My employer of 24 years, The Columbian, is facing bankruptcy. It is, in so many ways, a microcosm not only of the newspaper industry but of the broader economy as well.
Society has been changing rapidly, making the traditional newspaper model look old and obsolete. Faced with those societal shifts, the paper could have shifted from its traditional manufacturing model to a knowledge-based model. It did not.
Much like the American auto industry ignored shifting needs and focused ever more on the aspect of its business that was dying instead of evolving for the future, the paper chose to gut its new media efforts to refocus on its dying newsprint product (“The Big Dog” as the paper’s editor was still calling it earlier this year).
Despite plummeting circulation and ad sales, the paper chose to invest heavily. Not in its future, but in real estate. After all, the thinking went, you can’t lose on real estate, can you? So up went a gleaming high-rise headquarters, a monument to a bygone era.
Of course as with the case of our Federal government these past eight years, “investing” really meant “borrowing,” mortgaging the future with no coherent plan for how pay off the debt.
To pay off that debt, the company had to slash spending on its infrastructure and on what John McCain might call its “fundamentals”: the people who create the only real value an information company has. Somehow in the eyes of the big shots, those working-class folks were the problem, not the solution. Lavishing more money on the wealthy owners was the surefire way of having prosperity trickle down to the masses.
So spending on the product shriveled, and customers continued to leave in droves. The future was shot, but the present sure was comfy, all holed up in the new palace.
Comfy, at least, until the banks and real estate experts who had helped fuel this madness realized that they, too, were operating on debt with no coherent plan for paying it off. Now, luckily for them, they had their buddies in the Federal government to bail them out. The argument, of course, is that by stabilizing the supply side, the bailout would trickle down to the companies that actually employ people, and from there trickle down to those hapless “fundamentals” who created the mess in the first place.
And maybe all that will happen. In the meantime, dozens of people who devoted years of their lives to The Columbian are out of work. The paper is losing its gleaming new McHighrise. Bankruptcy looms.
The company says it’s adapting to the changing marketplace. It’s investing in technology to better automate production of the print product, with the side benefit of automating the shoveling of its tired old wares onto those new-fangled internet pipes (pipes that will carry the printed product up to Alaska for Ted Stevens and, yabetcha, Sarah Palin, so she can continue to read all the papers).
Life in the District of Columbian is a mess. Fear grips everyone involved. There’s no certainty that the paper can survive this crisis. If it does survive, it has no plan for surviving the next inevitable crisis. All it has to point to is more than 100 years of history. We’ve always survived, the execs say. This crisis will be no different.
I hope they’re right. For that to happen, however, they’ll need to make dramatic changes. A change of leadership would work wonders. That’s not likely to happen, of course, because the failed leaders who created the mess are just certain that they’re the ones to fix it. The paper is a proud independent – and the leaders believe they form a proven team of mavericks – and therefore perfectly suited to bring about the necessary changes.
In light of all that, I would like to be able to tell my friends still clinging to life on the sinking ship that everything will be OK.
I would love to.
I just can’t.