Monday, December 13, 2004

Making lemonade out of lemmings

My old friend Steve Yahn, a scrappy journalist who has helmed such publications as Ad Age and Editor & Publisher Magazine, once referred to our bosses at the late Chicago Daily News as "rabbits." I could tell by his tone that he didn't mean it as a compliment.

"What do you mean?" I asked, as battered Smith-Coronas clacked loudly through the smoky newsroom and a Rube Goldberg-style conveyor belt whirred over our heads, carrying wads of hastily edited copy to the clattering composing room.

"They've got no guts," Steve huffed, swigging a cold gulp of see-through, vending machine coffee. "They just run like rabbits to their holes."

Not long after that, the newspaper was shut down and about 300 colleagues and I were encouraged to explore new career opportunities.

In fairness to the rabbits, there wasn't much they could have done to save our distinguished evening newspaper from declining circulation; rising production and delivery costs, and perhaps the greatest culprit of all -- prime-time TV.

Newspapers in 1978 were produced pretty much the same way they were made in 1878, 1778 and, heck, 1478.

No one debated the nuances of the "business model." It was older than Benjamin Franklin himself. There were only two choices: sell more ads or cut costs. The most radical variation on those themes was doing both at the same time.

But that was then and this is now.

Today, as you might have heard, we have the Internet and cell phones and iPODs and wireless PDAs and what-all. Each of these technologies offers unprecedented opportunities to give and get information. And each suggests a rich variety of new revenue and profit streams.

Yet, the proprietors of the press are oblivious, walking arm and arm with Poor Richard to Armageddon.

You couldn't blame the rabbits in 1978. They were simple creatures, obeying their instincts, doing the best they could with the information and resources available to them.

But the guys who run today's newspapers have no such excuse. When are these lemmings going to learn how to make lemonade?



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