On the Brink: Another newspaper near death

Hearst Corporation said it would sell or close the San Francisco Chronicle if it can’t cut expenses. According to the AP, the Chronicle lost $50 million last year. (You can read the entire AP report embedded in the post below.)

I shake my head at a business allowing itself to lose $50 million before deciding to engage in serious cost cutting measures. Perhaps that is the problem with newspaper leadership; newspapers have a culture of complacency which fosters strategic paralysis.

I’ve preached for almost a decade a few simple concepts to revive newspapers. I’ll restate them here because this voice crying in the wilderness is about to stop repeating the same sad refrain because my voice is getting hoarse.

My plan for newspaper turnaround
1. Purge lazy writers. Most writers are lazy, but there are many hard workers. If you have anyone on staff producing fewer than two or three bylines per day, you’ve got a problem. Don’t hire communication or journalism majors. Hire English majors. They will work for less and more importantly are less arrogant. Almost every journalism graduate I hired was a mistake. By contrast other graduates are willing to learn when they take the job. When you hire communication graduates you spend more time correcting the errors of college than getting production from the worker.

2. Bring scandal back. The newspapers of today look more like a woman’s lifestyle magazine than a newspaper. Gardening stories are good, homicide stories are better. Politicians caught in a sex scandal are even better. Readership studies tell newspaper executives that readers don’t like negative stories. My response: Bull Shit. Single copy sales soar when the “bad” news is above the fold. The Internet has reinforced that lesson. All you have to do is look at the ascendancy of Matt Drudge. Drudge dominates the web news business because he knows how to write a headline and knows what readers want. He produces interesting content like his work on the Clinton scandals and points to interesting content created by others. It sounds like what newspapers once did.

3. Newspapers are boring. Why are they boring? They have neglected things readers care about. Why did websites like Scout and Rivals thrive? Because they saw a need and filled it. Why didn’t newspapers do a better job covering recruiting? Newspapers possessed resources those websites didn’t, yet the startups now dominate recruiting coverage.

With all the bad things happening to newspapers, they won’t die; however, newspapers must change if they want thrive. Many won’t make the changes and die—unless Congress steps in and bails them out too. I’m still waiting on a blog bailout.