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May 20, 2006

An Open Letter to Terrance C.Z. Egger

Welcome to Cleveland Mr. Egger. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer's new president and publisher yours is among the top 10 most important professional appointments in the past decade in Northeast Ohio. Make no mistake about it, while your appointment and announcement garnered relatively little fanfare even in our local press and even less across the nation and around the world, I am convinced that your success over the next 20 years will position you, the Plain Dealer, the City and the region to grab headlines far away from the windswept shores of Lake Erie.

The challenge for you and our community is what will constitute "your success."

Former executive editor of the Plain Dealer, Philip W. Porter, in his 1976 book, Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw makes the following important insight by way of context to my remarks below. "Newspapers in Cleveland in the last fifty years (LG: I would suggest the statement holds true to 80 years) have had an extraordinary influence on the politics and economics of the upsy-downsy industrial community on the lake.... and helped it always to look forward rather than backward. No tightly knit junta of tycoons called the shots... [a]nd the Plain Dealer ... had a strong civic conscience and motivation to make the city a better place to live and work."

Lest the point and the real challenge ahead not be clear, I found this short item from a Dec 14th, 1953 issue of Time Magazine, "In circulation, the morning Cleveland Plain Dealer (285,540) and evening Cleveland Press (310,858) run almost neck and neck. But in one other respect the Plain Dealer is no match for the Press; Press Editor Louis B. Seltzer is Cleveland's leading citizen, its biggest civic and political power, and an all-round asset to the Press which the Plain Dealer has never tried to match. Last week the Plain Dealer made its first try. As its new editor, the Plain Dealer named Wright Bryan, 48, tall (6 ft. 5 in.), civic-leading editor of the Atlanta Journal, to replace the Plain Dealer's ailing Paul Bellamy,...".

The PD and the future of the City and the region have been, and in all likelihood will remain intimately connected.

In 1995 paid circulation of the PD was north of 405,000. In 2000 it dropped to 372,000 and today, the number is probably closer to 340,000 on Monday-Friday (officially 343,000).

Of course, these numbers map the reality of the entire newspaper industry. Over the past two decades the number of adults reading the daily paper has dropped more than 20% in various of the top 100 newspaper markets. Indeed, of late, as reported by Audit Bureau of Circulation, the LA Times has seen a 1 year 5% drop and the San Francisco Chronicle a 15% drop in weekly readership. Of course, all of this while the population grows steadily (even in Ohio). Since 2000 the decrease in daily newspaper circulation has dropped 2.5 per year nationwide.

So, what does success look like? I'm not a newspaper aficionado but I would venture to guess that advertising dollar, readership, prestige, and the tradition of the 5th estate as an investigative fearless pursuer of truth in the face of power are all part of the mix.

I'm going to offer an unsolicited opinion that real success in the newspaper world is about calculated risk and the ability to balance all of the traditional factors above with the leadership skill to take the Plain Dealer to the next level. And maybe, just maybe, help to be part of reinventing the collection and distribution of news and opinion in the information age.

A quick lesson from history: newspapers and disruptive technology

As I began gathering some thoughts together for this entry, I did a quick search of the relationship of newspaper industry, which was been around in this town since at least 1842, to other moments of disruptive technology. What came to mind was the advent of news radio in America in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Radio had big dance bands and celebrities like Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Ed Wynn. In short order it also became clear that the newspaper "extra extra" editions were likely to be short lived. Radio, as it became a pervasive distribution network, could send out flashes faster than newspapers. Papers in New York, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles all bought radio stations and created a pipeline of distribution between the newsroom, the radio control room and the printing presses. Well before Imus in the Morning, reporters like Walter Winchell became personalities and opinion shapers.

Interestingly enough, in Cleveland the PD was the only Cleveland paper to buy a radio station, WHK back in 1934. But in tradition which I hope history does not allow to repeat, the PD management chose not to develop any cooperative programming. Even though the PD and other papers in town had stables of powerhouse writers none, not one became a radio personality.

