I had a twofold reaction to Thursday’s news that the Boston Globe was trying to reinvent itself:
- Another fucking newspaper reinvention? How many times have we heard this?
- I hope it succeeds. Someone has to.
If you don’t want to read my whining/ranting about previous reinvention failures, skip to the “why I’m optimistic” heading, where I share my optimism for the Globe’s project. I am optimistic, but I need to share that frustration, too.
Why I’m frustrated
In both reactions, my thoughts turned to the American Press Institute. The current incarnation of API is helping the Globe, and I’ll address that in the optimistic section. And I was heavily involved in an initiative by an earlier version of API to lead reinvention of the newspaper business.
A decade ago, API developed a blueprint for newspaper reinvention (we called it a “Blueprint for Transformation”). Seriously, we published that advice in 2006, the year newspaper ad revenues first started to drop, by a tiny 1.7 percent. Ad revenue has dropped every year since, often by double-digit percentages and the Newspaper Association of America hasn’t even bothered to report the figures for 2014 and 2015. Those annual reports usually came out in April, and the most recent revenue report on the NAA website was published April 18, 2014.
I worked for API on the Newspaper Next project, and my colleagues and I presented those principles and techniques of reinvention more than a hundred times to newspaper audiences around the globe, from one-hour overviews for press associations to two-day workshops for specific newspapers and large newspaper companies. We produced at least three N2 reports, one of which I wrote.
Newspaper executives who proclaimed themselves eager to reinvent their organizations applauded our message and spent thousands of dollars (we charged $11,000 plus expenses for a one-day workshop) sharing the message with their staffs and executive teams. But their cultural and organizational inertia was so powerful that they took only tentative partial steps that didn’t come close to reinvention.
The most prophetic advice in the original N2 report was: “Beware the sucking sound of the core.” Of all the people who welcomed and openly embraced the N2 message, few dared risk any immediate significant change to the core product, the daily printed newspaper. Instead of taking bold steps that might approach or even achieve reinvention, most tinkered around the edges, ensuring the slower long-term decline of the core product.
In fact, my only reservation about the N2 report (a minor quibble then and a huge regret now) was that the first of four points in the N2 “game plan” was “maximize core business model.” The section on maximizing the core had good advice, and I think a newspaper would have succeeded by following that advice, if it had aggressively pursued the other three points of the plan. But that gravitational pull of the core kept anyone from making more than minimal efforts on the other points, about building audience, serving business customers in new ways and transforming the organization. I think a company that abandoned its core business model, or at least stopped worrying about it, to pursue the other strategies seriously would be thriving today, or at least closer to success than most newspapers.
While no one in the news industry came close to implementing the N2 blueprint, I became convinced fairly quickly that it didn’t go far enough. In 2007 and 2008, while I was still at API, I wrote the first drafts of a plan I called the Complete Community Connection, advocating a more dramatic reinvention of local news organizations. That didn’t become an N2 report (though my companion piece on databases did), but I published the plan on my blog in 2009, when I worked for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and thought the company’s CEO might implement the C3 approach.
Quickly after publishing C3, I realized it also wasn’t bold enough, and later in 2009, I called for news organizations to adopt a mobile-first strategy. Both C3 and mobile-first got similar reactions to N2, but on a smaller scale. I got praise and readership for both plans, and earned thousands of dollars speaking at conferences and leading seminars and webinars about my plans for press associations, journalism organizations and individual companies.
And no one reinvented a single legacy news company that I’m aware of. Not by following N2. Not by following C3. Not by going mobile-first. The most dramatic steps taken by newspaper companies were cost-cutting measures, trying to stay profitable while hoping someone else developed a magic digital (or print) potion to ensure eternal life.
I should add that I’m not pointing fingers here. To whatever extent I’m finding fault, I admit that I failed to persuade anyone to adopt N2, C3 or mobile-first in a meaningful way (or even to try a narrower proposal I made to build a new business around telling people’s life stories, rather than just charging people for obituaries). If anyone, especially me, thinks I had some great ideas for reinvention of the news business, I need to acknowledge that I was embarrassingly unpersuasive.
Further, my three news-business jobs since leaving API were all seen initially by me and my bosses (and perhaps by others) as worthy efforts to transform those particular businesses as well as the industry at large. The details aren’t important here, but none of those efforts succeeded in any major way. In all three cases, I would say that owners’ and/or executives’ changing commitment to the strategy, or insistence on maintaining the core while pursuing the strategy, was the reason we didn’t succeed. I have resisted calling any of them failures, because none of the businesses came close to fully implementing the strategies discussed when I was hired. A strategy isn’t a failure until you really try to execute it. But I can’t claim success.
So my first response to the Globe’s plan to reinvent itself was a mix of frustration and déjà vu. But I am persistent and optimistic, so I’m going to cheer the Globe along.
