Saturday, October 15, 2005
NEWSPAPER FUTURE: Washington & Lee prof on future of papers
In May 2005, Tim J. McGuire was the Reynolds Distinguished Visiting
Professor at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He viewed
the demise of newspapers as precipitous, but not necessarily fatal, in an
excerpted text below, of this May 3, 2005 speech. He says a key solution
is for newspaper companies to figure out to be satisfied with 15%
operating margins so that they can re-invest in the information business.
He titled the speech: "Apocalypse Now! Reinventing Newspapers in the
Public Interest." McGuire is former editor, general manager and senior
vice president, The Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minn. He was president of
the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2001-2002.
The full text of his speech cites data about the decline of newspapers.
ORIGINAL LINK AND FULL TEXT:
Another speech by McGuire, sounding similar themes, and entitled: "McGuire
to editors: Show some courage," is at:
By Tim J. McGuire, May 3, 2005
Newspapers are in trouble, but so are the insurance industry, the health
care industry and the American auto industry. But few say it is time for
funerals in those industries. I fear we're making a cottage industry out
of predicting newspapers' death. Hand-wringing has become sport.
In 2002, when I addressed the American Society of Newspaper Editors as the
society's president, I said this: "It is high time we show some courage.
It is time we dig deep and tap into those values and morals and allow them
to guide us in our leadership of American journalism. We must stop
wringing our hands and ruing our fate. No more ruing."
Every new communications tool that that comes along is proclaimed as the
death of newspapers, when in fact they are not much more than media hula
hoops in terms of constancy and penetration. The new technologies, the new
ideas and the new challenges to readership are threats only if newspapers
and newspaper companies stand still, and refuse to change. A man I've
respected deeply for many years, Leonard Downie, the executive editor of
The Washington Post, is perhaps the sanest voice in media today. He says
"newspapers aren't dying, they are trying to adapt."
I think Len is right. Hes also correct when he says one of the impediments to
that adaptation is excessive newspaper profits. Len says 15 percent profit
margins would be plenty. I would not be so prescriptive, but I do believe that
it is crucial that newspaper executives face up to the fact that they are
milking their industry for profits and failing to invest in the long term
health of the news gathering and the advertising franchise.
[In 2002], I went on to say in that speech, "Every editor, every publisher and every newspaper company CEO in America is living in a
special, critical moment for American journalism. We need to find the
personal courage to overcome our feelings of isolation, fear and
In the last three years newspaper companies have
to demand high profits despite this avalanche of news that newspapers are
in deep trouble. Newspapers have been slow to invest and slow to react to
this readership crisis. There's lots of planning going on in newsrooms,
but most of the orders to find solutions to the industry.s deepest
problems come with one instruction: Dont spend significant money. I know
several editors who have been told to research some radical new solutions,
but then told to do it on the cheap.
Publishers want to restore excitement
to newspapers without spending a precious dime of that 21- to 35-percent
profit margin. Won't happen. It is time newspaper corporation CEOs and
publishers come to grips with history -- the history they are writing.
Those executives must start imagining that if newspapers are indeed in the
death throes, it is they who will be judged.
The media history books could
well show them watching their industry die for a few percentage points of
profit. A new contract with Wall Street needs to be forged in the public
In "The Vanishing Newspaper," Meyer describes the Harvest Market
position as "raising prices, reducing quality and taking as much money
of the firm as possible." Meyer writes: "I know of no newspaper company
totally committed to that strategy. But, on some days, there are very
strong indications that they are drifting in that direction, egged on by
I think the esteemed Mr. Meyer is being polite.
When your franchise is under attack from every angle and you are obsessed
with inexpensive, incremental solutions, then you are guilty of
harvesting, or milking, or negligence. You choose.
Not long ago a
newspaper publisher balked when I suggested he needed to really blow
things up and create significant change in his processes and his
structures. He said he needed to go slowly and show caution for fear he.d
My friend, the time for caution is gone. That iceberg is
no longer on the horizon. The iceberg is hitting us right now, and we've
already suffered some serious damage to the ship. Unless newspapers
reinvent themselves immediately something precious and dear will be lost.
I think the concept of sustainability is one newspaper executives need to
contemplate. Many people think sustainable development is only an
environmental concept. I would argue it is deeper that. Jeffrey Hollender,
in his fine book "What Matters Most," says, "Sustainable development
to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the
ability to meet those of the future." Hollender goes on to argue that it
is simply impossible to continue to do business as we have been doing it
without incurring dire consequences. He says the status quo is
unsustainable and that we are breaking an unspoken moral contract with
members of the next generation.
That perfectly describes the newspaper industry. We cannot go on as we have.
Unless we radically change the status quo we are going to deny future
generations the community building, the shared experience, the authenticating
role, the watchdog role, and the guardianship of openness that newspapers have
stood for all these years.
