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Don’t Cry For The Newspapers (You’re Next)

I love reading newspapers. I always admired local writers who could really bring life to a story of importance to the community. I enjoyed following local sports beats. And this is coming from someone who never really thought he could write on a regular basis. I just enjoyed the feel of newsprint on my fingers.

Until about two years ago, there was always a newspaper in my house. I could recite them all for you: The Reflector, The Columbian (I also delivered for them), Capital Press, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Wall Street Journal and The Oregonian. So why did I stop? The amount of interesting local content started to wane and more syndicated content started hitting the pages. Syndicated content is content I could find elsewhere on the web. My parents wanted to go down to Sunday only service because of the same complaints but the newspaper said they didn’t deliver Sunday only papers anymore. They pulled the plug on the entire service and now pick up a paper once every couple of weeks.

So when Jaclyn Schiff posted a link to the next ten newspapers that will die or go online only, you couldn’t have been surprised. We’ve been hearing about the demise of the printed newspaper for a long time and we’ve had a slow bleed of good journalists abandoning ship (or the ones who stay getting overworked/underpaid and sapping out all of their creative energy). Only now, we are seeing newspapers collapse instead of just degrading quality and multiple employee buyouts.

A ton of people are celebrating their demise and banging on newspapers for mismanaging or getting egotistical and a bunch of other people are waxing intellectual about how the demise of newspapers also signal the end of democracy and/or the world.

There is a serious business lesson here though that gets missed in the fight about whether newspapers are still relevant or not. The way newspapers have dealt with the commoditization of information has impacted their health more than anything else. Up until a few years, you couldn’t view anything on the NY Times without a login. Websites were launched specifically get around this requirement (most notably bugmenot.com). Yet, even after realizing that a subset of their users were being prevented from viewing content (and thus advertisements), they stubbornly trudged on their decided path.

In most cases, newspaper media has been behind even other subsets of traditional media. They figured they had survived radio and TV, why would the internet be any different? That is becoming frighteningly apparent to newspapers: TV, radio and newspapers all still control the content and their reach is inherently limited. On the internet, there is no control and the reach is limitless. I don’t need to subscribe to a newspaper or watch TV to get the story, there are multiple sources covering every story. If a newspaper uses the AP, I can get that story from Google News. I can also get commentary from bloggers. I can also get breaking news from twitter. Why subscribe to The Oregonian for Portland Trail Blazers coverage when some other sites do as good of job (if not better) of covering the team (check out Blazers Edge as an example)?

Of course, the funny part that isn’t written about are how some of the fiercest critics of newspapers are suffering some of the same problems. The industrial complex (car manufacturers in particular) and the financial industry are having their share of problems aren’t they? Like the guy on the sinking lifeboat laughing about the guy in the water struggling to stay afloat. It is only a matter of time.

I don’t want to ignore the HR implication here: from what I hear, HR has a tough time in a newspaper environment. Long hours for underpaid people means you get a poor quality product. Poor quality products don’t get sold as well, revenues go down and you’re trying to do more. Certainly the exodus of good newspaper reporters and editors to other media outlets or retirement means doing more with less. The management of talent in the face of crisis has been abysmal and there are lessons to be learned there as well.

Not to absolve HR but newspapers face much bigger hurdles than leashed HR departments. It is a major identity crisis and a issue of finding a profitable business model. But while we all point fingers and discuss how newspapers will dig themselves out, our own houses of cards are collapsing behind us. Will we be the ones surprised by the same lessons that are taking down newspapers or are we going to take that failure as a lesson for our own businesses?

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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