Boston Globe editor: Newspapers are badly bruised, but not beaten

Boston Globe editor Martin Baron was asked to speak at the New England Associated Press News Executives Association conference and “cheer these people up.”

“While I may not have you dancing in the streets of Worcester when we’re done,” he said last Friday, “my hope is that you won’t be drowning in your sorrows when the alcohol begins to flow this evening.”

We’ve survived a lot. We are badly bruised. But we are not beaten.

And, though we have missed opportunities, made boneheaded moves, and moved far too slowly, we should draw some measure of satisfaction from having withstood such fearsome upheaval in our industry.

While there is absolutely no reason to be comfortable or complacent, there is also no reason to lose confidence in our capacity to survive — and even eventually to prosper.

He told the editors that “the worst thing we can do is do nothing at all” and that if there are answers to newspapers’ problems, “they will be found in our doing many things.”

It is unquestionably true that we cannot fully succeed unless we understand the change that has enveloped our business. Not just understand it, but adapt to it – and embrace it, and seize on the remarkable opportunities before us.

The full text of Baron’s speech is after the jump

Boston Globe editor Martin Baron’s speech to the New England Associated Press News Executives Association, September 14, 2012

Thank you for inviting me to be with you today.

Andi Esposito contacted me some months back about giving this keynote, and it came with an assignment:

Cheer these people up.

There are enough people here who will remember “Mission Impossible” – and the precise words of the recording that delivered the assignment to Peter Graves:

“Your mission should you choose to accept it.”

Had I been wiser when I was a kid, I might have advised: Just say no.

But here I am, having said to Andi’s difficult assignment, “Sure, why not?”

While I may not have you dancing in the streets of Worcester when we’re done, my hope is that you won’t be drowning in your sorrows when the alcohol begins to flow this evening.

That’s within the hour, by the way.

So let me start with a story about Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, a visionary by any measure.

More than two decades ago, while I was a senior editor at The Los Angeles Times, our editor hosted a lunch for Ted Turner in one of the elegant dining rooms at Times Mirror Square, what was once headquarters for a proud, sprawling, muscular, and highly profitable media empire.

There was the usual refined food service, something that is now a distant, even hilarious memory.

But the most interesting dish was served up by Turner himself — and it was enough to ruin a newspaper journalist’s appetite.

L.A. Times editor Shelby Coffey was being a typically gracious host when Turner blurted out — in typically blunt fashion — “In 10 years, you’ll be out of business.”

By Turner’s figuring, this would happen because he was going to make it happen. With his 24-hour cable news channel.

With news available 24 hours a day, who would need newspapers? The end was near.

Happily, our industry and our profession survived 24-hour cable news. There were even years when we thrived, though memories may fail us. And notwithstanding all that has happened since, we are still here.

We’re still doing good work. We’re still a major force in the media ecosystem. We’re still setting the news agenda for our communities.

So, a few lessons from that pronouncement from Ted Turner:

• Not all visionaries have perfect vision on all things.
• The more dire, more provocative the forecast, the more profound it sounds. And yet that makes it no more likely to be true.
• Our industry is more resilient than people think. More resilient than even we often think.

It’s worth pausing for a moment — remembering what we’ve gone through – remembering just how dramatic and disruptive the forces we’ve faced have been. And just how recent.

What changed everything for us?

Well, we know it wasn’t 24-hour cable news.

It was high-speed broadband. And that only became pervasive in the middle of the last decade — 2004, 2005. It allowed super-fast Internet connections. It allowed photos to load fast and allowed instant viewing of videos — and perhaps most urgently today, it allows mobile connection to the web.

Look what happened. And look how fast:

• Google wasn’t founded until 1998 and didn’t go public until 2004. Google News didn’t come out of beta until 2006.
• MySpace, now mostly forgotten or ignored but a phenomenon in its time, was only founded in 2003.
• Facebook was founded in 2004. Now it has almost a billion users.
• Flickr was founded in 2004.
• YouTube was founded in 2005. Now 48 hours of video are uploaded every minute, 8 years of content every day. Users number in the hundreds of millions.
• Twitter was founded in 2006. Now Twitter reports more than 140 million users and 340 million Tweets per day.
• Kindle was introduced in 2007.
• Apple introduced the iPhone in June, 2007. Now, it has been noted, more iPhones are sold every day worldwide than there are babies born.
• The iPad was introduced in January, 2010. As of the end of the first quarter, 67 million iPads had already been sold.