The title of my speech makes it clear that I think the reinvention of
newspapers should be done in the Public Interest. I argue that that is a
capitalist-loving statement and not a communistic one.
The public good should not be a goofy concept, and it should not mean your
company becomes an unintentional nonprofit. A socially responsible company can
be a high-performing, high-standards company. It does not have to be soft,
mushy and an earnings drag. Phil Meyer wrote this in "The Vanishing
"While today's investors might think it perverse, the notion of service
society as a function of business is neither new nor confined to those
protected by the First Amendment. Henry Ford argued that profit was just a
by-product of the service to society that his company performed."
Reinventing newspapers in the public interest and for the common good is of
course the right thing to do, but just because it would be altruistic does not
mean that it can't be profitable. Doing "the right thing" can make lots
money. Altruism does not require sack cloth and ashes.
Reinventing newspapers in the public interest and for the common good can
provide the unity of information that consumers will require, desire, and
demand after a few years of an increasingly fragmented society. Rescuing
consumers and advertisers from "The Daily Me" fostered by special
blogs, small information niches, and increasingly insular segmentation and
fragmentation will be big business. Maintaining, restoring and reinventing
vehicles that will restore a sense of a shared self will drive profits and
serve the public good.
Susan Goldberg, the editor of the San Jose Mercury News, told those college
students a few months ago that she believes that a person who began his or her
career in the "glue-pot era of journalism" probably won't find the full
to newspapers' problems. "Deep down," Goldberg said, "I believe the
fundamental change in our industry may begin to be figured out by our
generation -- but will fully realized by yours."
Goldberg may be correct, though there are some pretty creative old codgers out
there, too. I don't claim creative or technological wizardry. I do hope
experiences, observation and lessons taught me by some great mentors and
industry bright lights allow a fossil like me to muse about five fundamental
principles that might guide a radical reinvention of newspapers in the public
1) The reinvention must be radical.
2) We must build the broad democratic (small D) community with integrity.
3) We must cultivate citizen journalism, but serve as an authenticator.
4) We must reaffirm our watchdog role with a return to great writing and
5) We must choose thoroughness, completeness and sophistication.
Let's talk about each of these five.
1) The reinvention must be radical
As Goldberg said in her speech, and as I.ve said today, we are not talking
about "tweaking" newspapers and newspaper companies. We can no longer
dawdle. The newsroom naysayers have to give it up. We need to radically rethink
things with the creativity that inspires so many of our brethren.
We cannot be committed to killing trees and plastering ink on them.
We must creatively use the Internet, but we must look beyond it, too.
We must energetically pursue the electronic tablet ideas of pioneers like Roger
Fidler and the University of Missouri. The vehicle with which newspapers
deliver information and advertising should not be limiting. That doesn.t mean
we have to toss newsprint. It does mean we have to look for the best ways to
engage readers and accomplish our other four tasks no matter the delivery
method. To save newspapers, we may be talking about saving something that
doesn.t look like it has looked for the last 100 years. And, we may be talking
about a hybrid of delivery vehicles that includes print and electronic media.
We must explore new markets and new ways of serving as a connection between
advertisers and consumers. With all the call for rethinking news, not enough
effort has been invested in rethinking the revenue streams of newspapers. One
of the most promising solutions lies in industry coalitions like Career
Builder, the job site that is going head to head with Monster.com. That is an
important, groundbreaking alliance, and I was thrilled during the Super Bowl
when it became obvious Career Builder is willing to spend big advertising money
to make that idea work . monkeys or not..
We must redesign our newsgathering and selling processes. Newsrooms and
newspapers still look too much like that assembly line Henry Ford invented, and
not enough like the creative, imagination-fueled workplaces of software makers
and video game designers. You cannot create a radical future with a
horse-and-buggy work environment.
2) We must build the broad democratic (small D) community with integrity.
Newspapers have enhanced democracy in America because of the power of shared
information. Americans have mobilized and coalesced around that shared
information to integrate schools, to achieve more, but not perfect, equality of
race and class, and to address problems like child abuse, sexual predators and
The power of information to mobilize society and to keep our democracy in
balance is probably newspapers. greatest contribution to the common good, but
that role is being eroded by too-justified assaults on our integrity.
Many attacks on our integrity are little more than ideological spin. But too
many charges are sticking. From Jayson Blair to Jack Kelly to the Detroit Free
Press, journalists are gambling with the trust and integrity that must be our
ticket to reestablishing ourselves as a keeper of the public interest.
Dramatically improved ethics training, higher integrity standards, a renewed
commitment to avoid deception and unfairness, and more respected credibility
auditing procedures are essential to serve the public interest.
Newspapers must be dedicated to removing ideological and class bias from
our news pages. Last year L.A. Times Editor John Carroll publicly decried
his newspaper's tilted language on abortion and life issues. Other editors
must copy Carroll's courage and enforce strict bias standards.
