Saturday, November 15, 2008

Six Months Is Too Long to Wait for Newspaper CEOs

Like millions of other people around the country this morning, I got up, made a cup of coffee, turned on my computer and hooked up to the Internet to check the news.

After reading about death threats against President-Elect Barack Obama, his mother-in-law's move to Washington and the most expensive cities to buy groceries, I turned to another topic of interest -- the newspaper industry's struggle to survive in the new media landscape.

I clicked on a story by Editor and Publisher about a summit for newspaper CEOs held by the American Press Institute. (Click here for summary of the event.) The topic of the conference was the saving the newspaper industry.

(Let's forget that the conference was closed -- although someone in the room was twittering about it, God love them. I'll come back to this later.)

Interesting points from the story include:

1. All but one of the public companies at the event "were below the safe range" for bankruptcy, according to James Shein, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

2. The group was told by Steve Miller, the executive chairman of auto-parts maker Delphi Corp, "Cutting staffs will reduce costs, but it won't happen fast enough, and will erode the product."

3. "The biggest hurdles to progress [is] the industry's senior leadership, including some people in this room," Shein said. "I am not sure you can take a look at your industry with fresh eyes."

4. The group plans to meet again in six months to talk about the problems.

So here's my question: If an expert in business turnarounds walked into your office today and told you that your company was in financial trouble and your effort to cut costs by cutting staff was eroding your product's quality and you -- as the top dog -- were part of the problem because you're doing the same old, same old and it isn't working, would you wait six more months to talk about it again?

No, you wouldn't.

But that's what the group of newspaper CEOs plans to do. In all fairness, the executives who attended did get some homework for the next class. The list includes:

1. Act -- and think -- like an entrepreneur.
2. Create new initiatives and kill them quickly if they fail.
3. Don't wait for all the data. Take action.
4. Downsize to achieve larger goals, not as a cost-cutting tool.
5. Leverage core competencies into new areas.
6. Be honest with workers. Get ideas from them.
7. Don't whine. Inspire.
8. Bring in experts with a different view to see if they can help.
9. Leverage your brand.

It's a good list, to be sure. Given the number of journalists who have lost their jobs in the last year, (Journalists whose personal stories I haven't read because no one wants to write about their own industry's toubles), I especially like item number four. As the crisis worsens, companies keep resorting to cutting staff and quality with no real long-term solutions.

In addition, I'm keen on number six, although I must say it's kind of hard to get ideas from the front lines if 1. The meetings are closed. 2. The folks sitting in those meetings are the same ones who failed to see the changing market conditions that have now devastated our newsrooms.

Most importantly, I think a good dose of number eight might heal what ails us. If we can use crowd sourcing to examine how Cape Coral, Fla., financed the expansion of its water and sewer project, (costing $20,000 or more to some of us who lived there) I'm pretty sure we could find experts in other fields who would be interested in helping save The Fourth Estate for our children.

At least I hope we can.

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