Business of News: It's a Whole New Ballgame
Posted: 6/16/2014  |  By: Tim Gallagher
“The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty feet of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game. And now we’ve been gutted. We’re like organ donors for the rich. Boston’s taken our kidneys, Yankees have taken our heart. And you guys just sit around talking the same old “good body” nonsense like we’re selling jeans. Like we’re looking for Fabio. We’ve got to think differently. We are the last dog at the bowl. You see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies.”            

Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane’s frustrated coda to his scouts meeting in “Moneyball” is one of my favorite movie scenes. It’s a movie that more newspaper publishers and editors need to watch.            

The split in the newspaper industry is a lot like the thinking that divided the Oakland A’s organization. On the one side, you have industry leaders who have set a new course. After years of being organ donors for websites that take their kidneys and hearts, they are trying desperately to develop a new approach. They are setting new standards for success in the industry. On the other, you have journalists who think tweeting detracts from reporting and website traffic is a measure of the population’s idiocy.

Beane failed to convince the scouts that the game had changed forever and that he had a new way of winning the old game. Newspaper owners and editors are guilty of the same sin. They have failed to explain all of this to the journalists who fill their pages, tweets and websites.            

Instead, you have editors telling reporters they will be evaluated based on the number of page views their stories receive on websites. Reporters are required to file a certain number of tweets.            

Who can blame the reporters for acting like the scouts in “Moneyball?” The rules changed and nobody told them why.            

We’re not going into a recitation of “Who Moved My Cheese?” rules, but here are some ideas for newspaper leaders who want to convince the journalists to change:  

  1. Journalists are loath to change. But they have a weakness for numbers that prove a point. Owners and editors need to clearly show the problem. Create a 10-year chart of your circulation and advertising revenue. Then create a chart showing the growth of website readership and advertising by competitors in your market. Show it. Plaster it on walls around your company. Depressing? Sure. But you can’t affect real change without giving people a reason to change. You need to clearly demonstrate the problem if you want people to change.
  2. Find the informal leaders in the organization and explain the problem. Get their buy-in on the solutions. They can keep you from making a big mistake. They can do a far better job of swaying people to your side than you can.
  3. Consistently tie the rewards to the behavior that you want, but be realistic about it. Good journalism isn’t always a popularity contest. Important journalism won’t always have a huge audience. But it needs to be rewarded as well. A reward system needs to value what makes journalism important, while making sure it creates audience.
  4. Include everyone in the communication loop. Do I really need to repeat the old saw, “We’re in the communications business”?
  5. If you are using old tools, get rid of them. If your front-end systems don’t seamlessly mesh print and digital formats, how can you fault journalists who have to switch back and forth?
  6. Make them aware of the consequences of not changing. Workers can be very good at ignoring what seems obvious to everyone outside the organization, so owners need to make it very clear: We either grow the audience and the advertising, or we go out of business.
  7. Remember that not everyone will board the train. You need to leave the “get off the train” option open for some who just refuse to change. That’s OK. They can seek gainful employment elsewhere.            

This is lonely, unrewarding work for editors and publishers. So let me leave you with the encouraging words of Red Sox owner John Henry (now a newspaper owner) to Beane:  

“I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall. It always gets bloody, always. It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it’s threatening the game. But really what it’s threatening is their livelihoods, it’s threatening their jobs, it’s threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it’s the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people who are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch. They go bat shit crazy.”

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at tim@the2020network.com.