The storyline outlined by Porter in his chapter called the Undercover Newsprint-Radio Deal helps to explain the great 25 year blackout. Porter basically argues that even though the PD had great advantages over its competition in town, and could have jumped on the innovation being pioneered by but a handful of calculated risk takers, it deliberately took a pass at the opportunity. According to Porter, the newspapers general managers of the PD and the Press colluded with the pulp and paper producer and distributor Scripps-Howard to pass along a 5% discount on the supply of newsprint in exchange for an agreement not to allow columnists and reporters to join the emerging creative class and radio economy of the 1930s.

Fast Forward: The PD, Cleveland's OneCommunity and the Future of the City... In search of leadership

Between 1992 and 2002, the number of full-time editorial employees at U.S. dailies fell by 8,438, almost 13 percent, according to Indiana University professor David Weaver, coauthor of The American Journalist in the 21st Century, due out this summer. By this year, about 1,200 more newsroom jobs at paid-circulation dailies had been cut, the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported.

This past week The Wall Street Journal in a story notes, "Many newspaper publishers have watched circulation decline for years, as readers, particularly younger ones, turned to newer media outlets, such as Web sites, blogs and 24-hour cable-TV news channels."

For the past 10 years, the innovators in the publishing world like former San Jose Mercury News Publisher Jay T. Harris supported newsrooms embracing new technology at the very moment that he moved to reorient the newsroom towards the priorities of the community and giving voice (in part through the power of technology) to those made invisible by the traditional newsroom. Many others in the publishing world saw the allure of the technology, if not the power of the technology to help address community priorities, and a race of the lemmings ensued to move to a parallel universe of newsprint and digital representations on the web.

I am not dismissing the importance of news portals like news.google.com, and the nytimes.com, guardian.co.uk, and of course cleveland.com. I do think, however, that more and more innovators in the news distribution world are realizing that the real opportunity is not the web, alone. The web is a presentation layer. It is a quick link between the producers and consumer of a story. The web in its current integration in the newspaper world is not an integrated economic system. Over the past 9-12 months a number of senior persons from news gathering organizations have approached Cleveland's OneCommunity effort. The common insight has been that Cleveland's community network model holds intriguing possibilities for creating a news story eco-system and economy for the 21st century. This insight is at its core the same impulse that has brought all too rare recognition from others to our city and region. It is the likes of Intel, Cisco, IBM, the Intelligent Cities Forum, ComputerWorld, CIO Magazine, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Ernst and Young to mention only the acknowledgements in the last 18 months, who see in Cleveland's OneCommunity the contours of a replicable model to help reinvent communities, the engines of economic growth and the capacity for story telling.

When radio became all the rage during the great depression innovators facing tough economic prospects in the newspaper industry jumped, not just to provide columnists to the radio airwaves, not just to become pipeline feeders for newswire services to the newsrooms of the existing radio economy. The real innovation was among those who realized that they weren't actually in the "newspaper business." Rather the newspaper business was part of a distribution system in which stories, story telling, and the analysis of all manner of stories was its stock in trade. Others who had products and services to sell or were attracted to the newspaper as a distribution point for informing the public of events or opportunities as an appendage to the human interest and fascination with story telling. And while the newspaper industry as a whole "owned" the distribution pipeline for newsprint, newsroom, delivery trucks, and paperboys, not everyone made the jump during the radio era. Some chose to rent airwaves. Others chose to set up leasing arrangement for content for reselling of content. But in key markets, forward thinking leaders in the 1920s and 1930s developed innovative business strategies which led them to own radio stations as part of their porfolio of capacity to partner with "fellow travelers" and bring stories and advertising revenue to audiences and shareholders alike.

