Some newspapers are finally looking inward for the answers to circulation declines -- and finding that self-reflection can produce ugly truths.
The NAA's annual conference on marketing this week offered a session entitled "Winning Strategies: Coaching Towards a New Culture" and keeping with the organization's sophomoric gridiron theme for its convention (see logo for NAA's new media conference) described the panel thusly: "Learn how three publishers from a variety of professional backgrounds have shaped the culture of their winning teams. They will share information from their playbooks about their own career progression as well as steps they have taken to positively influence change within their companies."
Editor and Publisher's report from the conference didn't have much to say about positive influence. Instead, it portrayed these player/publisher coaches as baffled by the ennui and self-loathing in their own organizations.
Marti Buscaglia, of the Duluth News-Tribune, said she wanted an "environment that fostered responsibility and autonomy, rewarded performance and encouraged better interdepartmental communication. An analysis of employee surveys, however, found those qualities wanting.
"When we looked at our results, they were horrible," she said. "Like many newspapers, we found we were passive/defensive."
Even worse, she said, "staffers said in surveys that they wouldn't recommend the paper to prospective employees or customers."
And these are not even the cynics in the newsroom. These are the people being paid to sell the paper.
Let's state something simple: A newspaper is a business. It is an information product that competes in a changing, option-rich marketplace that increasingly awards content innovation, customer interaction and convenience of service.
These characteristics cannot be developed by an organization with a passive/defensive personality -- whatever that is. (Hey, we don't didn't do anything so don't blame us!)
At another NAA convention only two weeks ago, this one on readership, a demographer urged editors and publishers to adopt the mantra of Service, Context and Dialogue as a mechanism of survival.
Heck, even a passive/defensive publisher ought to be able to say that three times a day.
(By the way, the Duluth News Tribune is owned by Knight-Ridder, which just issued a rosy revenue outlook for 2003. Maybe it should use some of that money to send a shrink to Duluth.)
UPDATE, Jan. 30: Thanks to Meg from Rewrite! for the pointer to this definition of Passive/Defensive: Represents an unduly strong orientation toward people as opposed to tasks, fuelled by and reinforcing individual insecurity. These styles characterise people who subordinate themselves to the organisation but, in the process, end up creating stress for themselves and allowing the organisation to stagnate. Passive/Defensive styles can produce a predictable and secure situation, but at the cost of learning, adaptability and ultimately survival.