I know this is an unpopular idea, but it is time for us to move ideological
metro columnists to op edit pages. The deft storytelling and incisive prods of
the Roykos and Breslins have, in many cases, been replaced by blunt-edged
political opinions that confuse readers about the independence of our products.
Even more controversial, it is time to reexamine single-ideology editorial
pages. Editorial pages began as a marketing tool in multiple newspaper markets.
Ideology sold newspapers. If newspapers want to present themselves as above the
ideological fray, and I think they must, editorial pages must move toward being
public forums for energetic community debate and abandon the all-knowing,
all-arrogant role of community pontificator and sometimes bully. Newspapers in
places like Shreveport and Anchorage have editorial pages representing
conflicting ideological stances. Those are remnants of two-newspaper towns, but
along with USA Today they represent models worth studying.
One of my favorite books is "Stewardship," by Peter Block. Block says
"Stewardship is to hold something in trust for another." Block says we
choose service over self-interest most powerfully when we build the
capacity for the next generation to govern themselves. That is the
challenge facing newspapers concerned about the public interest. No other
medium is as prepared to help the next generation govern themselves as
It was heartening at the ASNE meeting to see my former newspaper, The Star
Tribune in Minneapolis, working with the Readership Institute at Northwestern
University to use the core newspaper to reach young adult readers. So many
efforts seem focused on creating entirely new products for young readers,
products that have no connection to the newspaper. I am convinced newspapers
have a better chance at survival if we can enlarge and improve the big tent to
allow all our readers to share information.
Newspapers must unify, not divide. Rather than falling into the divisive,
ideological, self-interest morass, newspapers must build the broad democratic
community with integrity.
3) We must cultivate citizen journalism, but serve as an authenticator.
Citizen journalism is good. Voices squelched too long are being heard. Public
debate is enhanced. Newspapers and networks have been too arrogant for too long
in believing that only their voices mattered. Democracy is served when we hear
Blogs are good. I like blogs. I read blogs. Blogs have proven to be
powerful watchdogs on the press and other institutions. And yes, there is
a sweet justice to the fact that blogs look a lot like the pamphlets of
the Revolutionary era that the Bill of Rights aimed to protect. Let.s
treat the .bloggers as journalists. debate with the complexity it deserves
and avoid the food fights. It's a legitimate issue with big ramifications,
if we can raise the discussion above the playground level.
But we also need to slow the bloomin' train. Bloggers didn't invent the
Blogs are not the next century's information vehicle. Blogs are a
complement to the information spectrum, but they are not going to replace
newspapers, television or major sites. Blogs are an imaginative, democratic
information tool, but like other forms of citizen journalism they have severe
limitations. Too many blogs become tools of special interests, and too many
value shrill argumentation over trust, integrity and authenticity.
Newspapers need to figure out how to make citizen journalism and blogs a
crucial part of their information menu. Not only do newspapers need to fulfill
their longtime role as sense makers, but newspapers must serve as
authenticators. I had been playing around with terms to describe the
appropriate role when Tom Rosenstiel used that wonderfully descriptive term at
ASNE a few weeks ago.
There has to be an institution or process in the information stream that
guarantees accuracy, truth, fairness and perspective. Without that role
information in this society will collapse into chaos. Newspapers fill that
authenticator role best. Many critics, pundits and bloggers ridicule this kind
of position and say it is arrogance and a desperate final grab at power that
causes old newspaper editors like me to believe such a role is necessary. Peer
authentication will work for some topics, but the public interest will be
served well only if institutions and people committed to fostering and
protecting public debate monitor, mediate and authenticate the flow of
When I use Google or other Internet search engines I am increasingly concerned
that I find information without any brand integrity. I want to know the
information I find has been vetted with the public interest in mind. But if
newspapers are going to occupy that role, bias and unethical behavior have to
be rooted out of newspaper organizations. The role of public conscience is a
crucial one, but it carries great responsibility, and to fulfill that role
newspapers have to make some significant improvements.
Newspapers need to make nice with blogs and figure out ways to comment on,
organize and clarify the important work blogs are doing. Creative partnerships
could make both information vehicles more credible.
4) We must reaffirm our watchdog role with a return to great writing and
I fear the corporatization of newspapers has contributed to an investigative
wimpiness that threatens the core mission of newspapers. The overpowering
desire to appeal to a broad readership has caused many editors to over-think
the investigative nature of their newspapers. There.s still some great
investigative work being done, but there's not as much and not enough.
Few things can be as important to a community as strong, penetrating
investigative work. Journalists who highlight problems, challenges,
opportunities and successes of communities can revitalize newspapers.
Investigative reporting is in the public interest, and it can win readers like
few other things you can do.
