I guess we did not have to lock Steve Outing in a room with corporate turnaround specialists. In his E&P column this week, Outing outlines an 11-point game plan for newspaper executives to turn around their struggling businesses.
While most of his points have been espoused by many digital experts over the years (think digital first, consolidate print and online editorial functions, experiment with new and unique products), Outing hits three points that I’m sure will have publishers squirming over: Stop chasing young readers in print, continue to serve your core (older readers), and help them to migrate to digital media. What this basically translate to is: yes, print is dying, but don’t go suddenly. Help your current loyal readers make the move to newer methods of information delivery, and develop methods and products that will attract and keep your new readers.
Probably not a direction a company with the word “publications” in its title may want to face up to, but it is a reality nonetheless.
He also stresses the need to leverage yourself into social media, which is an area most newspaper leaders are still looking at as an interesting toy without much value (much the same way they looked at the Internet back in the … well, up until a couple of years ago). As we’ve seen with Obama’s highly successful campaign and, mst recently, with the impact Twitter made in distributing information during the terrorists attacks in Mumbai, this is the new community people are turning to for news and information. Ignoring social networking is basically ignoring a key chance to build and retain new customers.
One area I wish he stressed more is the need for building “communities” or “niches.” I hate the word “niche” because it is still pretty heavily tied to the term “special sections,” much in the same way “communities” is tied to geography. As a spinoff from social networking, publishers need to look at their communities beyond geography … communities of lifestyles, interests, hobbies, opinions … and develop specialized products (beyond print ‘special sections’) to bring these communities together to inform, share and entertain.
Outing’s final point, however, is one that make corporate sense; “Consider retirement.” Give Steve credit for saying what many are thinking: Maybe it’s time to clean house at the top and bring in people who are not afraid to take that leap of faith. You don’t need a Sam Zell in a leadership role to create a shift in the business model, but you need someone who is not so tied up to the “way things were” that he cannot see the cultural shift that is leaving the newspaper industry in the dust. There’s a lot of catching up to do, and maybe the best way to do that is to bring in fresh thinking at the top.
But how many CEOs, publishers, or even executive or managing editors will agree and step down from their six-figure jobs for the sake of the industry’s future? I think we all know the answer to that.
I hope Outing’s column is in the room when the next API ‘crisis summit’ convenes. I hope the leaders read it and ponder it long and hard. But not too long. The industry needs to move, and quickly. This is a good guidline to build upon.
So let’s stop bemoaning the status quo and start building the future.