NYT’s Carr Finds Something New to Say about Oprah

The New York Times’s David Carr has a very smart column this morning analyzing Oprah Winfrey’s massive, sustained business success.

Which, let’s face it, is a topic that has drained a few ink barrels over the last couple of decades. You’d think there would be nothing left to say on this and that Carr would just hack out an elegy column and move on.

Instead of looking at her obvious successes, Carr looked at what’s all too often ignored, both by the media writers and by media moguls: the white space she never filled in. In other words, what you don’t do is as important as what you stretch your company to do. I’ll quote at length:

She never took her company public, which meant that she remained in control of both her operation and her destiny (see Martha Stewart).

She never christened her own book imprint even though she created best sellers with the flick of the wrist (see Miramax/Talk).

She never stuck her name, a very powerful brand, on any merchandise (see Martha again, along with a host of chefs and athletes).

She did not license her name to a magazine, she built one in her own image and tweaked it until it became a big publishing success (see Donald Trump, et al).

She never engaged in behavior that tarnished the luster of her name. (Martha again, plus David Letterman).

She also never made big deals just for the sake of synergy (AOL-Time Warner), never got addicted to doing deals (see Barry Diller), never made dubious investments that put a strain on her core business (Sumner Redstone and Midway), never let in-house corporate politics boil into public view (Michael Eisner). And, while building a murderer’s row of daytime programming including shows with Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray and Dr. Oz, she never got involved in businesses she didn’t understand (Edgar Bronfman, Jean-Marie Messier and, well, just about everybody else in the media world).

And now we can add that she never hung on past her prime, choosing to go out as a talk show host while her program was still on top.

In other words, she didn’t try to wring every drop out of the lemon. Or, to put it in old-fashioned terms, whether or not she understood that this was helpful to her business prospects, she didn’t sell out for the quick buck. She held on to her integrity and her audience’s trust, which is what sustains long-term enterprises. Oprah didn’t screw her customers.

Talk about something everybody in C-suites across the land needs to read. Long-termism over short-termism. Problem is, American public companies just aren’t set up like that. It’s no accident that Oprah never went public, and Carr does well to put that first in his list of things she didn’t do. Had she done that, all the other bad stuff would have followed.

Carr wins half a chit for admitting being wrong about questioning her decision two years ago to endorse Barack Obama, self-deprecatingly calling himself “a hack media columnist” for doing so. Would that more of us in the press were so willing to call ourselves out for past miscalls.

But I’ll bet you many readers didn’t catch that Carr was talking about himself. The Times doesn’t help by not linking to the column in question. It should have. So here you go.

That doesn’t take away from this column, though, which is the opposite of low-hanging fruit. No hacking here.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.