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December 22, 2008

Avoiding Extinction: Lessons from the Fall of the Newspaper

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By now you know a little bit about me. I tried to step into some huge shoes this September. I’m a Twitter n00b. I help run this sweet radio show called SEM Synergy. And I think turtles and tortoises are the cutest beings in the world. Wait, maybe I haven’t told you that yet.

Obviously I’m guilty of blog post confessionals. Why kill the tradition now? Here goes.

I am a traditional media cheerleader. And don’t hold it against me but… I went to J-school. This will help you understand why whenever I read about the death of the newspaper a little piece of me dies with it.

First of all, newspapers aren’t dead. They’re just going through some growing pains. So don’t even accuse me of ringing the death knell for newspapers. Hear that Susan? Stop playing Taps already!

As an aspiring journalist, I was captivated by the magical idea of the Fourth Estate, the protector of democracy, the power of information to instigate change. It still gives me shivers to think that a lone watchdog with an insatiable appetite for the truth can knock the walls right off a story and consequently bring forth a whole new world order. All Woodward and Bernstein style, ya know?

Well, there’s a new world order alright. And sadly traditional media has very little left to live for — or live on, for that matter. Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy this month. The New York Times is struggling to stay afloat. The traditional media mainstays are losing the battle for advertising dollars because they’re not your preferred news source anymore.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the journey of traditional media.

Traditional media led a rewarding, long life. (As long as anyone could have expected, anyway.) The time came to evolve and I’m pretty sure traditional media had no regrets. (Other than the stubborn short-sightedness of those entrusted to manage it.) Traditional media can commit to much-needed progress knowing that its forebears will carry on its values and ideals. (Or be treated like second-class citizens.)

There’s a lot we can learn from traditional media and its fall from grace. James Surowiecki, a columnist at The New Yorker, wrote a thought provoking article in which he points out the Achilles heel that laid out the newspaper. Focusing on the product rather than on the customer leads companies to misunderstand their core business. He compares newspapers’ plight to that of the railroads:

Had the bosses realized that they were in the transportation business, rather than the railroad business, they could have moved into trucking and air transport, rather than letting other companies dominate. By extension, many argue that if newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net.

Are you staying on the cutting edge of your industry? Have you looked into mobile and advertising via text? Are you moving into international markets? Do you have your sights set on the next frontier?

I still champion hope for the adaptation of traditional media, and if they can endure a downturn like this, your business can weather the storm, too. Even better than survival, navigate around the storm altogether. Take a moment to think about what you’re really offering and where you want to go from here. If we learn a lesson from the media giants of yesteryear, at least they won’t have fallen from the throne in vain.

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