The key to improving investigative journalism is to concentrate on relevant
subjects. Too often our investigations are too esoteric, and they do not hit
readers where they live. The Readership Institute says the key to reaching
young readers is to offer information that young people want to talk about, and
the Institute says that young people want newspapers to look out for their
personal and civic interests. Those characteristics define all readers. Tougher
investigative reporting of issues that matter to people is a crucial way
newspapers can reinvent themselves in the public interest.
My good friend Rick Rodriguez, the new president of ASNE, has made
the Watchdogs" the theme of his presidency. The Poynter Institute is
Rick by convening a major meeting in St Petersburg to plot a strategy for
helping newspapers make investigative reporting the priority it must be.
Sophisticated reportorial training, an energized recommitment to empirical
computer journalism, and identification of great potential story ideas will
certainly be a part of that agenda.
Arguably the profit squeeze has impinged upon newspapers. abilities to tell
great stories. Increased pressure on productivity, a drive to cover the routine
just to show local volume, and reduced staff sizes threaten to devalue great
writing ands wonderful storytelling.
Newspapers make a tragic mistake if they cede storytelling to nonfiction books
and magazines. A fascinating new book called "The New New Journalism,"
by Robert S. Boynton, says, "Rigorously reported, psychologically astute,
sociologically sophisticated, and politically aware, the New New Journalism may
well be the most popular and influential development in the history of American
That's the kind of work we need more of in newspapers. We need readers to
think of newspapers when they think of innovative, bold investigative
storytelling. Arguably, the most compelling thing I've read in newspapers
in recent months was the incredible excerpt from the new Enron book,
"Conspiracy of Fools," by Kurt Eichenwald. Eichenwald is a New York Times
reporter, and much of his work was done for The Times.
Other newspapers can do that kind of work, and they must. Newspaper
readers are willing to invest time in great work. But newspapers make a
mistake when they foist long boring work on readers. The most important
issue newspapers have to address in storytelling and investigation is
courage. Industry leadership must recover the conviction that raising hell
is an essential part of the journalistic birthright. Great investigative
journalism can make a difference. 5) We must choose thoroughness,
completeness and sophistication.
Newspapers' future lies in being the information general store, not a
series of boutiques. The theme of this speech has been that the
newspaper.s greatest strength is bringing all the fragments, segments and
special interests into one big tent. We have done that over the years by
offering news, sports, business, lifestyle and popular culture. It would
be a terrible error to abandon that completeness. You realize that
comprehensive packaging is an essential newspaper strength when you
struggle to find material on the Web. The ease of managing the package has
to guide future efforts to reinvent newspapers.
As newspapers struggle with space reductions to reduce costs they are pursuing
a foolhardy path. Thoroughness, which is communicating a sense that the
newspaper has covered everything we need to know, is a precious attribute of
newspapers. The dangers in this regard are especially frightening in the areas
of national, international, business and sports news. The electronic
competition in all four of those areas is formidable. Too many newspapers are
pushing in-depth sports and national readers like me to Web sites that give me
the thoroughness I need. Frittering away thoroughness could well mean
frittering away the franchise.
Carl Bernstein has kicked up a lot of controversy recently by decrying "the
triumph of idiot culture." I would not have used that language, but Bernstein
is not all wrong. His complaint that too much news has .deteriorated into
gossip, sensationalism and manufactured controversy. should be one to which
news executives pay heed.
And his statement that 'good journalism should challenge people, not just
mindlessly amuse them" should serve as a guiding light for newspapers.
I am not suggesting that newspapers ignore popular culture. On the contrary,
that can be one of newspapers' most important contributions to public
discourse. But if we abandon sophistication and insight in our coverage of
popular culture we do not distinguish newspapers as a trusted source of shared
I do not pretend that I have all the answers, but I believe that if we are to
reinvent newspapers in the public interest, that reinvention must be radical,
it must build community with integrity, it must cast newspapers as the
authenticator in a chaotic citizen journalist environment, it must emphasize
the watchdog, storytelling strength of newspapers, and newspapers must opt for
thoroughness, completeness and sophistication.
Three essential things will be required to execute this kind of reinvention
-- financial commitment, courage and trust.
Newspaper executives simply must take a hard look at their high margins.
Reinvention requires money. Reinvention requires a firm conviction that the
long-term future holds hope and promise. It requires a conviction that saving
newspapers is a higher calling than milking and harvesting short-term profits.
Reinvention of newspapers in the public interest also requires courage. It
requires courage to reinvent and end incremental .finger in the dike. thinking.
And it requires courage to say we can contribute to the common good, and take
an admired position in history, by saving newspapers.
And above all, newspapers must treat readers. trust as the blessed treasure it
is. That trust can give us the license to reinvent newspapers in the public
© 2003 Washington and Lee University
Lexington, Virginia 24450-0303