Why I’m optimistic
I’ll start with some reasons for general optimism before getting specific to the Globe. I’m optimistic because:
- The news industry has a lot of smart people who are trying to reinvent the business, and I think eventually some will succeed.
- The decline of the past decade has led to a sense of desperation that might finally lead to the boldness that reinvention requires.
- I don’t want to think of a nation or a world without a healthy practice of journalism. Maybe that’s denial, but I regard it as optimism.
- The “Panama Papers” collaboration by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, published just this week, was an inspiring success that shows that smart people are indeed developing new models of journalism.
- The Temple University project to transform four newsrooms, funded by the Knight Foundation, gives me great hope.
- Jim Brady‘s thoughtful launch and development of Billy Penn in Philadelphia has great promise. Jim’s recently announced investment by Gannett, the Knight grant for developing a mobile journalism guide and Billy Penn’s partnership with PolitiFact are all encouraging developments. (Disclosure: As you may know, Jim hired me to work at TBD and Digital First Media, and we remain friends.)
- The New York Times’ plan to double its digital revenue by 2020, outlined last fall, shows a willingness to be bold and gives me hope for success.
- The Dallas Morning News appears to be taking bold steps at reinvention.
- Jeff Bezos’ digital insight and leadership seem to be succeeding at the Washington Post.
- Lots of local news start-ups are growing and succeeding and not getting enough attention from people who write about the news business, including me. I won’t list even the ones I know about here, because they’re so plentiful. The member list of the Local Independent Online News Publishers is seven pages long.
- Many other digital news start-ups, either state, national, global or focusing on topical niches, are succeeding in various ways (though certainly some have failed or are struggling). I am hopeful that some legacy media companies will succeed as multi-platform companies or make a full digital transformation. But if not, I’m certain new digital companies will continue to produce strong journalism.
Why I’m optimistic about the Globe’s reinvention
When I worked on the N2 project for API, my boss, Drew Davis, wanted some news company to turn a newspaper over to us to lead a full-scale reinvention. Or at the least, he wanted some newspaper to bring us in for some long-term consulting, so we could help see the internal barriers to transformation and help the organization smash through them. The Globe isn’t turning the reins over to its API consultants, but I do think their external perspective will help the Globe address whatever internal problems arise.
I don’t know Globe Editor Brian McGrory well, but I admire his work. And I do know and respect the three consultants who will be helping the Globe:
- API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel has been leading some excellent projects (last month I helped plan and host an API fact-checking boot camp at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication) and before that led important work at the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
- Marty Kaiser, former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, led a newsroom with one of the best recent track records of investigative journalism.
- API Associate Director Jeff Sonderman is one of the smartest, and most digitally savvy, people in journalism. I worked with Jeff at TBD and have followed his work since at Poynter and API. If I were making a list of the half-dozen or so people who are most likely to lead journalism to widespread digital success, Jeff would be on the list.
When I shared a link about the Globe effort on Facebook, some friends rightly wondered if four white men have enough diversity of experience and outlook to lead such a reinvention. I quibbled with a friend who characterized them as four middle-aged white men; Jeff is a generation younger than the other three. But I agree that the leadership of this reinvention better diversify more if it’s going to succeed. Newspapers aren’t declining because of their failure to attract white male readers of my generation. I think this will be a more diverse effort as it unfolds. I’m pretty sure these men all recognize the importance of diversity and will lead an inclusive effort as the project identifies key roles for Globe staffers.
I’m also optimistic because the Globe is a damned good and important news operation. If you haven’t seen “Spotlight,” watch it. That was almost 15 years ago and under different leadership, but the Globe continues to produce great journalism (Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, groundbreaking interactive storytelling on Chasing Bayla, to name just a couple examples). I think if you’ve been that great and that important to your community, you feel a strong obligation to continue doing great work. That can result in excessive protection of the core business, but if you overcome that obstacle, the commitment to excellence can help you succeed, I believe.
The Globe’s ownership situation also gives me hope. Billionaire and Boston Red Sox owner John Henry bought the Globe in 2013 from the New York Times Company. I think a wealthy local owner is the ideal ownership situation for success in reinvention. If he truly believes in the need for transformation, a local owner who understands the importance of the institution to the community, and doesn’t rely on the news business for his wealth, might be bold enough to make the necessary moves.
While the ownership details vary, other newspapers that appear to be making progress on reinvention (New York Times, Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, to name a few) are in somewhat similar situations: great institutions but not part of a larger corporate operation that can become an obstacle to transformation.
Advice for the Globe effort coming soon
I was hoping to offer some advice in this post to the Globe (and others undertaking reinvention), but that’s going to have to wait. I’m traveling and preparing to speak at the Future of Student Media Summit at Ohio University today. Thoughtful advice is going to take a little time. But I wanted to share my frustration and optimism right away.
Whether it’s a successful breakthrough or another setback, the Globe reinvention project is going to be important for journalism. Less than two months after the Oscars, the Globe is back in the spotlight. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)