Why newspapers make bad decisions

There are a hundred reasons why newspapers are in such poor shape. I’ve discussed some of them here and here: an outdated view of what’s news; an outdated view of readers; major inefficiencies in use of newsroom resources, as seen in the current roles of copy editors, reporters, and line editors. In a great post calling for a tax on newspapers that still publish stock tables, Craig Stoltz points to an often overlooked factor: newspapers seem to be institutionally clueless about how to plan for change. (Hat tip: Publishing 2.0.)

Stoltz argues that “There really isn’t a use case to justify continuing to publish daily stock tables.” There are plenty of other newspaper elements that are beyond justification, or at least deserve a rethinking — box scores and general sports agate, TV and movie listings, op-ed pages. Stoltz’s description of newspapers’ decision-making related to stock tables perfectly captures why other unjustifieds continue to take up space:

I have heard reasons for continuing to publish stock listings. They usually boil down to (1) the fear the paper would lose subscribers; (2) results of a focus group that found people liked the stock tables; (3) our publisher/editor emeritus/board of directors/influential stockholders insist we keep them.

No. 1: You’re hemmoraging readers anyway. The thought that a business decision with profound impact on the future bottom line should be driven by a couple of hundred indignant (let’s be plain) older readers who over-represent themselves with phone calls and (written!) letters to the publisher and top editors is. . . just plain bad business. Sure, you’ll get 200 calls. Accept them politely and forget them immediately. …

No. 2: Focus groups do not have to deal with zero-sum budgets. Focus groups like lots of stuff you can’t afford to keep. In fact, unless you give them a roster of features and tell them they have to lose half of them, you’re not gathering meaningful data. Secondly, doing focus groups with current readers isn’t a good idea anyway. Find potential future users of your news products online and in print. That’s who you have to re-build your business around.

No. 3: They are sentimental, retrograde, self-satisfied, isolated from reality or not paying attention. Do your best to make the case that the choice is another 10 percent staff cut or losing the stock tables. If they don’t buy that argument, do your best to subvert, ignore and marginalize them without getting fired.

This is what traditionally passes for strategic thinking at newspapers. So it’s no wonder that at a time when actually making imaginative, forward-thinking, potentially risky decisions is necessary for newspapers’ future, they are singularly unable to make or even consider those decisions.

Consider, for example, the recurring hand-wringing over comic strips. Something as basic as jettisoning outdated and unfunny strips becomes a perpetual exercise in self-flagellation based on a handful of readers who promise to revolt if the paper kills Family Circus. And if newspapers can’t intelligently and pro-actively decide that Marmaduke and stock tables have had their day, they probably can’t make intelligent higher-level decisions, either.

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3 responses to “Why newspapers make bad decisions

  1. Pingback: Notes from a Teacher: Mark on Media » Monday squibs

  2. Josh wrote: “There are plenty of other newspaper elements that are beyond justification, or at least deserve a rethinking — box scores and general sports agate, TV and movie listings, op-ed pages.”

    I’m with you on the stock tables (outdated in minutes). But the other elements, not so sure. As my students remind me, an awful lot of people (in raw numbers) don’t have fast Internet access or even home access at all. Those box scores and op-ed pages take a long time to load via dial-up. And one of the reasons I subscribe to print newspapers is to have the TV listings as a ready reference without having to go online yet again. The L.A. Times recently dropped its weekly TV guide section, and I’m seriously considering dropping my subscription because that was one of the most important resources it gave me that I couldn’t get online — a week’s worth of planning in one shot, whenever I wanted.

  3. “most important resources it gave me that I couldn’t get online — a week’s worth of planning in one shot”

    Uh, with TiVO, HULU.com, iTunes, podcasts, webcasts and other time and place shifting websites, the concept of needing “a week’s worth of planning in one shot” is not necessary.

    I get whatever media I require, text, audio and video, when I require it.

    No more “tyranny of the transmitter” telling me that I wasn’t in front of the tube at 8 PM on Wednesday the 4th so I missed whatever it was that the transmitter was spewing forth that day.

    The thing to realize about the RCA picture of “Nipper” listening to his “Master’s Voice” was that YOU were being treated like a poor, dumb son-of-a-bitch.

    I prefer to get my media online whenever I can deal with it.