The sun beats down on the California landscape relentlessly. No clouds. No rain. Farmers talk of fallowed land. Homeowners use less water on their lawns and pay more for it.
This is what drought looks like when you never saved for the rainy day that never came.
Under that same relentless sun this spring I watched as officials cut the red ribbon on a marvelous piece of engineering called a desalination plant. The Camrosa Water District (serving a few thousand homes and farms in Ventura County) did save for that rainy day. It opened the first desalination plant in California since the drought began three years ago. It has lessons for those of us in the newspaper business.
The Camrosa Plant—known as the Round Mountain Water Treatment Plant—pumps water out of the ground that has heavy amounts of magnesium, chlorides and other chemicals. It forces it through a series of tanks and tubes that filter the chemicals and produces clean drinking water. As California goes, it’s a relatively small amount of water produced in the Camrosa Water District. But that’s not the point.
The lessons Round Mountain can teach to newspaper leaders here are about patience, time, self-sacrifice, vision and focus. Camrosa began planning Round Mountain 12 years ago. Through price increases and changes in the board and general managers, they never wavered. Even when it rained for a few seasons, they did not change the plan because they knew: Someday it won’t rain.
Newspaper leaders might think they have been living through a drought for the past decade, but I think it’s more of a storm. The drought is still to come and we need to act more like that small water district if we don’t want to die of thirst.
Things we can learn from the desalination plant:
Water companies deliver water. Newspaper companies deliver news. Sounds simple. But newspaper companies have responded to the loss of advertising revenue by cutting people who produce news. This is as extraordinary as a hospital cutting doctors and nurses or an airline laying off pilots. You can’t grow customers without producing the reason they buy your product. In a drought, this water company is producing more water. Newspapers need to produce more news.
There are smarter people than you. Hire them. Technology is upending news delivery methods. It is increasing consumer thirst for news. The water agency has more engineers on staff today because the technology kept changing and they needed to embrace it. Result? The cost of the desalination plant actually shrunk because the technology grew more sophisticated and productive. They took advantage of that. Too few newspaper companies hire people who embrace technology and use it to exceed consumer expectations. They just copy what others have done. That needs to change.
Keep your eye on the sparrow. The water agency had a five-member board with regular turnover. It went through three general managers and a lot of other internal turnover. It even had rainy seasons. Throughout the 12 years, however, it never wavered from its intention to build a desalination plant. It knew that eventually, a major drought would come and the usual supply of water would be cut back. Now think about your own company in 2003. Few have the same managers, few have maintained the same simple goals throughout those 12 years. You can’t succeed while constantly changing the plan every time a new manager arrives or your company puts a couple of good quarters together.
You’re not living for today. It takes exceptional leadership to keep talking about tomorrow when people are concerned about the next few hours. But that’s why you are a leader. The people who will be your customers in 2027 have just graduated from middle school. How will their lives be different? How will they want to access news? Think about the difference in how you used your mobile phone in 2003 and how you use it today 12 years later. How will you use it—or use some other device—in another 12 years? All the time while the Camrosa staff was planning the desalination plant, it kept forecasting sea level change, consumer habits and the development of technologies to get rid of all that salt once they took it out of the groundwater.
Long-term planning is not for the weak or weak-willed.It takes courage and real vision. But news is as vital to a community as clean water or clean air. Indeed, good local news coverage is one item responsible for sustained health environments.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.