A Reprieve, For Now

The Boston Globe will live another day. But can a 8.3% wage cut, a halt to 401(k) and pension contributions and looming layoffs be called good news? (As a sidenote, the lifetime job guarantees were ridiculous and I am glad to see them go; Wow, the union was really willing to sacrifice 2/3 of its membership for an outmoded perk enjoyed by just 1/3 of its base? I was also astonished to learn that the lifetime job guarantees were actually a concession the union made in 1994 in return for giving up a no-layoffs promise.)

So now we enter this interim, eerie period of calm before the storm, where we’ve taken lashes from the outer bands and are now in the quiet of the eye, while the real damage is yet to come. Layoffs seem inevitable, and while a sale seems likely, suitors are in short supply. The Guild will meet tonight to begin the ratification process, which could be contentious. I can only imagine the morale at Morrissey Boulevard.

Now, the Globe’s problems are not unique. Just yesterday, the Chicago Tribune union accepted a 9% pay cut. So, let’s look at the bigger picture, where there’s a long way to go. Just yesterday, Sen. John “It’s not just about the Globe” Kerry presided over a hearing at the subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, attended by a mix of leaders from the print and online media fields. If their testimony is any indication, the sides are still far apart when it comes to understanding what’s at stake and what the solutions are. The publisher of the Dallas Morning News essentially wants royalties from companies like Google that aggregate online news, and as “The Wire” and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon put it, “The parasite is slowly killing the host.”

Please. If those are the points of view we’re trafficking in, than we’re a lot further from a solution that I thought. The newspaper industry can’t be writing off the value of bloggers and citizen journalism because it is scared of what those innovations may represent. It’s time to play catch-up. Newspapers need to swallow their pride and roll with the punches, adapt and thrive, rather than clinging to an outdated model. 

When Google VP Marissa Mayer testified on the value of services like Google News in driving traffic to newspaper sites, Kerry mentioned that online advertising revenues are not adequate to support a robust editing and reporting operation.

Mayer replied, “It’s still very early.” Kerry shook his head slightly. “It’s not early,” he said, for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and other newspapers that have stopped the presses.

Here’s what’s interesting about that exchange. Mayer has it right, on a long-term scale. The internet is still very young; we cannot possibly conceive of the way we will be interacting and browsing information ten years from now, much less how it will be monetized. Kerry’s sad shake of his craggy old head reflects the craggy old perspective of the newspaper industry he is holding hearings trying to save. It’s too late, yes, for papers like the Rocky Mountain News and the Post-Intelligencer, but it’s not like they didn’t have a chance. As purveyors of information, they conceivably should have been at the forefront of changes in that field. But that’s what happens when you get too closely tethered to a medium; you forget to innovate, to keep your eye on the horizon. I only hope that the information industry has learned its lesson and will have one ear to the ground going forward.

The exciting thing about this time period is that the ideas are flying. Turn newspapers into nonprofit institutions. Decentralize news-gathering structures. Paid content, no paid content. Go to the Kindle. Reduce print frequency.Focus on contextual storytelling (this article is a must-read, btw). Change pricing systems. Online first, online only. For the past few years, those immersed in these issues have already been holding a healthy debate about how to save the newspaper industry, but now that debate is starting to become more public. And that’s only going to make the debate more lively and more productive. And newspapers need to be a part of it — from stodgy executives to interns to columnists to beat reporters.

To that end, here are some interesting points of view I’ve come across in the past couple of days:

  • A blog for a UK-based communications firm covered a talk by Emily Bell, head of digital content for Guardian News and Media, on the topic of Journalism Ten Years From Now. Bell’s insights really resonated with me. She sees a value to the print medium, though not as the dominant conduit for news. The industry, she says, will need to start taking a more audience-based approach to how it disseminates its product, become less centralized and less top-down and more open and networked — just like the internet, where bloggers, Twitterers and other trusted power users are the new gatekeepers, and tools like RSS allow us to digest our news a la carte
  • Going back to the Globe, one of the biggest challenges (which Dan Kennedy appropriately points out) is how to stay afloat while you’re sinking — rather, how to remain a relevant journalistic organization while hemorrhaging talent and resources left and right? It’s a good, and very important, question.
  • Kennedy links to a blog I had not read before, George Snell’s High Talk, where Snell lays out some really great observations on things the Globe needs to do next: pow-wow with the new media braintrust, focus on news, rebuild relationships both internally and with its readership and, for the love of God, come up with a plan for the future! I’ve thought many of the same things.  All of this restructuring, purging and (in all likelihood) selling will be for naught unless the paper comes up with a plan to innovate, focus and grow.

So, yes, the Globe gets a reprieve, but I feel like the battle between the paper and the union is really just a skirmish in the Globe‘s larger war for its own survival.

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