Newspapers, Muscle and Innovation
Times of crisis tend to be times of change and often of great creativity.
Warfare, plague, social and economic collapse have all given rise to significant innovation that have resulted in both intended and sometimes unintended results.
There is, for example, a well-supported historical argument that links the invention of the printing press directly to the Black Death -- the plague that decimate Europe’s population by upwards of a half, depending on which sources you cite.
The argument goes that the literate monks that spent their waking hours before the Black Death hunched over parchment and illuminating holy manuscripts were so lessened in number by the plague that a means had to be found to plug the gap they left. And so we see the first printing press -- and the holy books it produced.
And the rest as they say, is history.
While the changes wrought as a consequence of the Black Death were certainly not limited to the advent of the printing press, it seems an appropriate reference point to the very beginning of what became the newspaper industry at a time when many feel that industry is in terminal decline -- or if not, then certainly a deep crisis.
While it may be a little over dramatic to draw direct parallels with the Black Death and the newspaper business, judging by the number of titles that have closed, jobs that have been lost and the decline in ad revenues, some kind of creativity and innovation is clearly called for. The industry needs its own “printing press moment."
Until recently there has been little to no success in turning things around for the sector as a whole. Flagship titles like The New York Times have appeared to manage better than most in the digital world as one would expect (not to diminish the achievement in any way), but for the rest, life has looked pretty dismal for some time.
All the more interesting then is the recent move by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway to extend its reach into the sector by acquiring 63 newspapers around the country with a clear intent to buy more.
There is no doubt that Buffet has the financial and business acumen to succeed where others fail – he’s proven that on more than one occasion. But what will the combination of financial muscle and creative innovation that really turns things around ultimately look like? And is it in Berkshire Hathaway’s DNA to deliver the innovative and creative side of the equation?
We know that the solution to the industry’s ills will not be a print-only one. It’s equally likely not going to exclude print. So the real question really boils down to how one structures an economically sustainable model that is platform-neutral and which resonates with how consumers wish to engage with their local and regional news sources of choice throughout the day.
The historic editor-driven culture of most newspapers is unlikely to carry the day, nor is the “tablet as salvation” approach. (We’ve already seen how slow that is to make a real difference to the bottom line.)
Personally, I suspect Buffet is making a very smart move at just the right time. There’s enough desperation in the industry to make real innovation where it’s needed.