Former newspaper executive steps past trees to survey the newsmedia forest


It has been nearly two months since I left the newspaper business, so I feel privileged to have been asked to continue to contribute to this blog.

Whilst the changing view of the business from the inside to the outside was not earth shattering, there have been some things I can see more clearly from the outside looking in, rather than vice versa.

I’ve always felt that marketers have an obligation to resist the “indoctrination” of the business. This may seem counterintuitive. After all, we are keen to preach the gospel of “living the brand.” But we must be careful to maintain a customer’s point of view and not become blindly loyal to our own crafted messages and spin. It is easy to have your views gradually modified, at a pace that makes it difficult to recognise the change.

Research, business analytics, employee opinions, competitive activity, performance metrics, share price, government regulations, and a hundred other things are the trees that can block your view of the forest. The fact is, I knew more about the details of our media business than a customer (reader or advertiser) would ever know. Or want to know. Or should be expected to know.

Once I stepped away, I became aware of how my view of the big picture, the forest, had been obscured. Now I can look at the business with a new clarity.

In my next posts, I’d like to discuss a few of my formerly clouded perceptions. First, can newspapers, printed newspapers, survive?

I’m sure that if I re-read some of my past blog entries, I could find a passionate defense of printed newspapers. I’m not ready to say, “No, they will not survive,” but I am equally unwilling to say that they will.

The Internet has been called the most disruptive technology since electricity. And it has had an impact on nearly every business. Some of those businesses have been disrupted right into bankruptcy. Others are fighting to adjust, change, or reinvent their models.

One thing has become crystal clear to me: The outcome for newspapers will not be decided after a moderated debate between publishers and readers. Customers — readers and advertisers — will decide the outcome. And I am not feeling a lot of love for printed newspapers from either of those two groups.

What to do? The product must be re-created. And I am convinced that the re-creation must be as dramatic as the threat. Newspaper publishers cannot afford a “softly, softly” approach or a programme of evolutionary changes. There isn't time.

The change may mean abandoning paper, as Encyclopedia Britannica recently did. Or it might mean reimagining the product, as Fuji and others have done with instant film photography.

Newspaper businesses have many assets that are recognised as valuable. Perhaps even more valuable in a world filled with millions of news stories, publishers, and easy and free distribution methods.

After 60 days away from newspaper publishing, I’ve realised this: Forests of customers are not holding their breath, waiting for a newspaper to launch with a new font or with a few more photos, or a new writer or two. In fact, they are not waiting for anything. People are quite happy with the news they are receiving, whether from news brands or Facebook or Twitter. It is up to publishers to provide them with an alternative that is better than what they are now content to consume.

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