Sam, welcome to the world of newspaper publishing with your apparent – barring regulatory hurdles – acquisition of the Tribune Company. I understand you already have a thick skin, which will come in handy now that you are in the media spotlight. There are a few things you need to know if you want to avoid screwing up the newspapers forever (You’re on you own when it comes to TV):
First. Make sure you understand the general psyche of journalists:
- Most love what they do.
- Pride runs deep.
- So does talent, creativity and education.
- Many are stubborn.
- And will resist new ideas.
- But they have good reason: Mistakes are not tolerated in this profession.
- Many believe they’re trying to save the world.
- In other words, you have a lot of idealists on your hands.
- Some do not like capitalism but respect it. Others love it. Some don’t care one way or the other.
- Left and right matter less than a really, really good story.
- Many have seen and experienced more of the human condition than the average Joe Blow.
- Most will work until they drop.
- Many are still amazed they get paid for writing and editing.
- Most are experiencing battle fatigue and extremely low morale.
Second. You are up against an industry that fears technology:
- As a general rule, the bigger newspapers contain older staffs, which means you face more technophobes than say the average Gannett newspaper.
- The chasm between web and print is larger than the Grand Canyon. Even those who are suddenly embracing the web have little understanding how it works, from basic HTML coding to blog tools to php to Google Analytics.
- Keep in mind, I essentially had to start this blog in stealth because there was so much fear about using the medium. The only reason I could do it all was because I worked in Information Technology and never wrote about my job.
- Journalists are great at what they do, but many like writing and editing not developing bold or grand visions on how to model their business on the web. They want to write and edit.
But the existing management at the Tribune Company has even less of a clue. At a company forum with Dennis Fitzsimmons last year, I asked what the planned revenue model for the web would be and received an incomprehensible answer. It was obvious that there WAS NO PLAN.
Here’s a question to ask about your Tribune management team and future advisers: How much do they really know about the Internet?
Look hard at these points Sam. And ask yourself, how much do YOU know about the web and newspapers?
Third. Check the numbers, but you may find that circulation declines are more the fault of the Do Not Call Registry than the Internet.
Sure, the web has siphoned off readers, but the real decline seemed to start after the Do Not Call Registry took effect. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times have a huge CHURN and burn rate. Find a new marketing vehicle for the print side and boom, you will increase circulation.
Fourth. Your new company has been outsourcing itself into oblivion:
Under what rationale can an inherently LOCAL business outsource its classified, advertising and delivery departments? Do you think any customer is happy talking to someone in India if their paper doesn’t show up Sunday morning? When it’s Dell, it kind of makes sense since the company is truly international. But if I live in the Los Angeles area, I want to talk to someone who at least knows where Santa Monica or the Valley is!
The same applies to ads. Can a nice young person in Bangalore catch a typo in a Beverly Hills store name? How many can spell Algonquin Road in Barrington Hills?
Tribune newspapers use some of the most peculiar and customized software you can find. Plus, workflows are unique to each site, despite the ongoing project to impose a huge central pagination system. How can outsourcing the help desk make any logical sense?
Fifth. You are messing around with more than just another business for financial gain:
- The discussion about newspapers being a public trust is not just empty scare-mongering. Can you imagine what Chicago would be like without newspapers revealing the goings-on of the political system here?
- Despite the Internet, newspapers have not been replaced or eclipsed. In fact, online news provides the backbone of the ongoing World Wide Conversation.
- Newspapers have been raping its employees financially for decades. Despite seemingly high salaries, profits are constantly being diverted to shareholders at the expense of pay raises and benefits. Salaries at smaller newspapers are so abysmal that the best and brightest minds go to law school rather than become journalists.
Essentially, journalists take abuse because, as I said earlier, they’re amazed they are being paid for a career they love. Putting their futures at risk in such a dramatic way means you are responsible for what happens to thousands of newspaper employees (and hundreds of friends.)
Sixth. Listen, listen, listen to anyone who knows anything about journalism. You need to learn, and learn fast.
You may think you understand journalism, but it takes years or even decades to truly understand what a newsroom is like and how it operates.
Seventh. There’s a little known trick to managing journalists: You need complete buy-in for any and all projects.
Have you ever wondered why newspapers are constantly trying new products only to have them fail? Usually, because some suit with bright eyes and no clue says, “Hey, let’s start a Cat Fashion insert.” Jaded editors will say sure, sure and then hope it will go away. With such enthusiasm for such projects, they usually DO go away.
Think I’m making this up? Look into the Los Angeles Times repeated attempts to start localized editions or other specialized tabs.
If you want projects to work, GET BUY-IN!
Eighth. Stop imposing Chicago’s will on the other newspaper managements:
Each newspaper has a deep understanding of its localities. Don’t TELL them how to cover a neighborhood. If you make a central decision, persuade your new mini-fiefdoms that this or that change is in their best interest rather then forcing them.
Then, GET BUY-IN!
Ninth. Bring some editorial management from the outlying papers into the Chicago planning machine.
Seriously, I don’t remember a single editorial person from Los Angeles going to the Chicago business/planning side. (I just know I’m going to be corrected on this one.) Even though there may be some reluctance among editorial members from leaving Los Angeles or Baltimore, essentially the former Times-Mirror papers are not represented in Chicago.
This has fomented resentment among all the former Times-Mirror newspapers. Besides, Chicago management went out of its way to piss off the folk in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Hartford and New York.
So no matter what you plan to do it’s time to stop that now. Unless of course you sell the Los Angeles Times to David Geffen, which brings about a whole new set of problems and another annoying post from me.
Also, bringing idea folk in from each big paper means more BUY-IN!
Tenth. Shoot for 100 percent transparent communications:
Let everyone know what’s happening before hand. Let them hear it from you lest you face the gossip machine of doom. If you don’t tell them what’s going on, they’ll find out anyway.
Eleventh. Boost morale by going to each paper and spending some real time with editors and staff:
Hold Q&As YOURSELF. Don’t send those insensitive bastards at Chicago Corporate. (I’ve had personal experience there.)
I’m sure if I had more time, I could come up with a dozen more suggestions. But since my general readership is composed of moms and dads rather than folks concerned about my old employer, I’ll beg off.
But know this, deep down I want to threaten you. I always will be serious about newspapers and their importance to society. And as I said, I have a lot of friends in the business.
But I’m not really the threatening type, nor do I have any real leverage. So the only thing I can come up with is this: If you muck up these newspapers, future generations of journalists will remember you much in the way the Chicago Tribune is remembered for “Dewey Defeats Truman” Succeed, or go down in the history books as the real estate tycoon that left a great big gaping hole in the Fourth Estate.
Got it, Sam?
(By the way, there are a LOT of happy Cub Fans out there.)
- Zell Wins Tribune Auction; Cubs to Be Sold, Chicago Tribune
- Reading Between the Lines at Tribune, Deal Journal Blog of Wall Street Journal Online
- Tribune Newsroom Staffers Ask: Who the Zell Is This?, Editor and Publisher
- O’Shea Endorses Zell Deal, Laobserved.com