Reading your old posts, stories or columns can be humbling for a writer. Sometimes a post doesn’t seem as clever or insightful in retrospect as it did at the time. Sometimes something that was clever or insightful at the time appears less so in light of events since you wrote.
So I was a little hesitant when a tweet from Jennifer 8. Lee, a former New York Times reporter, prompted me to look up an old post from my Training Tracks blog at the American Press Institute, Why aren’t they using our pay phones?
Voicing a pet peeve of mine (that I have also voiced on Twitter), Lee tweeted:
hate airports where they make plugging in difficult. are charleston outlets deliberately wiggly, so laptop plug cant stay in?
I haven’t flown out of Charleston before, but I’ve often experienced the frustration of wanting some power in airport for charging a laptop, phone or headphones and being unable to find an outlet, or at least an outlet near a seat. Or then you find an outlet and it’s dead or loose, as Lee described.
I retweeted Lee’s complaint, adding:
My pet peeve. Reagan & O’Hare updated w/ power where phones used to be.
Taylor Dankmyer, a student at the University of Missouri, tweeted to Lee and me that we should check out the Air Power Wiki, which points travelers to electrical outlets at airports around the world. I like the wiki and plan to use it. (As soon as my registration is confirmed, I will note the great access at the Eastern Iowa Airport, where seats near gates 5 and 6 are equipped with outlets.)
The exchange reminded me of the blog post I had written more than three years ago, relating newspaper innovation to airports’ failure/refusal to modernize their lounge areas. I was pleased to see that not only had the post held up well, it’s appropriate today in some ways that didn’t apply in 2006. So I’m going to repeat the post here, with some new commentary added:
I get really annoyed when I look for a place to plug in my laptop computer at an airport.
I look around the lounge for an electrical outlet. Often no seats are within reach of an outlet. Sometimes you could reach an outlet by stretching the cord across a busy area where people are likely to walk. The few outlets around often are occupied by travelers charging computers, cell phones and other electronic devices between flights. Sometimes the travelers are sitting on the floor, because the only outlet they could find was not near any seats. This is true even at huge hub airports that get lots of passengers waiting between connecting flights. Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago O’Hare are two of the worst.
As my exasperation over these airports’ failure to modernize grows, I look around the lounge and invariably see a large bank of pay telephones. Rarely do I see any of them in use. But I see lots of passengers on cell phones.
The general criticism still holds. I sat on the floor last month in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and stretched my cord across a walkway at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Lounge areas are still awful places to find power outlets at O’Hare, but some former pay phone banks have been converted to places where you can sit down and charge up.
Airports are taxpayer-supported, with hardly any competition. Airlines choose which airports they will use based on other factors than passenger convenience. Passengers don’t often pick which airports they will use. They choose by fare and destination, sometimes by frequent flier plan. And they put up with whatever airports that means. So airports don’t have to innovate or even update. I’m sure that wiring a major airport for the 21st Century (or even the late 20th) would be a massively expensive undertaking. So they don’t and passengers sit on the floor to charge our computers between flights.
At a recent state association conference, I spoke following a panel of state political party chairs. In the question-and-answer session, a publisher noted that the parties, and their candidates, don’t hesitate to ask newspapers for free publicity when they are making announcements or staging events. Why, he asked, were they spending nearly all of their advertising dollars elsewhere?
The Republican Party leader explained that the local party follows guidance from the national party, advertising through channels that can deliver the specific demographics the party wants for specific messages. The publisher responded pretty much by repeating his plea for a bigger slice of the political advertising pie.
He might as well have been berating me for looking for an electrical outlet when he has all those pay phones I can use.
I could make the same comparison now about newspaper publishers insisting that the path to a prosperous future involves charging customers for digital content.
Newspapers aren’t as fortunate as airports. We have to innovate. We have to change from a model of trying to sell customers (whether readers or advertisers) only the product we want to make. Customers have a wide world of choices.
We need to find a way to do the information jobs that people need done in their lives or someone else will. This week I told the Newspaper Next story to executives of the newspapers of Grupo de Diarios América, a network of Latin American newspapers. Other API colleagues are telling the story today to another audience in the Washington area at the second Newspaper Next Symposium. It’s a story you should hear or read if you haven’t yet.
Newspaper Next excites me as much as airport lounges annoy me.
We don’t have all the answers, but I believe we have developed a framework to help newspapers stop whining about people who won’t buy what we’re selling and start identifying the ways that we can serve their information needs in a changing world.
I wish some newspaper companies had fully adopted the innovation process and strategic framework that Newspaper Next presented. Lots of companies applied pieces of the N2 approach, but they didn’t fundamentally transform their organizations as we were advocating. In light of the severe declines in newspaper advertising revenues in the three years since N2 launched, you can’t argue that we needed more dramatic transformation than anyone attempted. I can’t guarantee that a full-scale N2 approach would have prevented all the damage we’ve seen. But I wish we knew. No one attempted the full transformation that we advocated.
On a recent trip to Vancouver Island, my wife, Mimi, and I ate at a fabulous restaurant in Tofino called SoBo (short for Sophisticated Bohemian). Owners Lisa and Artie Ahier have a business model newspapers should keep in mind as they attempt to innovate.
They started without high fixed costs. They served lunch in a parking lot out of a purple catering truck. But it was a spectacular lunch. We first encountered it on a 2004 trip to Tofino for our 30th wedding anniversary. My favorite item was the killer fish tacos. Mimi ate a tofu pocket that we still can’t figure out how they do it. We split the polenta fries. You eat at picnic tables in the parking lot. You eat so much lunch that you could skip dinner. I told Lisa that in days gone by she would have been burned at the stake because that food is pure witchcraft.
They are serving dinner now, too. Not in their own restaurant, but in the visitor center of the botanical garden, which is closed in the evening. Lunch is still served from the truck, but it’s moved from its original parking lot to the botanical garden lot.
The Ahiers weren’t bound by the traditional ways that restaurants do business. They found a way to launch their business with low startup costs, a location that was good enough and a scrumptious product no one could match. Even with their humble setting, they are earning notice in travel and dining magazines as one of Canada’s best restaurants.
Newspapers need to free themselves from the traditional business model and find the parking lots where they can serve customers what the customers want. Let’s develop some killer fish tacos and stop wondering why customers aren’t using our pay phones.
We still need to free ourselves from the traditional business model. I hope my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection and mobile-first strategy can provide the recipe for the killer fish tacos and tofu pockets that lead us to a thriving business model in 2010. I know that pay phones and paywalls aren’t the way to a prosperous future any more in 2010 than they were in 2006.