A few weeks back in a post entitled Downsizing Journalism, I commented on the suicidal effects that cost-focused strategies have on newspapers: cost reductions in the face of declining circulation reach into the newsroom which, eventually, reduces the quality of the news which leads to declining circulation and more cost reductions.
There are three parts to the phrase “newspaper business“: (1) news; (2) paper; and, (3) business. With the rise of the Internet — and shifting habits of younger people — paper has emerged as a very expensive form of distributing news. Put differently, paper drives a wedge between part one (news) and part three (business).
This is not trivial. And, that’s why every executive and employee in newspaper organizations (and anyone else who cares about this topic) should read Ken Auletta’s article in the October 10, 2005 issue of The New Yorker. (Sorry: The magazine, at least as of today, chose not to post the article on its website).
Auletta uses the recent resignation of the Los Angeles Times’ editor as a focal point to explore the fundamental problems facing newspapers. He has done a masterful job of presenting in clear and compelling ways the tensions between the Los Angeles Times’ editors’ desires to be a world class newspaper versus the coporate headquarters’ desire to deliver steady growth and earnings from the newspaper business.
The title of Auletta’s article is “Fault Line”. It’s brilliant. Not only because he so clearly lays out the inherent tension between striving for quality news versus meeting bottom line expectations – but also because, as happens too often in organizations facing profound change, the leaders from both sides fell too easily into a game of finding fault – the ‘we/they’ battles that never produce win/win strategies for change. Never.
Auletta has done something else in this article. He has provided journalists an example of excellent journalism. He has done a careful job of reporting both sides of this story. He has not pulled punches; but, neither has he taken cheap shots. He has succeeded in portraying all the players as human beings trying to do their jobs in a tough situation. In other words, he has shown respect to the people in his story and, thereby, shown respect to the readers of his story.
The Los Angeles Times can achieve both aspirations: (1) world class news; and, (2) profits and growth. But it cannot succeed if either goal trumps the other. Auletta’s piece — if carefully read and used — can help the people of the Los Angeles Times find their best future together. Indeed, it can help all people in newspaper businesses convert the ‘paper’ wedge pitting ‘news’ against ‘business’ into a clarion call for shared collaboration and creativity required to deliver both high quality ‘news’ and high quality ‘business’. Both/and. Not either/or.