Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rearranging the deck chairs at API

The 50-odd newspaper moguls (or their stand-ins) who are packing their bags for tomorrow's "API Summit on Saving an Industry in Crisis" are, of course, checking their RSS feeds to see what the blogosphere buzz is about the event, and about the industry's tribulations.

Or perhaps not. So, in case they missed anything, here are various takes on the closed-door Reston confab:
  • Jeff Jarvis's screed at Buzzmachine: "The last thing newspapers need." ("Closed-door is exactly wrong. What they should be doing is asking for help, ideas, perspectives, models, worldviews, and suggestions from outside their industry.")
  • Steve Outing: "Why newspapers are likely to die as we know them." ("Is there still time for newspaper industry leaders to make necessary course corrections? Is the industry just waiting for the “catastrophic event” that will force an abrupt transformation to stave off extinction?")
  • Robert MacMillan at Reuters Blogs: "When the going gets tough, newspapers clam up." ("Many sources whom we deal with in the media world — particularly reporters, editors and other members of the editorial staff — find it funny that the industry they’re in (finding and reporting information, truthsquadding the government, holding the powerful accountable, etc. etc.) relies on publishers and other executives who are among the most press-averse people in the business world.")
  • Tim Windsor at Zero Percent Idle: "Saving newspapers from the scrap heap: a plan." (Tim suggests something I've been talking about here: a hybrid "print-online model"—I'd make that "online-print," just to put the emphasis where it belongs—and he provides some detail.)
And, of course, before gathering, they will have thoroughly digested the available output of several recent conferences on the future of journalism and new business models for news. These include:
As well, they could find out (hopefully, we will, too) what was figured out at another closed-door conference held Monday and Tuesday of this week at Poynter, called "Who will pay for the news." (There are some thoughts on this subject on the blog of Poyter's Ellyn Angelotti, but nothing on Poynter's site about the conference, which was sponsored by the Ford Foundation.)

Were we to be flies on the wall tomorrow at API, I bet we'd hear at least one exec making the case that print is not yet dead by pointing at the one-day spike in newspaper sales on November 5, as Obamamaniacs snapped up the historic editions as keepsakes. Newsosaur Alan Mutter writes about this phenomenon: "The mad rush among consumers to buy the historic editions proclaiming the Obama presidency is at once a validation of the power of newspapers and a reminder of what ails them." He goes on to suggest: "Newspapers need to get off their haunches, boldly pick their shots, and then rip the lids off their respective towns, turning themselves once again into confident and thundering voices delivering coverage that compels attention and delivers results."

Now, with all due respect to Alan, who I believe is even more of a geezer than I am, newspapers can do that, but it will not create a boom in sales, because it will not change the demographic fact that the average newspaper reader is closing in on 60 years of age, which as I've laid out in some detail, is not a model for a sustainable business. People were buying those November 5 papers as souvenirs, not to read any "thundering" prose. They already knew who won the election. News enterprises need to do their thundering online, first and foremost, if they want to survive.

The moguls need to realize this. They need to digest the lessons of disruptive technology outlined in their own NewspaperNext project. If they watch Michael Rosenblum's video, linked above, they will hear him tell of the whaling captains of New Bedford, America's most prosperous town in 1795. When petroleum was discovered in Titusville, Penn. in 1859, these gents failed to understand the disruptive nature of the new technology, nor the great opportunity it presented. For the less historically inclined, within our own lifetimes there are plenty of examples, from the passenger railroad to the typewriter, of once-thriving businesses that failed to re-invent themselves (and very few that succeeded).

They also need to realize the clock has run out and we're in triple overtime. Newspapers are shutting their doors. Yet, the summit's agenda includes this item: "Strategies for reversing the decline." Forget the declines. We'll be seeing more shutdowns; it's a necessary and irreversible process. We've talked about strategies for reversing the decline for 30 years, and they have brought us where we are. What needs to be applied, instead, are the strategies, already developed, already clear, for creating new news enterprises.

Thankfully though, the execs won't have to pay much to show up, since API has a grant from the McCormick Foundation covering "virtually all expenses to attend the summit conference," including hotel, meals and "up to $500 reimbursement for travel costs." (Too bad private jets cost about that much every 15 minutes while flying.) Hopefully there will be a few bucks left over to publish a report summarizing the conference, or better yet, video.

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