One of the fables of The Washington Post newsroom tells of a productivity expert who was brought in during the 1970s to look over the paper's operations. First stop was the newsroom, where he looked around and said, "Well, first of all you've got to stop these people from sitting around their desks reading newspapers." He was fired on the spot, according to the legend.
"In the future, there will be two categories of newspapers. Those that survive, and those that die … By my estimate, as many as 19 of the top 50 metro newspapers in America are losing money today, and that number will continue to grow."
Some doom-saying newspaper-industry blogger? No, that's William Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews, one of the nation's largest newspaper chains, (courtesy of Jon Fine in BusinessWeek). And Singleton adds more words of warning, which echo Zell's productivity critique and plans for dramatic change:
"Too many whining editors, reporters and newspaper unions continue to bark at the dark, thinking their barks will make the night go away. They fondly remember the past as if it will suddenly re-appear and the staffing in newsrooms will suddenly begin to grow again.
"Well, as a former journalist, I also wish for the past, but it’s not coming back. The printed space allocated to news and newsroom staffing levels will continue to decline, so it’s time to get over it and move to a print model that matches the reality of a changing business."
I wish these titans were as aggressive about their thinking about the online side of their businesses. But clearly, something has to change, and fast, on the print side, and these guys are talking actively about change.
Yep, Sam Zell may be in over his head and making up his strategy as he goes along, as Alan Mutter alleges. But at least he's fighting the status quo. Because it's that status quo, and the people clinging to it as they sit at their newsroom desks reading newspapers, that's killing the newspaper business.