The news industry recently reported a bankruptcy protection filed by the Tribune Company that will give media conglomerates the recipe for their own disasters.
Sam Zell’s destruction of the Tribune Company is not just bad for its 20,000 employees – it’s bad for all journalists. Media empires will be even less likely to experiment and innovate, opting for a line of playing it safe ten times worse than they currently do (Yes, this statistic has been fact-checked).
Past newspaper tycoons like William Randolph Hearst, S.I. Newhouse Sr., and James McClatchy achieved monopolies because they took risks. Taking on similar risks should likewise be the priority of every media professional. Currently, most newspaper publishers disagree.
One of the latest last-ditch efforts media companies have attempted is Twitter, a social networking site where users can broadcast comments, provided they are 140 characters or less, to friends and strangers. The move represents a safe bet instead of a bold innovation, though. Even then, they’re screwing it up.
Only one news company in the Top 100 Twitter accounts manages to produce content with a notable market size. CNN provides a breaking news feed, landing it in a rightfully earned position of the fourth most followed Twitter account with 64,548 followers.
The company’s secret? Provide original content. Every other news organization in the Top 100 merely links news items it produces for its Web edition. The “updates” are barely digestible, and they simply slap the reader in the face, demanding him or her to visit the company’s Web site instead of actually providing a service.
But CNN Breaking News on Twitter has another peculiar aspect. Aside from updating Twitter with original content rather than shovelware (copying print content to the Web), the feed has the least amount of updates for any news-related Twitter post in the Top 100.
The three “traditional” news organizations in this list (see table), started Twitter feeds 19 months to 23 months ago, making them comparable. The New Times provided 24,468 updates during that time, but it only captured 14,393 followers. CNN Breaking News posted 528 original updates.
Twitter Top 100
You’ll notice if you visit Twitterholic.com that CNN even hits a home run with ancillary services. Five months ago, TV anchor Rick Sanchez started an account, and he already has 34,938 followers, landing the company the greatest media market share on Twitter.
When I profiled the workplace of The Philadelphia Inquirer in November, a reporter told me she’s willing to learn new technology but that management has no idea where to head. Go figure – arrive nearly 20 years late to the party, tiptoe with Web development, and here’s what you get: walloping ad declines, a crippling grasp of power to retain print publications, and no way to save yourself in the digital age.
In a way, though, Philadelphia Media Holdings, which owns The Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, has the right idea – keep your mind open. Be Darwinian. Experiment. But the company gets it all wrong when management implicitly says, “We deserve to make those decisions.” No, not if you have no more foresight than your lowliest employee.
Evolutionary psychologists and biologists know that failure is inevitable in success. The late Stephen J. Gould, a geology and zoology professor at Harvard University, referred to this in his hecatomb analogy.
Gould explains a hecatomb as a sacrifice of 100 oxen, and the comparison regards evolution’s multi-step, short-sighted progression. Imagine you were on a rural hill and headed toward the center of town, but you could not take a direct path. Instead, you had a circle of 100 flags around you, each 50 meters away from you, and you had one shot. The flag you hit would be a new marker for you to stand at and shoot again, but for each shot, you must close your eyes, spin around, and shoot blindfolded.
This is essentially how Darwinian evolution operates. Populations obtain certain characteristics (each a flag) from reproduction, the environment and natural selection. The survivors (hitting a target, which in practice is much more than one), move forward without any direction. The only goal evolution has is survival (which may be the center of town or perhaps an adjacent, rural hill).
Zell’s attempt was noteworthy. It’s as much of a success moving away from old-school journalism as it was a failure. But unfortunately, the media will use the example to quash deviations from the norm, rather than embrace them. And that’s how print journalists wrote their own obits!