Sitting at breakfast this morning in Washington, DC, I heard a familiar tale of woe from my friend. Both he and his wife are talented, experienced, and recognized journalists. He has first-rate credits as an op-ed page editor, she has won outright or shared in two Pulitzer prizes. But today she is an ex-journalist, having taken a buy-out from her paper and then gone on to form, with several other former journalists, an investigative service firm that does work for hire, often taking on difficult in-depth projects for law firms or corporations looking to use the skills of a proven reporter. He has endured involuntary furloughs and passed up, so far, various buy-out offers his paper has offered.
It was a familiar and sad story. The papers he and his wife have worked for have huge brand names--and also impenetrable bureaucracies. Like General Motors, they seem impervious to signals that tell them they must change, sluggish in their response to dramatic shifts in customer habits and preferences, indifferent to changing capabilities in technology, and stubborn in their insistence that they are right, they are important, they are special--and that if there is a problem, it must be that their competitors aren't playing fair or their customers aren't sufficiently grateful for what they have to offer.
Soon breakfast was over, ended with a sad shaking of hands and shaking of heads as both of us considered the almost inevitable demise of once-proud and once-great journalistic institutions. He headed back to work and I headed to the airport to board an Alaskan Airlines flight to Seattle.
In the course of the almost six hour flight I found myself re-thinking that breakfast conversation. Did it have to happen? Are newspapers doomed to extinction? What if, I wondered, I applied one of my favorite rules from my new book Rules of Thumb," Rule #6: If you want to see with fresh eyes, reframe the picture.
It's a rule that I learned from Harvard Business School's late, great marketing guru, Ted Levitt. In his legendary Harvard Business School article, "Marketing Myopia," Ted essentially invented the concept of re-framing. The problem with most failing businesses, he argued, was that they didn't understand what business they were really in. The demise of the once-great American railroads, he argued, was due to the fact that they thought they were in the railroad business when, in fact, they needed to see that they were in the transportation business. A company that made power tools thought it was selling drills; but its customers were buying holes.
What business are newspapers really in, I wondered? Clearly not the newspaper business--that is too prosaic, and clearly too one-dimensional. Only a fool would think he was in the newspaper business today and expect to survive. So what business--or businesses--are newspapers really in?
How is a newspaper like a comedy show? Jon Stewart ranks as the fourth most-trusted source of news in America today--and by his own description, he's proud to call himself a comic. What he offers that is so valuable is the truth behind the news--the truth that only comes clear through exaggeration, distortion, and outright lying. In other words through comedy. But it's not only Jon Stewart (and Stephen Colbert) who make sense of the news by making fun of the news; so does The Onion--to great success in both print and in web-based video. British newspapers, famously, take far more risks and make far more fun of the newsmakers they cover. When did American newspapers start taking themselves do seriously? Is it conceivable that reading a newspaper could be fun again?
How is a newspaper like a consulting firm? It's not just my friend's wife who's decided to take her core competency as an investigative journalist and ply her trade digging up material for lawyers and companies. There's a firm in Denmark that consists of a dozen or more former journalists who offer the same service--and who are flourishing in their new business. What is a newspaper if not the talents and skills, the experiences and capabilities of the people who work there? It's certainly not the sheets of newsprint and the ink--that's just the product. The paper itself is the applied intelligence of the people who work there. So why couldn't a newspaper offer investigative reporting services to outside clients? Well, in fact, at least one does: The Economist. The Economist, which is the magazine that both Time and Newsweek wish they were (and which calls itself a newspaper, incidentally), has its intelligence unit, an operation that does exactly the kind of work my friend's wife is setting up to do--because her newspaper didn't have the brains to see that it could be in that business itself.
How is a newspaper like a talk show? As an op-ed editor for one of America's great daily newspaper, my friend has carefully and thoughtfully built a stable of op-ed contributors who supply the paper with commentary, analysis, and opinion. And as large as that stable is, there's always room for new voices and fresh insights. But here's the problem: the stable of contributors is much larger than the op-ed page of the paper. Voices go unheard for long periods of time, simply because there isn't room in the paper to contain them. A phenomenal asset is going under-utilized. But what's to prevent the paper from becoming a talk show--both metaphorically and literally? Why shouldn't my friend conduct regular conversations with op-ed contributors, under the newspaper's auspices, and post them on the web? Right now we've got Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Larry King, Charlie Rose, and Oprah--and every aspiring author, pundit, and pontificator pines to be on their shows. Why not launch a newspaper-sponsored web-enabled talk show?
How is a newspaper like a credit card company? Membership, as the old credit card marketing saying goes, has its privileges. Why shouldn't newspapers sell memberships, instead of subscriptions? For a base level membership, you get the base level newspaper: standard-issue coverage of the news of the day, news as a commodity. Want to reach the level of a silver card holder? That gets you a slate of op-ed columnists, behind-the-scenes sports commentary, access to the newspapers pundits and sense-makers. Ready to go for the gold? With gold you get the investigative unit, the behind-the-scene interviews, the bells and whistles that a great newspaper now gives away for free. And platinum! That gets you a weekly conference call featuring the paper's top editors, smartest columnists, and coolest reporters--and chance to get briefed, along with other platinum members over the web, over the phone, or, on special occasions, in person.
How is a newspaper like Alaska Airlines? The airline industry is, arguably, as bad a business to be in as newspapers. But somehow, Alaska Airlines, on which I'm currently sitting, makes it actually pleasant. Despite an unendurably long flight, everyone on the plane is in a good mood. In part that's because the flight attendants are amazingly friendly, courteous, even funny. In part it's because the plane we're flying on is brand new. It's clean, it's fresh, the seats are comfortable, the carpet isn't worn, and the rest rooms are spotless. But it's also the way they do business. After we take off, the flight attendants come down the aisle with personal video units. For a small fee, you can rent one and watch movies all the way across America. A little while later, they come down the aisle with food carts. Want to buy a cheeseburger? A neatly packed variety of snacks, trail mix, pastry, or chocolates? It's all ala carte, you have to pay for it, but it's done well, it's done pleasantly, it's done with service, and it's done with a smile. If people are hungry for the news, or eager for some entertainment, can't newspapers serve those up ala carte, too? No self-respecting airline thinks its actually selling a seat on a plane. When will newspapers figure out they're not selling newspapers?
They've just announced that I need to shut off my computer; we're landing in Seattle. Seattle, a city that recently suffered the loss of its newspaper, Seattle, home of the defunct Post-Intelligencer. It died, undoubtedly because it thought it was in the newspaper business.