By now, you’re thinking to yourselves, “I thought this guy was supposed to cheer me up.”

Here’s my point: We’ve survived a lot. We are badly bruised. But we are not beaten.

And, though we have missed opportunities, made boneheaded moves, and moved far too slowly, we should draw some measure of satisfaction from having withstood such fearsome upheaval in our industry.

While there is absolutely no reason to be comfortable or complacent, there is also no reason to lose confidence in our capacity to survive — and even eventually to prosper.

You know, Dr. Bernard Lown, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, once said something that should offer some perspective. He was a founder of International Physicians for Peace. He lives in Newton, by the way. In his advocacy of a continued moratorium on nuclear testing, he said, “Only those who see the invisible can do the impossible.”

The point is this: The seemingly impossible is possible. And what today is not visible can be imagined … can be found … and can give us purpose.

Our industry’s challenge is, by any measure, more modest than the threat Bernard Lown took on. And it’s worth remembering that, in the annals of business history, what our industry is experiencing is not unusual.

In his book “Managing in Turbulent Times,” the late management theorist Peter Drucker reminded readers of the frenetic pace of technological change in the 60 years between 1856 and World War I.

Like this: the first synthetic dye, the design of the first working dynamo (that is, an electric generator that could deliver power for industry); the design of the first working typewriter; the first powered flight of the Wright Brothers; and the introduction of symbolic logic, which, as he said, “provided the basic concepts for electronics and data processing, including the very concept of ‘data.’ ”

“During that sixty-year period,” Drucker wrote, “a new invention, leading almost immediately to a new industry, was made on average every 14 to 18 months.”

So, what’s happening to us is not all that special.

We should not feel especially aggrieved. Or especially put-upon. Or even especially troubled in the broad context of business history.

And yet here’s something else that isn’t special: There is nothing special any longer to protect our industry. Ours is now more like all others. What gave rise to our industry, the printing press, also once shielded us from competitors. No longer.

New technology makes the printing press, if not obsolete, largely irrelevant to our current condition. And we now face competition – for readers, for advertisers, for people’s attention and time – like never before.

Our industry and our profession are having to learn what really vigorous competition is all about. And it’s a lot tougher than what some of us remember: two, three, or even four newspapers battling it out in a single marketplace. That was nothing compared to today.

We should not count on it getting any easier. It won’t. Because…

…the pace at which we’re becoming a digital society is accelerating…

…information is going to become fully mobile, and the economics of mobile are even more uncertain than what we’ve seen to date with the web…

…all media will converge, with newspapers providing live video and audio, and radio and television providing text stories, and all of these appearing on the same screens, large or small, mobile or fixed…

…the way stories are told will defy conventional models, with blends of video, audio, text, graphics, data visualizations, all interacting in ways that have yet to be imagined…

…the public will continue to be not just a consumer of news and information, but also a provider – and a participant – to friends and colleagues and to the public at large, through an expanding array of social media tools…complicating and clouding the role of intermediaries like all of us…

…our field will become more competitive, and – just as economic theory would predict – profit margins will be squeezed, financial pressures will intensify.

If there are pressures, there are also opportunities.

Our survival to date despite an onslaught of technological change indicates we have considerable strengths, more than many might have thought.

But survival is one thing. Stability is another. And prosperity still another. We have a lot of work ahead of us if we are to achieve, first, stability, and next, prosperity.

The only path to stability and prosperity will be through innovation, with no allowance for delay.

The challenge was framed well last month by a Google executive, Richard Gingras, the company’s director of news and social products, when he spoke to journalism educators.
“We owe it to ourselves,” he said. “We owe it to the importance of our journalist mission to consider and reconsider all options, all opportunities for positive change.
“Frankly,” he said, “that re-thinking, that re-creation will happen whether we want it to or not. It will happen because young innovators and entrepreneurs will approach these opportunities with no baggage, no old models to protect.”

Last fall, the Globe announced its new strategy – two brands, two websites: One new, BostonGlobe.com, that is subscription-based and uses the latest technology of responsive design; the other, the free site, Boston.com, which would be further developed as a site that seeks to facilitate community and commerce while providing a breaking-news report. And then a series of products introduced under each brand.

