Earlier this week, John Robinson -- a newspaper editor whom I respect greatly -- responded to my pessimistic assessment of the Spokane massacre with this optimistic conclusion: "I believe in the infinite possibilities of reinvention."
So do I. But here lies the rub: I no longer believe that (non-national) metro newspapers will play a significant role in the reinvention of the press in its 21st century configuration.
That's a radical change from what I believed in 2005-06, but the abject failure of our industry to act upon what it knew then (thanks in large part to John and a few other pioneers) portends doom for most American metro papers now. The chance to act with foresight in advance of the coming wave came and went, and now these once-proud press flagships are swamped, broken and sinking.
In other words, the industry is already in the midst of an interregnum, most metro newspapers will not survive it, and those that reach the other side will bear scant resemblance to their 2008 ancestors.
Reinvention is coming, but here are 10 reasons why we shouldn't expect the newspaper industry to lead it:
1. Newspapers' core audience still doesn't want change, but they're aging and they like a product that nobody else wants. The newspaper dilemma: Change the product in hopes of attracting new readers and you piss off your loyal core. Do nothing and you'll watch your circulation drop every day on the obituary page. All too often, newspaper management responds by promoting bizarre changes that don't attract new customers and alienate existing ones.
2. The culture of newspaper management is a dysfunctional relic of a low-bandwidth, monopoly era. It still hasn't adapted to the lessons of Web 2.0, it's generally beholden to a short-term stock price instead of a long-term re-investment strategy and it simply refuses to accept that you can't expect 20 profit margins in a competitive market. Instead of leading, it is a legacy anchor.
3. The culture of newsroom leadership contains a fatal 20th century flaw: A fundamental belief that equates all new trends with dangerous "fads." Newsrooms don't trail the leading edge simply because they're too dumb to keep up: They're behind because their editorial leadership believes that keeping pace with rapid change is a fool's errand. Many senior editors don't simply fear change -- they resent change that succeeds without their endorsement.
4. No budget for research, development or training means most newspapers can't see what's coming, don't have the necessary tools for survival and couldn't use those new tools effectively anyway (Hey news executives! Try this newsroom pop quiz: Give each staff member a pencil and tell everyone to stop what they're doing and write out the tag that creates a hypertext link. If most can't, you're not spending enough on training. If anyone in your management team can't, you've got a crisis). It's also a sign of a dirty little secret: Many papers gave up on staff development several rounds of budget cuts ago.
5. Newspapers don't "own" enough creative technological expertise (programmers, database/mashup designers, XHTML/CSS coders, video editors, Flash animators, graphic communicators, etc) to constitute a viable tech infrastructure. Instead, most newspaper payrolls are bloated with pluralities of resentful Luddites who struggle with the complexities of e-mail.
6. Inertia, uncertainty and toxic paralysis rule most newspaper companies. Even if newspapers promoted strong, visionary leaders to positions of authority tomorrow, most would still fail to implement their best ideas fast enough to catch up to their already-accelerating new-media competition. What's worse, even when companies are lucky enough to find innovators (such as Smith and Savalli from Spokane) they're often ether marginalized or scapegoated as slow-to-react companies founder in panic and greed.
7. Individual ad-reps still make more money selling print ads than Web ads. Until Web becomes the primary profit-center within newspaper companies, all the incentives within their business operations will point toward the status quo. It's hard to believe, but Web ads are still merely "upsell" throw-ins to print-advertising contracts at many papers. It's practical short-term tactics vs. long-term business strategy.
8. Newspapers have already lost one of their key selling points: Social currency. In 2008, all meaningful political discourse -- the essential element of social currency -- takes place on the Web. Print (and televised) political coverage is now but a pale shadow of the real action online.
9. The connection between quality and profitability has been broken irreparably. Boosting short-term profits by cutting quality is obviously a losing strategy, and the recent wave of newspaper layoffs and buyouts only exacerbated the trend. Editors will admit this privately, but the public already knows.
10. Finally: Newspaper companies hate modern journalism. Yes, that's an enormously over-broad tarbrush, but this is a message I want to deliver via 2x4: Newspapers companies will not survive the transition to the multimedia future so long as the people within those companies oppose the rules, conventions and culture of that future. You'll never successfully reinvent your company if you're punishing the innovators, killing the messengers, rewarding the political infighters and sneering down your noses at the "pajamas-clad rabble" you blame for your troubles.
Well, you say, what can be done? That's really not my problem at the moment, but I've got some ideas on that subject. If a good discussion evolves here in comments we can talk about it. If not, no great loss.