something to protect the valuable role journalism has played in communities and in our country.
When I worked in API’s Newspaper Next project, we had a partnership with Clayton Christensen, Harvard business professor who has studied and written extensively about disruptive innovation in dozens of industries. Christensen taught us, and we taught the newspaper industry, that two common failures by established industries facing disruptive innovation are fretting over cannibalization of the core product and cramming an existing business model into a new technology. This paid-content effort makes both of those mistakes and everyone in the secret meeting has almost certainly heard and read Christensen’s advice and is choosing to ignore it.
Newspaper Next admonished leaders working on innovation to “beware the sucking sound of the core.” Trying to force people to pay for content just because for years people have paid for newspaper delivery is giving in to the sucking sound of the core.
I also should clarify that I don’t oppose thoughtful, innovative ways to generate some revenue from unique, valuable content. Patrick Thornton suggested some ways to explore generating revenue from content. And, as I noted in my earlier post, Steve Outing suggested a way to provide value people might pay for. I have skepticism about some of these ideas and I think we need way more innovation than them, as I proposed in my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection. But I’ll concede that some innovative projects that charge for valuable content or services might contribute to a healthier business model.
My concern is that the “solutions” of Dean Singleton and Walter Hussman and the misguided notion that removing pay walls was an “original sin” are delaying our development of solutions that will really work. But I have written plenty about the issue of paid content. My primary point in this post is to criticize the secrecy of the executives’ gathering (and the subsequent denial that it was a secret meeting).
John Sturm, president of the NAA, denied to E&P that there was any effort to hold a clandestine meeting (but it’s not listed under “events” on his web site).
Here’s what Michael Golden, vice chairman of The New York Times Co. and chief operating officer of The New York Times Regional Media Group, told E&P:
The characterization in The Atlantic that this was a “secret meeting” was inaccurate. If it were secret, there wouldn’t have been a sign on the door saying “NAA meeting.” This was a meeting that had been planned for weeks — you can’t get these people together without planning it over a period of time.
Golden told E&P there was no effort to conceal the meeting, though it was not publicized by NAA: “There is a difference between a public meeting or a town hall forum and a working group meeting and a secret meeting. It wasn’t a convention, but NAA does a lot of things.”
Not a single of the many insightful columnists working for Golden’s company would buy such a ridiculous explanation of a secret meeting of politicians (or other business executives). When API was transparent about plans for its November summit but did not allow press coverage, it was criticized in advance of the summit. So NAA was trying to fly under the radar on this one. Despite all the staff cuts at newspapers, thousands of reporters work for the people who gathered in Chicago. And not a single reporter was in the room writing about it (or knew about it before Warren broke the story). And if a reporter had happened to be in the hotel and saw the “NAA meeting” sign, would he or she have been allowed to enter the meeting and report about it? It was a secret meeting.
Here’s why secrecy is as much a part of the problem as whatever ideas, good or bad, that the executives were discussing behind closed doors: Secrecy is an attempt at control. You master the digital world by acknowledging, accepting and embracing collaboration that you can’t fully control. Yes, Google practices (and gets away with) secrecy, but otherwise, transparency and collaboration are the way of the world newspaper executives are seeking to master. We won’t prosper in that world by clinging to our culture of control.
Secrecy also helps you control (and limit) the ideas under consideration in a discussion. That may feel good, but it’s bad. Widen the circle by inviting Outing, Thornton, Jeff Jarvis, Steve Yelvington, Amy Gahran, Dan Conover, Matt Thompson, Jay Rosen, Jane Stevens, Jan Schaffer, Jason Kristufek and some other people who are thinking innovative thoughts and your considerations will be more thoughtful and more productive.
Another reason secrecy was the wrong approach for the NAA meeting was that it invited the speculation and partial reporting that focused on the notion that the executives were getting together to figure a way to all start charging for content at about the same time, so that consumers (in the narrow world view of the people who think this might work) would have no other sources for news and would have to pay. If that’s not all you’re talking about, then open the doors, invite the rest of the world and let us liveblog the meeting. Then everyone will know that this never came up (if it didn’t) or that it was just one of many topics discussed.
Here’s how we know that paid content certainly was a topic of discussion. Sturm missed the point in his denial to E&P: “Price was never discussed, and interstingly enough, there was no reason to discuss price. [That’s] always a local decision.”
Reread the blogs that upset Sturm and Golden in the first place: Did any of them suggest that the newspaper executives were colluding (or actually carefully avoiding collusion) on price? The collusion, if any is under consideration, will be about whether to charge for content and how and what kind of content to charge for and how much content to charge for, not how much to charge. I am quite sure that Sturm was absolutely correct about this, though (probably deliberately) off point. When newspaper sites start charging again for content, their prices and pricing structures and packages will be entirely local decisions.
The NAA’s partner organization, the American Society of News Editors (of which I am a proud and active member), organizes Sunshine Week every year, encouraging openness in government. Openness is a good idea in business, too. We should try it.
Postscript: After writing the initial draft of this blog, I went to lunch at Phong Lan, a Vietnamese restaurant, with an interesting group that included Conover and Gazette CEO Chuck Peters. My fortune cookie offered this saying that could be the newspaper industry’s slogan: “Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” But I made a Freudian mistake as I read it to my colleagues: “Persistence and determination alone are impotent.”