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From Sail To Steam In The Newsroom

Wednesday, February 7, 2007  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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Scott Johnson opens another wound from which the Minneapolis Star Tribune can bleed credibility today by noting the paper’s current stand on the 60 vote rule in the Senate versus its many past observations on the subject and the general incoherence of its editorial staff in keeping track of the shifting positions of the paper.

All across the country newspapers are in critical condition, losing readers, revenue and relevance in an ever accelerating cycle of obsolescence that makes Mickey’s friend Bruce Feiler’s observation about the news cycle seem cautious in its prediction of acceleration in both news and momentum trends. (Still one of the all time important posts in the ‘sphere’s brief history.)

Revolutions in specific industries happen. Yesterday I interviewed Thomas P.M. Barnett on the chapter in his book The Pentagon’s New Map devoted to “system perturbations,” those events which, in short, change everything. (Every newspaper management team in the country ought to hire Barnett to give his brief to them.) The newspaper industry has been in the grip of a multi-year perturbation that has few parallels to other industry-wide rapid evolutions. In the past I have compared it to the years in which the carriages pulled by horses gave way to motor cars, but that is not the best analogy as one industry died as another rose. The better analogy for newspapers is the transition from sail to steam among ships, especially navies, which had to keep up or imperil the countries they defended. The change came rapidly especially when we consider that it occurred over a century ago:

Across the final two decades of the 1800s, the American Navy vaulted from sailing ships to those of armor, steel, steam, coal, rifled bores, and turreted guns. The leap stimulated a revolution in naval architecture, steel manufacture, electricity, and high-explosive ordnance with advances so rapid that some battleships were rendered obsolete in the time it took to design and build the next. A rising tide of industrialization swept across Hampton Roads fueled by easy access to maritime commerce and links to inexpensive coal and steel. The youthful Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company captured a string of eye-catching battleship orders, and the Norfolk Navy Yard (Gosport) became, again, a nationally recognized name in ship production and repair.

Of all these factors, the most important for Norfolk was its ready access to huge supplies of coal, the energy king of the time. Hampton Roads was the railway terminus for the coal regions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia; cheap coal piled up on its shores, and coal-hungry naval vessels came in droves. By 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the Great White Fleet from Hampton Roads on its record-setting, round-the-world cruise, Norfolk was unmistakably the Navy’s industrial capital.

Now we see another industry in which complete and staggering change has arrived. There is no more “news cycle,” and no more secure audience. There are zero barriers to entry for a news gatherer and distributor (see The Politico for the most recent example of the sudden rise of a transforming competitor –the management at RollCall and the Post must be alarmed or insentient).

And there is no ability to distort, conceal, twist, spin, massage or outright lie.

The obvious steps are still not obvious to the ancient mariners of the MSM: Everything should be published on the web rather than delayed for the paper edition. Advertising staffs have to retool to persuade customers that its the internet ad space that matters more than the print. New voices and new approaches have to proliferate. Curmudgeon reporters and columnists who huff and puff about barbarian bloggers and announce that they will never write for the internet edition have to be furloughed.

And, crucially, the aging, boring, blinkered, defensive, and isolated editorial aristocracy that seem so numerous in every big or once big or medium sized paper simply have to go. Really, it isn’t a question of carrying some dead weight in a sort of management version of feather-bedding. Like the folks Scott mocks at the Star Tribune, these chin pullers and seminar attenders do damage daily, and not just by taking up space and salary, but by presenting targets that advertise the papers’ irrelevance each and every day.

The old salts of the newspaper business aren’t huddled over a beer in a wharf-front bar reliving their glory days, they are still at the wheel, and still insisting that they can out run and out gun the new-fangled ships.

The Los Angeles Times has hired an innovation editor, Russ Stanton, whose pleadings are amusing but also touching. That was a good thing.

Now the Times has hired a 1995 graduate of the University of Missouri, Meredith Artley, to the position of executive editor of LATimes.com. This was another very good thing.

This looks to be a brilliant move by the Times as Ms. Artley is as young as possible to be qualified to take onsuch an assignment, and thus as uncorrupted by the old and dying culture of the fading newsroom.

But still the Times blinks, assigning the “30+ member staff” while, what, 900 editorial employees continue working the rigging? When the navies changed over, it wasn’t at this rate because that rate would have resulted in sunk fleets.

Bill Grueskin of WSJ.com and Jim Brady of the WashingtonPost.com (despite being saddled with the brand damaging Arkin) are far ahead of their competitors, and hoping that  they slumber on as the online audience establishes its preferences and its “favorites” list before the dinosaurs realize the meteor hit a decade ago (another portion from Barnett’s book that needs reading by senior execs in media.)

What the “in for a dime but not a dollar” crowd in Los Angeles and elsewhere still don’t seem to understand, and the truly hopeless at the Strib certainly don’t, is that they had better get back to the news –in huge constant flows, not twisted to suit their tastes and not transparently manipulated to serve their agendas– and that they had better realize this will take new management with new ethics (both work- and truth-related). Those are “innovations” worth pursuing, but the time is almost run out.

More in tomorrow’s Townhall.com column.

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