Shortly after that announcement, one of the more crusty colleagues in our newsroom came into my office. He wanted to share his reaction. And somewhat to my surprise, he was pleased. Sounded pretty good, he said.

“But,” he added, “can you guarantee this is going to succeed?”

“Well,” I said, “no, I can’t. But if you have something YOU can guarantee will succeed, this would be a good time to mention it.”

The truth is there are no guarantees in our business, and we should stop looking for them — just as we should stop looking for silver bullets that will quote, unquote “save journalism.”

There will be no one thing. If there are answers, and I believe there are, they will be found in our doing many things.

We are in a period of ferocious experimentation and exploration in media — by consumers, by advertisers, and necessarily by news organizations like ours.

The worst thing we can do is do nothing at all. We know for sure where that will lead us. And it is nowhere good.

So we have to act. And we cannot let fear — fear of criticism, fear of the unknown, or even failure itself — stop us. If an initiative falls short of expectations, there is only one appropriate response: Try something else. Learn from your experience, and put those lessons to work.

Some of America’s greatest business success stories didn’t start out with a grand plan perfectly executed. Strategies evolved, the product of missteps, unexpected problems, and opportunities stumbled upon.

Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who has famously focused his research and writing on disruptive technologies, cites some examples in his most recent book.

Among them: Walmart.

Here’s what he wrote:

“Many people think of Sam Walton, the legendary founder of Walmart, as a visionary. They assume he founded his company with a plan to change the world of retailing. But that’s not what really happened.

“Walton originally intended to build his second store in Memphis, thinking that a larger city could support a larger store. But he ended up opting for the much smaller town of Bentonville, Arkansas – for two reasons. Legend has it, his wife said in no uncertain terms that she would not move to Memphis. He also recognized that having his second store near his first would allow him to share shipments and deliveries more easily, and take advantage of other logistical efficiencies. That, ultimately, taught Walton the brilliant strategy of opening his large stores only in small towns – thereby preempting competition from other discount retailers.

“This wasn’t how he imagined his business in the beginning. His strategy emerged.”

Christensen makes this point: “Strategy is not a discrete analytical event – something decided, say, in a meeting of top managers based on the best numbers and analysis available at the time. Rather, it is a continuous, diverse, and unruly process.”

And he adds: “What we can learn from how companies develop strategy is that although it is hard to get it right at first, success doesn’t rely on this. Instead, it hinges on continuing to experiment until you do find an approach that works. Only a lucky few companies start off with the strategy that ultimately leads to success.”

So we as an industry should not be discouraged by our own missteps, by miscalculations, by obstacles, or even by failures. The point is to try, and to learn, and to try again, with newly acquired knowledge.

As we do this, we will encounter naysayers, some of them pundits in our own profession. Some will take pleasure picking at scabs that result from our hard labor, from noting that new strategies didn’t make our problems instantly disappear.

And our response should be: No, they didn’t. No, they won’t. And, no, we’re not embarrassed by that. Experimenting is the only route to success. And, like experiments in the lab, they don’t all succeed.

Or perhaps we just need time to observe and adjust, time to tinker. But these experiments are necessary in the search for answers. And if we are stymied or stumped along the way, there will also be encouraging signs and ah-ha moments that yield clues to what we should do next.

Also necessary is patience and an eye on the long run. Christensen inveighs against a bias toward “immediate gratification” in new endeavors, listing it among the “root causes of business disasters.”

Peter Drucker put it this way: “…an innovation does not proceed in a nice linear progression. For a good long time, sometimes for years, there is only effort and no results. The first results are then usually meager … But then after a long, frustrating period of gestation, the successful innovation rises meteorically… But until it has reached that point it cannot be predicted when it will take off, nor indeed whether it ever will.”

There are, in fact, promising signs within our field.

If these signs are mentioned at all these days, they seem to be mentioned only delicately, hesitantly, skittishly.

I’ll give Ken Doctor, the industry analyst who writes the Newsonomics blog, credit for being bold enough to write an entire piece this July about some “good news.” He did it for Nieman Journalism Lab. Still, he seemed almost apologetic in bringing it up.

“The good news is too well balanced by the bad,” Ken wrote. But, notably, he added, “it’s still important not to lose sight of it.

