Monday, November 9, 2009

The Definition of Insanity

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Albert Einstein

Professor Einstein never worked for a newspaper. At least, I don't think he did.

But, even if he didn't, I have little doubt that he would have seen the newspaper industry as the embodiment of his observation.

I offer, as Exhibit A, a memo (complete with copy editor's marks and comments) that has been making the rounds at the Toronto Star.

On one hand, I find it amusing because this memo is one long example of just about everything they warned us against when I was studying journalism in school — starting with a bloated, neutral language that snakes its way around the facts without ever really acknowledging them. The publisher is basically saying that the newspaper is losing money so the paper is going to slash its staff and cut back on what it produces (in more ways than one). The newspaper is going to eliminate those on the payroll who are trained and experienced in order to replace them with untrained and inexperienced people who will work for less.

It's a decision that is made by bean counters when it should be made by wordsmiths.

On the other hand, I find this depressing because it is symptomatic of the kinds of self–defeating decisions that newspaper publishers have had to make in recent years. Just about anywhere you go in America today, the local newspaper (if there is one) is considerably smaller than it was a few years ago. There are fewer people in the newsroom with the training and the experience that the work requires.

Today's newspapers are streamlined operations. On the surface, it would appear that the publishers have made the tough but sound business decisions they had to make to survive. But the newspaper business is not like other businesses. You can't cut corners like that with a product like a newspaper and reasonably expect most people to pay the same price for less.

But publishers can't understand why they're losing readers.

The original mistake that newspapers made was failing to recognize the potential of the internet and construct a business model that would succeed in a digital age. Newspapers had to act quickly, though, to take advantage of the initial opportunity, and few had business managers who were that nimble on their feet.

Anyway, that window of opportunity slammed shut fairly quickly. And now that the internet is clearly here to stay, some newspapers are repeating what has been shown to be an unsuccessful strategy for newspapers — charging people for access to their content.

At some point, newspaper management will realize that internet consumers have many sources for news and information that are available to them for no additional cost. Unless a newspaper has this generation's H.L. Mencken or Red Smith on staff, there will be no compelling reason for most readers to fork over whatever is being charged. Most internet subscribers will gravitate to the free sources for news and sports scores.

Actually, small–town newspapers may be in a better position to profit online. A small–town newspaper is more likely to be the only source for articles on the latest local school board or city council meeting. With more local radio stations establishing an online presence, that may change in many small towns.

But many of the radio stations in metropolitan areas are online now, and they already are competing with the metro newspapers for local news. Consequently, there isn't much unique content that big–city newspapers can offer.

But reducing the quality of the product just makes it easier for many subscribers to conclude that it is a product they can live without.

I firmly believe that newspapers must offer a product that readers are convinced they must have if they are to survive. That won't be accomplished through slick advertising campaigns or offering less for the same price.

But no one has devised a business model for newspapers that will succeed in the digital world — so most newspapers insist on duplicating the mistakes others made before them.

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The definition of insanity.

Courtesy of the newspaper business.

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