Monday, July 21, 2008
Where Did the Competition Go?
You may dislike Lee Abrams' stream of consciousness, which would make Gabriel García Márquez proud. But as an outsider looking in, the chief innovation officer (got to love the title) has some occasional insights. Here’s one from Monday’s memo that leaped out at me.
“One thing I believe needs more attention is paying closer attention to other media. I was at a few Editorial meetings, and they were passionate and intense. But I noticed a lack of attention paid to the competition. Competition meaning everything from Drudge to USA Today to Yahoo to Fox News to Smoking Gun. I'm not taking about copying...in fact, the reaction might be "they are all wrong". That's fine...but we don't own news anymore. We are best at it...but there are SO many options that I think it's a critical exercise to have a keen and complete awareness of what everyone else is doing.”
Many newspapers long ago stopped paying attention to anbody else and that’s the way they liked it. Newspaper companies spent millions of dollars buying up their weaker (though sometimes better) crosstown rivals to monopolize advertising revenue and profits. Newspapers got richer, but newsrooms got lazier.
I have worked at papers that were competitive and noncompetitive, and the competitive ones provided a bigger thrill.
At the Sentinel, it was common for stories to be held without fear the competition would scoop us, because the competition had long ceased to exist. News happened when the Sentinel published the story, whenever that was. Over a long period of time – and for the Sentinel that means since the early 1980s – that breeds arrogance, sloppiness, a we’re-the-big-guys-in-town mentality and, in the end, a disregard for the community it serves.
Using the zone editions as an example, in the last 10 years the Volusia edition was beefed up, then slashed, then beefed up again partly in response to competition from the Daytona Beach News-Journal, itself a merger between two newspapers dating to the 1980s. The latest news is, the Volusia section and all zone editions except Lake County’s will be gutted. No need to worry about competition from the News-Journal (which has its own headaches) or anybody else.
These moves contradict the so-called focus on hyper loco. You need a presence in many locations to provide hyper loco coverage. You also need reporters. The reduction or absence of these two critical elements is a clear indication that hyper loco is an illusion.
The Orlando Sentinel will have fewer pages (how about those half pages?) as well as fewer and shorter stories. It will cease to provide meaningful coverage of outlying counties as well as Washington, D.C. (won’t the pols love that). Business and the arts? Forget about it. It closed its fairly cheap Puerto Rico bureau several years ago. The national and international news will be packaged from news services and you won't find such news on the front page, unless the world blows up.
Readers can do a lot better than this on the Web. The Sentinel is not accustomed to factoring in local or national competition. But the immediacy of the Web makes everything local and re-invigorates the news with the competitiveness of years ago. It doesn’t really matter where news comes from. If you read it “somewhere” on the Web and find it in your hyper loco paper the next day, it’s old news, buddy.
Tribune is going to have to teach some old dogs old tricks.