And he added: “It’s not a matter of being Pollyanish, but of being realistic.”

“Within that good news,” he said, “are seeds of what will sustain whatever forms the next stage of the news business.”

What did he point to?

Digital circulation can work and can help. Profit margins from digital circulation are significantly higher than print circulation. People like to read news on the tablet, and to read longer pieces. There are promising ad initiatives that move beyond cost-per-thousand ad impressions. Our source of referral traffic has broadened beyond Google. Community-generated blogs can provide good material for people to read and deepen the public’s appreciation for our role in bringing those voices to a wider audience. With digital circulation, we are learning a lot more about our readers, opening the opportunity to serve them better and, as he put it, “harvest more revenue.”

And then my favorite:

“Quality sells,” Ken Doctor wrote. “…It’s becoming increasingly important to point out that readers are more likely to pay up when they believe they are getting something sufficiently filling. Those that have concentrated on saving as much of their newsroom capacity as possible are generally faring better.”

A study by Press+, the organization that is rolling out pay models at many newspapers, showed early evidence that more journalism — the intensity of news coverage — is likely to lead to more subscription revenue.

As Press+ co-founder Steve Brill put it, “If you want to sell journalism, you have to do journalism.”

What does that tell me? It tells me that we need to remember what we are all about. What is our purpose? What do we do? How is it distinct from what others do? What is the extra value we bring to the public?

Again, Harvard professor Christensen: “If an organization has a clear and compelling purpose,” he says, “its impact and legacy can be extraordinary. The purpose of the company will serve as a beacon, focusing empoyees’ attention on what really matters. And that purpose will allow the company to outlive any one manager or employee.”

Thankfully, many in our profession have not lost their sense of purpose.

It’s why I was so irked earlier this year when the media columnist for the New York Times equated local and regional newspapers with a used Humvee. “A hulking beast,” he called us. We had, he said, “lost relevance in a changed landscape.”

In a letter that I sent the Times, and that was published, I pointed to what my colleagues in this honorable profession had accomplished in a single year.

The Patriot-News in Pennsylvania had exposed the child sex abuse scandal involving Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky. The Philadelphia Inquirer had revealed underreporting of violence in public schools.

In Norway, Maine, the Advertiser Democrat had disclosed disregard for health and safety codes in low-income housing. The Los Angeles Times had detailed vast waste in the rebuilding of community colleges.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune found that Florida law enforcement officers were allowed to stay on the job despite stealing from crime victims and other offenses. The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., had documented prosecutorial misconduct.

Local and regional newspapers had lost revenue. They had not lost relevance.

Perhaps never has there been a louder statement about the relevance of a local newspaper than the wailing that still emanates from New Orleans as a community — leaders and ordinary citizens — contemplate their great city without a seven-day-a-week printed newspaper.

Now it’s true, as the Internet scholar Clay Shirky has wryly put it, that
“ ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone’ has never been much of a business model.’ ” But if people miss their newspaper, we know there is something there they want and they value.

What the citizens of New Orleans seem to want is not what has come to be called “content” – a term so sterile, so empty of meaning that we might as well call it “stuff.”

What New Orleans seems to want is actual “journalism,” a word our business should stop running from.

And what does journalism mean?

• Stories that are well reported.

• Stories that are well told.

• Stories that offer a window on the communities we serve, that reflect their spirit and their personalities.

• Stories that yield insights that come only from looking beneath the surface.

• Stories that delight, that lighten the day with humor and joy.

• Helping readers become informed and engaged citizens.

• Serving as a source of practical information in people’s daily lives.

• Providing a forum and impetus for connections, conversation, and vigorous debate.

• Holding government, and other powerful institutions, and powerful people, accountable to the public.

And, finally, doing all of this work – all of this journalism – honestly, honorably, accurately, and fairly – on the principle that we will be held accountable as well.

It is unquestionably true that we cannot fully succeed unless we understand the change that has enveloped our business. Not just understand it, but adapt to it – and embrace it, and seize on the remarkable opportunities before us.

It is also true, I believe, that to succeed we must remain faithful to our traditional purpose and to our core values. They are our beacon, and they can guide us forward when all else seems so uncertain.

Because our mission remains, and our journey is nowhere near over. In many ways, it has just begun.

Thank you very much.


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