Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Nothing like a punch in the face to focus the mind

Denver, Seattle, Tucson, Detroit, San Diego. Yesterday, it was our turn in Portland. Pay cuts of 5-10% for everyone on staff (15% for the three most senior execs), four furlough days and the freezing of our traditional defined-benefit pension plan.

Worse than the announcement itself was the sense of fear and desperation it seemed to unleash through the ranks. What if the advertisers don't ever come back? What if we never get control of our digital destiny? What if it really is the beginning of the end, as the gloating MSM naysayers have been predicting?

And a deep and abiding sense of anger, of course, that the owners and managers of the company didn't see this coming and somehow head it off.

There is a best-case scenario: All that fear and loathing manifests itself as motivation to innovate quickly and comprehensively. At some level, that's already playing out. The number of unsolicited suggestions I've received in the past 24 hours about ways to generate new revenue exceeds what came my way in the past two or three months. That's certainly a good start. Let's turn all these smart and creative minds at least partially to the problem of reinventing the newsroom and the news business for the next generation.

But now comes the hard part, which is a lot of nibbling around the edges, trying things that don't work out and otherwise innovating in place. It would be so much easier if one great idea could fix everything. If we could wake up one morning, see the brilliance of some new business model or form of distribution, and laugh about how scary it was there for a while. Not gonna happen, folks. At least not anytime soon.

So we're left with dozens or hundreds of small changes we have to give a shot. We have a window of opportunity -- while we're still receiving quite a bit of print revenue -- to reinvest in myriad other forms of (mostly digital) distribution. To experiment. To learn. We should be thinking like pharmaceutical companies, in that we need to have a whole bunch of projects in the pipeline at any given time. The more the better. Most won't work out, but that's fine. We'll learn, adjust and try again. At least a handful do need to work out, some of them in fairly significant ways.

Twitter, Kindle, RSS feeds, e-editions, Facebook, micropayments, other forms of for-pay content, online stores, creative use of digital archives, CDs and DVDs, speakers' bureaus, TV and/or radio stations, reader participation and interaction, visual storytelling, documentary film, niche publications, wholesale blogging, entirely new lines of business, etc. There are no wrong suggestions at this point. Only a lack of vision and willpower that is as much of a threat to our future as any external force. Eventually, if we're lucky, some of it will begin to coalesce into a new business model.

So, colleagues here and elsewhere, I feel your frustration. But don't look askance at the small innovations that come down the tube. Embrace them and offer more ideas like them. Because it's the little things, not the one great idea, that may ultimately save us all.

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