Last fall, the New York City taxi drivers sued Uber for stealing their business. The Yellow cab owners said they had an exclusive right to give people a paid ride from one place to another. Uber, they claimed, was so disruptive, that it put taxi cab owners and drivers and lenders out of business.
What if laid-off reporters, copy editor, photographers, press operators and ad salespeople could sue “the Internet” for stealing their business?
But no such remedy exists for journalists and newspaper professionals.
There are parallels in the “Uber vs. Taxi” and “Traditional Newspapers vs. Digital” forms of advertising and news. Taxi companies thought they owned the market. But any logical person could have told you that the idea of standing on a corner in a city hoping that a cab comes by is an antiquated business model. Uber and Lyft adapted the need for transportation to the ease of cell phones.
And in many of the same ways, newspaper people spent much of the 1990s failing to understand how fundamentally the Web and mobile devices would disrupt their advertising and news model. (I can clearly remember getting a dismissive pat on the head from a senior exec when I suggested that the 2000 slump in employment advertising was the start of a secular change and not just a cyclical change).
There’s no one to sue, so newspaper should look to adapt. I’m encouraged by the steps newspapers are taking.
Since I left daily journalism in 2007 after 29 years, I have worked in what I used to study from afar—American business. Many of those in the daily journalism business think that what they do is in a big bubble protected by the First Amendment. That amendment protects certain tasks. It does nothing to protect profit.
Private business people I have met (with a few exceptions in a few fields such as banking) do not delude themselves by thinking their business is protected by any government rules. Instead, their business practices could be adopted by newspaper companies that want to survive.
In the nearly 10 years since I left daily newspapers, I have learned these things from business people:
- Profit is not a dirty word. The gulf between newsrooms and the rest of the business world has begun to close. I talk to a lot of reporters who now ask me if I subscribe to the paper. That’s new thinking and it’s appreciated. But the jokes about going to “the dark side” of newspapers (the advertising department) need to end. Silos need to be smashed. Journalists must be business people too.
- Successful businesses advocate for their community. Awards. Scholarships. Grants. I admire the world of disinterested journalists. But some of the best times in journalism come when newspapers advocate for their communities. And your community notices.
- Journalists are not the only people who want to save the world. The people I have met in non-profit businesses are dedicated and—believe it or not—often paid less than journalists. “Heart” is important as we change our business.
- Owning a business is a lot harder than having a salaried or hourly position. You pay for your own benefits. You fix your printer when it breaks. You chase people down who owe you money. I worked very hard as a journalist and even harder as a publisher. But nothing compares to the hours you put in when you own a business. We need to act more like we own the newspaper and not merely act like an employee. That kind of dedication is needed.
- There’s a reason a lot of business owners are conservative. They are fed up with government. When you write a quarterly check for your taxes, you start to examine “what” they are doing with your money. There are fewer journalists than ever being the “watchdog” on government spending, but if you want your community’s loyalty, stay on top of scoundrels.
- The best react quickly to changes in the marketplace. Many do a fine job of anticipating customer demand. I think newspapers suffered from the “good enough” approach for years instead of thinking ahead to what their customers would want. It’s time to start thinking “What’s next?” and not how to imitate.
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.