Newspapers, not out of the ‘wood’ yet

November 14, 2008

The American Press Institute went through with its plan to bring top U.S. newspaper publishers together in a room this week to figure out how to keep themselves alive despite all the financial evidence showing that hospice care might be their best bet at this point. It also, as we reported before, was closed to press, and none of the 50 executives who went were named. (UPDATE: Thanks to a good friend who supplied me with the list, it appears at the end of the post.)

Here are excerpts from the report. Go to the bottom of this post to read about why we couldn’t go:

The general feel of the conference:
“At times akin to group therapy and at other times resembling a business-school class… (Aren’t these folks business professionals already?)”

The prognosis:
“According to James Shein, Ph.D., turnaround specialist and professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, companies should start by plotting their place on a ‘Phases of a Crisis’ chart. The earliest stage is indicated by a company essentially blind to eroding conditions undermining its business. This is followed by acknowledgement but inaction, followed by faulty action in hopes of a quick fix, followed by full-blown crisis and finally dissolution of the enterprise. … As an organization moves down the crisis curve, it will find executing a recovery plan more difficult, and will have less time to do it.”

The conclusion?
“As a whole the industry is at or approaching full-blown crisis stage… And he is pessimistic about their ability to halt their fall without outside help. ‘The biggest hurdles to progress (are) the industry’s senior leadership, including some of the people in this room.’ Shein told the group. ‘I am not sure you can take a look at your industry with fresh eyes.’”

Ouch! How do we survive?

  • Act like an entrepreneur; stop thinking first about why a new approach won’t work.
  • Create a portfolio of initiatives; recognize that some will fail and kill those quickly.
  • Don’t wait for every data point before taking action. “Ready, fire, aim” should be the operating principle, Shein said.
  • Use downsizing as a tool when necessary to achieve a larger strategy, not simply as a cost-cutting goal.
  • Figure out how to leverage core competencies into new directions and new niches.
  • Be honest with employees, and get ideas from those on the front lines.
  • Don’t sit and cower and weep about your problems. Inspire.
  • Collaborate with outside entities that can bring expertise or resources.
  • Pay attention to, and leverage, the brand.

Recommendations that sound nearly just like that have been floating around for more than a decade, but hey, maybe they need some time to stick.

* Want to know why we weren’t allowed to report this to you at the time? Here’s Drew Davis, president and executive director of the API, on a message left on my voicemail.

“The reason is that we think it’s critical that this be an open and frank discussion among the CEOs. First if the press were invited, we wouldn’t have had the CEOs come; that’s a reality. And second, any kind of press coverage during the actual event, I think would undeniably stifle any kind of frank exchange of ideas, which is what we want. We’re making this and our report non-attributional, and that’s just another indiciation of our desire to make this a frank and open discussion. I know you’re not happy about it, but this is why we did it.”

As many media reporters say: It’s a bit of an irony to run a business that depends on sources speaking honestly. It also is interesting to note that the only way news executives can share their views frankly is to do it confidentially and out of reach of their employees and the press. After all, we’re in it together.

Here is who was scheduled to attend:

Michael G. Abernathy, President, Landmark Community Newspapers, Inc., Shelbyville, KY
Steven Ainsley, Publisher, The Boston Globe, Boston, MA
Reid Ashe, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, Media General Inc., Richmond, VA
Donna J. Barrett, President & CEO, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., Birmingham, AL
David H. Black, President, Black Press Group Ltd., Victoria, BC
Diana Block, President and Co‐Publisher, Pittsburgh Post‐Gazette, Pittsburgh, PA
James B. Boone, CEO & Chairman of the Board, Boone Newspapers, Inc., Northport, AL
Elizabeth F Brenner, President & Publisher, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee, WI
Bruce Buchanan, President & CEO, Harris Enterprises Inc., Hutchinson, KS
Mark G. Contreras, Senior Vice President/Newspapers, E. W. Scripps Company, Cincinnati, OH
James C. Currow, Publisher, The Florida Times‐Union, Jacksonville, FL
Keith L. Dawn, Publisher/Chief Operating Officer, The Press of Atlantic City, Pleasantville, NJ
Robert J. Dickey, President, U.S. Community Publishing, Gannett Company, Inc., McLean, VA
Mariá Eugenia Ferrá Rangel, President, El Nuevo Dia, San Juan, PR
Douglas E. Franklin, Publisher and President, The Palm Beach Post, West Palm Beach, FL
Sherman R. Frederick, President/Publisher, Las Vegas Review‐Journal, Las Vegas, NV
Michael A. Gugliotto, Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, Pioneer Newspapers, Seattle , WA
Arne Hoel, President/CEO, Swift Newspapers Inc., Reno, NV
Terry L. Horne, President and Publisher, The Orange County Register, Santa Ana, CA
Peter A. Horvitz, President and Chief Executive Officer, Horvitz Newspapers, Bellevue, WA
John M. Humenik, Editor and Publisher, Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, AZ
Walter E. Hussman, President and CEO, Wehco Media, Inc., Little Rock, AR
Wade Hynes, Vice President Online, Sum Media, Sudbury, ON
George B. Irish, President, Hearst Newspapers, New York, NY
Mary M. Jacobus, President and COO, New York Times Regional Media Group, Tampa, FL
Gregg K. Jones, President, Jones Media Inc., Greeneville, TN
Maurice A. Jones, Publisher, The Virginian‐Pilot, Norfolk, VA
John A. Kirkpatrick, President/Publisher/Editor, The Patriot‐News, Harrisburg, PA
Michelle M. Krans, Senior VP of Strategy and Development, Gannett Company, Inc., McLean, VA
Brent J. Low, President & CEO, MediaOne of Utah, a Newspaper Agency Company, West Valley City, UT
William S. Lynett, Publisher, The Citizens’ Voice, Wilkes‐Barre, PA

One comment

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It’s a stumbling block indeed, to every business enterprise at this financial crisis which needs to tackled ‘as is where is’.There is no such yardstick-to overcome this problem.Any measure taken strategically-may not hold good-would need change the track.Though, a very keen and tentative management and greater public relation practices would require in new dimension in this new adverse situation.Middle management lavel would need to be active to revive the reporting segment exclusively.Breath slowly,with greater expectation and change yet to come surely.