Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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BoSacks speaks out on newspaper’s last headline: “Hope you enjoy your stinkin’ phones”

person holding burning newspaper

The story below is about the final edition of the free newspaper, The Washington Post Express. On its cover was this headline: “Hope you enjoy your stinkin’ phones”.

It is a bitter, strong, and heartfelt headline by now-unemployed reporters. I can’t say I agree with the sentiment, although I understand the pain. Especially in today’s marketplace blaming phones seems an inadequate business plan. 

I have a few questions to ask, and they might be relevant to us all.

  • What did you do in the past that was successful, but that is no longer working?
  • What exciting and new things could you have replaced what wasn’t working?
  • What old revenue streams have dried up, and what did you do replace them? 

I think one of the most important questions for anyone in our industry is to be able to define your franchise. That question/quest goes for individuals as well as corporations.

Who are you today and what do you want to be tomorrow and a decade hence? For anyone on this list, just like The Washington Post Express, you are no doubt, one way or another, in the business of selling words and thought for a profit. It doesn’t matter if you are an author/writer, publisher, editor, salesperson, or graphic artist. We are all selling our combined expertise to promote specialized communications of one sort or another.

It was the New York Times reporter Joe Sexton who said a few years ago:

“Ain’t no room for cowards in media at this moment in time. If you are not asking yourself every couple of years how to once more scare yourself to death, then you are living something of the coward’s life.”

On the other hand, by this time most are adapting to new business models and truly thriving. The “thriving” thing is independent of substrate. Can a future and a profitable base be made on paper? Yes. And can an empire be constructed solely on digits and electrons? Absolutely.

To me, the best is a plan that includes multiple paths of revenue. 

Where are you in this cycle? 

I see this as an ever-changing era of tremendous opportunity and growth for electronically coordinated information distribution, something I called El-CID somewhere in the late 1990s. 

The single element that has not changed in the last two decades is that publishers still hire writers and editors. Personnel format the information and send it to various vendors for global distribution. You could say that nothing has changed except the speed and mechanism of delivery. 

The underlying conclusion is that we, as an industry, will not ever be going out of business. We have an excellent and honorable future ahead of us, just not quite as we once knew it. So what? It is time to get used to it. Your career depends on you and your company adapting to these inevitable facts of continuous change.

Here is where I ask The Washington Post Express, what did you do to your business plan in the last few years to alter the trajectory of this failure?

Let’s be fair, not all publications are destined to succeed; publishing has never worked that way. Paraphrasing Gandalf, some who should live die and some who should die live on to publish another day. Quoting another movie, this time The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

But the tale of The Washington Post Express points out the obvious — as an industry, once in a while we need to reassess who are we and where are we going.

For two decades there has been a lot of news, conjecture and posturing about what the media industry may still be morphing into and becoming. These changes have not only affected the industry but the psyche of the people who work in it. 

As I travel around the country, I see some members of our industry who are still terrified, and many who are exhilarated by the still-evolving possibilities. Some are still beholden to antiquated business plans and cumbersome technologies. Twenty-five years ago we were arguing about whether or not digital plate-making was a good idea, and we were also wondering what the heck a PDF was and what to do with it. Twenty years into the revolution and there are some who are correctly fearful of losing their jobs, and many who have already lost them.

Printing ink on paper is science. Analog publishers had to learn and fine-tune that science to distribute their products. In the current Internet age there are multiple methods of distributing content. It is still nothing more nor less than science for profit. This new technology is an advantage to smart and aggressive publishers and their age-old franchise of information distribution. 

Writers are still writing, editors are still editing, and publishers are still publishing, but in new creative mediums, as well as the old ones.

Even printers are still printing, but they are consolidating like crazy and trying to establish a new survival mode in preparation for redeployment of content distribution methods.

To conclude, I’m sad to see any publication go out of business. I am sadder still for the employees losing jobs. But reading and selling words for a profit will never diminish and will always be lucrative.

The new rules are that you can never rest on your laurels or past business plans and must continuously reinvent yourself and your company. Nothing else will do. 

It may be a harsh judgment call, but Andrew Tribute had it right when he said, “Your future business should replace your current business before someone else replaces it for you.”

Bo Sacks, President, Precision Media Group

This commentary originally appeared on Bo Sacks daily newsletter and is re-published with kind permission. You can subscribe to Bo’s e-newsletter here.