Fourth publisher the charm for LAT?
Eddy Hartenstein has a shot at success, because, unlike his three predecessors, he has the decided advantage of not being a newspaper guy.
Accordingly, he is under no professional or personal obligation to preserve, protect and defend his track record or the practices of an industry whose business model has not changed materially since Benjamin Franklin was a lad.
But the tradition and the inertia of the Times will catch up with Eddy quickly – and potentially drag him into the same black hole that consumed his predecessors – if he fails to follow these three simple rules:
1. Listen to advertisers and non-advertisers, not your sales staff.
The overwhelming impulse throughout the newspaper industry is to do everything possible to keep the business in 2008 as much as possible like it was in 2000. It would be nice if newspapers could do so. But let’s get real.
Many retail, auto, recruitment and real estate advertisers in the last eight years have lost faith in the print advertising that accounts for some 90% of newspaper sales. They won’t come back when the economy rebounds.
But advertisers still need customers and still want to improve their market share. The Times can be a powerful partner for them, owing to its widely known brand, its unparalleled content-generation capabilities and the millions of print and online impressions that it delivers every week.
If Eddy spends time talking with his customers (and non-customers) to learn what they need, he will have an abundance of resources at his command to create the new print and online products that advertisers want.
2. Listen to readers and non-readers, not journalists.
With all due respect to the newspaper’s distinguished news staff, most reporters and editors have lost touch with what modern readers – and non-readers – want.
If they could bring themselves to having sincere, open-minded and no-holds-barred discussions with the consumers (and non-consumers) of their product, this talented group could respond by producing any number of innovative print and interactive products.
But most journalists are wedded to preserving the “Father Knows Best” approach to journalism, wherein they decide what is important; they do the reporting and writing, and they decide what the reader gets to read and when she gets to read it.
One-way journalism doesn’t fly with most younger readers – and it is barely clearing the runway with older ones, either. People increasingly are accustomed to picking and choosing what they read, hear and watch. If they don’t like the available media, they are ready, willing and able to make their own.
To reassert its relevance in the busy lives of its readers (and to attract non-readers), the Times needs to stop trying to emulate the New York Times or Washington Post and concentrate on becoming a top-notch regional publication that runs shorter, tauter, more analytical and more forward-looking stories. Editors should take the path of least resistance in relaying information, too, meaning that sometimes a graphic, original document or a page of data will be a better way to tell a story than a 1,000-word yarn.
The website is too important to remain a largely static repository for articles published in the prior day’s newspaper. The site needs to become an organic, dynamic and interactive mirror of the community. Journalists need to come down from their ivory towers to encourage, moderate and, when appropriate, supplement online reader comments on major stories. In other words, journalists need to engage their audience, not lecture it.
And, yes, editors need to help the advertising department develop the new features and products that will help stabilize and grow revenues.
3. Stop playing defense. Try new stuff.
Newspapers are a lot like factories filled with big, red buttons that any worker can punch to stop the assembly line in an emergency.
In an age of shriveling revenues and shrinking payrolls, those buttons are getting pushed all too often by the functionaries at publishing companies who don’t understand how to respond to the new market realities, are afraid to change and understandably are terrified of their losing jobs.
Eddy can’t rely on information and advice from people operating out of ignorance, self-interest and fear. And he can’t let them slow him down, either.
In introducing himself to the staff this week, Eddy said he likes to manage by walking around and promised to "talk to any existing, new or prospective advertiser," according to an account in the Times.
It sounds as though he is off to a good start. But he had better watch out for those big, red buttons.