The analog and the lessons of history may be slightly off (as I've already confessed to not being a newspaper aficionado and I am also not a scholar on the history of radio). However, I think the interest in Cleveland's OneCommunity suggests that we're on to something. For nearly four years we've worked together to pique the interest of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the OneCleveland project. Thankfully, Cleveland's OneCommunity project has now grown up under the leadership and guidance of Scot Rourke and Mark Ansboury. It continues to enjoy unprecedented community support from among and between institutional partners who otherwise and often times see no reason to collaborate. Under the skillful choreography of Nortech and the continuing support of Case Western Reserve University and the leadership from Ideastream, Cuyahoga Public Libraries, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Metro Health, the Regional Transit Authority, CSU, Tri-C, CMSD, the County, the Cities of the region and the dozens of other institutional subscribers )1C as we call it, is approaching a critical "take off" as communities, around the region, across the country and in countries all over the world are looking to get a hold of Cleveland's secret sauce. There are those at the PD who "get it" (as we like to say in tech-speak). They know who they are. What is less obvious perhaps to some is the opportunity that exists for the PD to not only report on Cleveland's OneCommunity but to actively and significantly join and help shape the future of the OneCommunity project.

OneCommunity is the 21st century analog to owning the radio airwaves. Not unlike the investments made to set up distribution eco-systems for newsprint, radio, and television, Cleveland's OneCommunity represents an opportunity by the Cleveland Plain Dealer to invest in and support the development of the 21st century most important distribution system. The PD can chose to rent space on someone else's distribution system. It can choose to simply lease some of its content to others who might want to redistribute it. Or, the Plain Dealer, the hometown incumbent player could take the bold move and be first among its peers to help build out the OneCommunity infrastructure. The goal is not to just to make Cleveland.com a better web site or capable of supporting real time readership feedback on web log entries (although that would be ok). Rather, it is my hope Mr. Egger that we can interest you in exploring with all of us how to position the Cleveland Plain Dealer as part of the owner-operator cooperative in building out next generation ultra-broadband, wireless services, interactive communications infrastructure, and to become "the" news organization in the country that attracts the best and brightest journalism and communications students who want to build with you (and us) a 21st century news and story telling organization using all the advanced technology tools we have today and the countless new and innovative breakthroughs that will appear over the horizon.

Back in 1971, Alan Kay, one of the true geniuses of the technology age said "Don't worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it." Mr. Egger, we think we're doing some small part of that together here in Cleveland. There's room under the tent for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. We look forward to your leadership and your willingness to take calculated risks in helping to reinvent your profession and with it your success (and ours).

Lev Gonick
Cleveland, May 21, 2006

Posted by lsg8 at May 20, 2006 06:34 PM and tagged Bytes 

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I’m not sure we will see a print publication allow for a leader to emerge again as did Louis Seltzer with the Cleveland Press. Those who “buy ink by the barrel” are not quite as fearsome (or exclusive) as they used to be because of those who don’t buy ink at all but still reach large numbers of people.

And that is good in many ways. If Louis Seltzer declared that Sam Shephard killed his wife, he could drive that home every night and there weren’t many options to read other opinions. Today with blogs and other on-line news, there are many more voices which dilutes the power of those who held it before.

While the PD has 340,000 subscribers how many read it cover-to-cover? I would venture that the percentage is far less than the 30,000 weekly readers of Thomas Mulready’s CoolCleveland. Or the 10,000+ daily visitors to my own ClevelandSeniors.com or George Nemeth’s BrewedFreshDaily or…

As technology becomes more familiar and comfortable, those numbers will explode. I know seniors who used to get the paper just to do the Jumble and clip coupons. Now many are playing Sudoku online and printing out coupons from web sites. When a site geared toward seniors (not the first adopters of technology) and limited (intentionally) by geography like ClevelandSeniors.com gets well over 1 million hits per month, that should demonstrate the potential of this medium – and perk up the ears of the print world.

I still love print. I read the PD each day (not cover-to-cover) and get almost 40 print publications each month – many are weeklies. And you know I love Inside Business Magazine. Joe Frolik almost single-handedly got us all talking about the Quiet Crisis. And I think Lute Harmon Sr. is one of the few who could become a Seltzer-like player in town.

In addition, since the barriers to entry on-line are so low, there is certainly a lot more garbage posted. And we face the fractured society situation where we no longer all watch Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights and share that common experience. The debate rages as to whether having personalized news is good or bad.

So I don’t think that newspaper or print in general are going away yet but they are being forced to adapt – probably faster than they would have liked – to online authors and content.

Posted by: Dan Hanson at May 24, 2006 07:02 PM

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