I was just saying to a friend that the appointment of Bill Marimow as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the replacement of Dean Baquet at the L.A. Times by Jim O'Shea were the latest in the musical chairs in the newspaper business.
Then I realized I had the wrong chair metaphor.
What happened in Philadelphia and L.A. (and at other major papers before them in recent months) isn't musical chairs—it's rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It seems unlikely that changing editors—even those with the excellent reputations of Marimow and O'Shea (an old Tribune colleague who's a terrific journalist)—will significantly reverse the declines of the Inquirer and Times. For all their smarts and experience, Marimow and O'Shea are old-school guys, much more likely to resort to traditional solutions (reshuffling a few beats, fiddling with various features, figuring out staffing deadweight to cut) rather than making radical changes in what their newspapers are doing to keep up with what readers and advertisers want.
These are difficult times for the newspaper industry, probably more difficult than most people in the industry can comprehend, and they require radical rethinking of the product and its mission, not a reshuffling of some features, staff and deck chairs.
The L.A. Times has lost nearly 25 percent of its circulation in the past 10 years; the Inquirer is down nearly 23 percent in the same period. Those are catastrophic losses, and if anything, they're accelerating (the Times' circulation is down 8 percent in the past year, and the Inquirer's circulation fell 7.6 percent in the past year). Readers are walking away from newspapers in droves, and advertisers are following.
I'll use this blog to talk about the kinds of changes I think newspapers need to make to stay competitive (and a lot of other subjects), but in brief they include brutally evaluating every single thing in the paper, being much more aggressive about defending the local news and advertising franchise (the newspapers' last strong franchise), making Web sites more interactive and useful, embracing user-generated content and connecting with smaller advertisers. And that's just a start.
Can Marimow and O'Shea bring those sorts of sweeping changes to their newspapers? They're smart guys—it's possible. But unfortunately I doubt it. The good ship S.S. Newspaper is going down, and it's going down fast. Putting old-school guys in charge isn't going to save it. Newspaper companies need to radically rethink everything they're doing and quickly implement radical change if they hope to be viable businesses and information sources in an increasingly competitive world.