We're Now Radically Dissident

    “If people would dare to speak to one another unreservedly, there would be a good deal less sorrow in the world a hundred years hence.”
         — Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh (1903)

    “All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor.”
         — Walt Whitman, preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)

When the ‘Internet Bubble’ was climbing towards its apogee four years ago, another consultant (who I won’t name here) pointedly asked me, “How can you stay in business when you’re always telling clients things that they don’t want to hear?”

I tried to explain to him that a professional consultant’s duty is to diagnose the client’s problem and recommend the most effective solution — even if the client didn’t like hearing about the problem and solution. Just as a doctor must unequivocally tell his patient about the ailment and treatment or a lawyer must unequivocally tell his client about risks and the legal strategies, so too must a business consultant unequivocally tell his client the problem and solution — even if the client so dislikes what is said that he terminates his business with the consultant. Telling business people only the things that they want to hear might gain a consultant business in the short-term, but it will destroy that business in the long-term.

“You’re going to miss out on the big business opportunities,” he skoffedin reply.

Two years ago, the lead sentence of a Folio Magazine profile of me stated, “Vin Crosbie likes lighting matches, throwing them at polite industry conversations, and seeing what happens.” It was perhaps an apt description.

Yes, I’m known in the online publishing industry for being unequivocal and direct. But many who know that might be surprised to learn that I’ve been pulling my punches, that for years I’ve hesitated to say what I really think — afraid that I might lose business if I did.

That ends now.

What’s changed is that the periodical (newspapers and magazines) publishing industry is in denial about its future. Polite denial about its looming doom. Ten years of publishing online hasn’t stopped the now more than 40-years if steady declines in newspapership readership. And the situation for magazines is even worse. So, yes, I have the temerity to say I won’t let the periodical industry meet that doom — even at the risk of being impolite.

The periodical publishing industry is exhibiting the classic symptoms of what Donald Sull, Harvard Business School’s Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurial Management, calls ‘active inertia’. Faced with huge changes in its business environment, this industry is responding not with paralysis but by persisting in — even accelerating — its traditional but now wrong business practices. The practices, processes, and values that brought the periodical publishing industry success from 1609 through about 1950 aren’t working. Yet the industry nonetheless persists at those processes, practices, and values, and seems oblivious to other ways. Moreover, newspapers and magazines are shoveling into online publishing those tried and true but wrong old processes, practices, and values. In attempting to dig themselves out of a hole, they’re just deepening it. As Sull says, “four things happen: strategic frames become blinders; processes harden into routines; relationships become shackles; and values turn into dogmas.”

Newspapers and magazines are becoming less relevant in the average person’s life. That isn’ because stories don’t exist that are relevant to that person. Those stories exist. The problem isn’t editorial as much as it is a problem of distribution. For example, the editor at the average daily newspaper receives a total of some 1,000 to 3,000 stories per day from his reporters, wire services, syndicates. Each of those many stories might be of great interest to some or a few people or even to a one person. Yet the editor won’t distribute each of those stories to whomever might be interested in it. Instead, the editor will pick perhaps 30 to 150 stories (depending upon the size of the newspaper) to publish in that day’s edition. The editor will select these stories based upon two factors: (1) greatest overall importance and (2) greatest demographic interest. The result will be a generic edition sent to all individual readers. And each reader might find only one or two or three of those 30 to 150 stories to of interest. That is frankly a lousy satisfication ratio, and why the average newspaper is less relevant now in an era when people have more choices of daily changing content. The same is being done online by most newspapers and magazines.

In Online Journalism Review this week, I examine these problems and the solutions. (I also interview nine online publishing experts whose words are well hearing.)

I may lose consulting business by being so blunt, and I regret that I might unintentionally make a few enemies doing so. But unequivocally state the problems and solutions I will. Blame me if you will. I’ve become radically dissident from the traditional course that online publishing is taking. — Vin Crosbie

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