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I love newspapers. I'm a member of a newspaper family. (In fact, I met my now-husband when we were both serving time on the obituary desk.) Heck, I get The Washington Post delivered to my door daily, and The New York Times on Sundays. I can't imagine my life without them.
But -- and it pains me to say this -- the industry is in deep trouble.
The point was driven home for me while I was perusing some blogs connected with my former hometown newspaper -- and former employer of 10 years -- the Gannett (NYSE: GCI ) -owned Tallahassee Democrat. One particular post from executive editor Bob Gabordi piqued my interest. He'd just come back from a Gannett meeting of senior executives and editors, and he was discussing his lessons learned throughout the conference.
Gabordi listed a few overarching takeaways, but if I were a shareholder, none would offer me much hope. Here's why.
1. New age?
First, Gannett would like to continue its transformation from traditional newspapers to a "new-age media company," which, according to Gabordi, will better align the business side of things with the newsroom.
"The two must be in sync -- the right plan and the right passion," Gabordi says. "This is what those who suggest the death of newspapers and our company itself miss. They cannot measure what they cannot see. Such passion doesn't fit neatly onto a spread sheet to be analyzed. It is not a number to be crunched. It is why they are wrong."
That sounds more like new-age philosophy than new-age business thinking. Passion alone does not produce profit for companies. (Ask any number of failed dot-com companies led by inspired and inspiring entrepreneurs.)
There's a lot wrong with modern-day newspapers at the moment, but the reporters' lack of passion is not the source of those problems. Instead, blame the devolution of newspapers' fundamental business models -- namely, their adamant refusal to move forward at the beginning of the digital age -- for landing them in their present mess.
2. Local vs. national
The other takeaway addressed in Gabordi's blog is Gannett's apparent decision to use "more and deeper" national news reporting as a supplement to their local stories throughout each of their newspapers. For a national newspaper like USA TODAY, that's a fine idea -- it's clear that national news should be the bread and butter of a national newspaper. But for local newspapers -- even ones in larger localities, like Miami -- national news is a commodity. It provides no competitive advantage, no niche. In my view, local papers can't compete on that playing field; instead, they should stick to the local communities driving their subscribership.
3. Strategic direction
Finally, I'm concerned that Gannett's leadership seems so unsure about its 21st-century strategy -- even though we're a decade in! Quoting from Gabordi again:
This week's conference was not about corporate executives issuing marching orders from on high; it was, in fact, anything but that. Over and over, executives at the highest level of our company were, it seemed, looking for approval on the direction we are headed. Journalists were asked to pick apart plans and fix what doesn't make sense. We did, and we will continue to do so.
It's certainly noble to seek buy-in and support from the troops. But investors -- and, frankly, consumers of news -- should be pretty ticked off by the way Gannett has handled its march into the 21st century. These seem less like improvements to the business model, and more like spaghetti on a wall.
Again, I love newspapers. But Gannett's recent meeting of senior leadership tells me that we're in for a continued roller-coaster ride of tweaks and changes to a long-suffering and long-unprofitable business model, without addressing the root of the problem -- consumers' changing behaviors of news consumption.
The ups and downs aren't limited to Gannett, of course. The New York Times (NYSE: NYT ) has struggled to adjust to the Web, while The Washington Post (NYSE: WPO ) has cushioned itself mostly with its massive (non-newspaper) Kaplan educational division. Indeed, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) have a larger share of the online news market than even The New York Times, according to traffic site Alexa.
Gabordi says Gannett's "competitive advantage has always been our journalists' hearts," and I applaud that. But whether passion can be parlayed into financial security at this late stage remains to be seen.
Frankly, I'm doubtful. But I hope I'm proven wrong.