You want a plan for the future? Go get the news business.
As CEO, you will be picking the people who run the institutions that fall under Tribune’s umbrella. Like a missionary, you must create converts to the news cause. You must explain to them that technology and change are not enemies, but opportunities.
You must develop a much deeper awareness of customers. It was a mistake to think of a customer as a shareholder. It was a mistake to think of success as increasing quarterly performance. It was a huge mistake to think of print as a near-dead medium (embracing the rhetoric of people whose own fortunes were connected to its failure) just as it was a huge mistake to think of the Internet and technology as enemies. The “either/or” model was just flat wrong. It’s time to transform thought about this.
You must start on two levels. One level is about customers and the second is about repairing damages of the recent past. The latter, which will be hard, costly, and painful, should come first.
Get Smaller Fast
There is no plausible reason anymore for Tribune to be running publications in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Florida, Pennsylvania, or anywhere but Chicago. The arguments about synergies and efficiency and gigantic advertising footprints have all collapsed. They were strategies that made sense in an era that ended a decade ago.
People in those places despise you. They cannot wait for you to fail. They wish you only ill. No one can be a worker focused on customers in that atmosphere. Their days will be consumed by rumors of cuts to come and resentments of cuts already accomplished.
Recall that when Tribune owned the New York Daily News (and there were historic reasons for that relationship that transcended shareholder value) the buzz in New York was that all of the Daily News profits were shipped to Chicago and dumped into Lake Michigan.
The atmosphere has changed so radically that an argument can be made that only local markets in advertising and news can help news companies return to stability for the long term.
What is certain is that Chicago can never care as much about Los Angeles, Baltimore, or anywhere else as it cares about itself. And caring about one’s self is a crucial component of success. All great news companies deserve local ownership.
In this process, avoid the creative debt nightmares that wrecked the company the last time around.
All of those decisions are “inside the Tower” decisions for Tribune. What comes next is not.
A New News Universe
Nothing changes all at once.
Readers will tell you when they no longer want a print product. Don’t rush them.
In this era in which we all anticipate living to, say, ninety-five years of age, an institution that has a readership that averages someplace in the forties or fifties could well have thirty to forty more years of loyalty to tap. A desperate rush to get teen and young readers now is unlikely to change anything. In my lifetime, I have not found more than a handful of people who read the newspaper regularly as teenagers. Not in any generation.
Of course, the younger generation will age. (OMG! No!) It may well mature into newspaper readership, or at least a part of it. This doesn’t warm the hearts of investment counselors, but then it doesn’t have to if you are no longer publicly held.
Meanwhile, you must demand that all of your customers be treated with respect, including people over fifty. People should not be viewed as declining assets. They are living customers, voting every day with their purchase of the paper. It is an important demographic. This number is easier to understand once you realize that the biggest magazine in America is the one produced by the AARP, the advocacy group for people over fifty, which has a circulation of 24.4 million.
Granted, newspaper circulation numbers have been falling for years, but there are decades left of potential business for print products. Writing print readers off now would be foolish. They are also your most solid revenue producers.
Newspaper readers tend to be traditional. They expect a complete package. Opening an array of foreign bureaus would be prohibitively expensive. Presenting creatively collected foreign news, from carefully selected stringers, wire services, and other publications would be efficient. The important part of the formula would involve thought, which gets back to the people who will report to you. No one should present an argument that readers who want something more complete should turn elsewhere. Don’t give people reasons to leave!
The ‘It’ Media in Chicago