Redefining policy—as one is wont to do when suffering an existential crisis—starts with asking the right questions. An alcoholic, for instance, who asks himself, “Does alcohol have a problem with me?” probably isn’t going to get the help he needs. Ditto journalists.
We’ve been asking ourselves the wrong question about the future of our industry for years now. It’s not “How do journalists fix their business?” It’s “How does business fix journalism?” This is a question of revenue, after all—“How do you give away a product for free and yet turn a profit?”—and a question of revenue is the purview of the men who install marble fire places on their yachts, not the ones trying to get another 20,000 miles out of their Subarus.
If this were simply a matter of hemorrhaging readers, then the policy would be simple: “Everyone, fire your editors.” But it’s not. We have readers. Tons and tons of ‘em. They may not like to pay for what they get, but there are a lot of them getting it nonetheless. No, what we need now is wholesale change, and that means we stop convincing ourselves that the familiar levers that a Katharine Graham or a Henry Luce could pull to right the ship still apply. Rather, we need to let radical change, in the form of a Sam Zell or Rupert Murdoch, take a swing at things (full disclosure: I worked for six months at Murdoch’s Dow Jones Newswires, with two of those months during the old regime, but I’m far from qualified to give an insider’s perspective).
Now, I know we don’t like hearing those two names—in fact, “loathe” may be a more apt word—but those are the kinds of people the industry needs to start attracting, people whose money gives them clout, if we’re to replace or complement the old economic formula with something new. If you’re an industry player (and if you’re in journalism, you certainly like to think you are), the job now isn’t so much attracting readers, per se, it’s attracting money men willing to bet—and bet big—on the industry.
Unfortunately, Wall Street is mostly missing from this debate. The reason is simple and rather self-fulfilling: if you have money, you want to make sure that you continue to have money. Probably the best thing a Wall Street analyst would have to say about the newspaper industry is that it’s so well-spoken. Zell, salty language and all, is the true exception among financial types, Murdoch having bought himself a financial news company (big surprise). What Zell sees in us I haven’t the foggiest, but if the industry is to get back on its feet, more Wall Street players need to be persuaded that the difference between a “fixer-upper” and a “crack house” is the neighborhood. And one way we do that is to talk shop about how solid are the fundamentals of our neighborhood:
—This isn’t an industry that suffers bubbles, like some we could mention.
—While the profit margins that await the conquering hero will be slimmer than in some industries, they will be steady and they will be predictable.
—We’ve got something that Wall Street likes in its investments: cash flow. The money that publications earn is typically up front; no one buys a paper on credit and no one extends credit to an advertiser who can’t document how he’s going to pay.
—Foreign competition isn’t the issue that it is in most other industries; if anything, it’s more in spirit than substance.
—We reach every demographic every day, and a steak dinner to the executive from another industry who can honestly say the same.
—It also might be worth pointing out that ours is the one industry that won’t suffer government regulation, even when it makes colossal mistakes.
—And if all that fails, appeal to their vanity: H.L. Hunt may have been the richest man in America in 1941, but Orson Welles made “Citizen Kane” about William Randolph Hearst.