Wrong Decisions

(news and commentary)

The Chicago Sun-Times laid off their entire photography staff today, all 28 of them. What will they use instead of Pulitzer Prize photographers like John H. White? Freelancers and reporters. 

Holy crap the newspapers just don't get it. I've now been saying for 15 years that they're making wrong decisions. To succeed in the newspaper (or magazine or TV or even the Web media) business, you have to deliver quality. Quality that your potential customers want. 

What happened is this: the newspapers got lazy and bloated. Classified advertising (real estate, jobs, miscellaneous items) created huge per-page revenues in addition to the big display ads (often from brick and mortar retailers). Everything in their business model was predicated on advertising, and they slowly forgot that content was what had people buying papers in the first place. Unfortunately, eBay took the miscellaneous ads, Zillow/Trulia/et.al. took down most of the real estate advertising, Monster and others took down the help wanted ads, and along came Amazon making a lot of brick and mortars look carefully at what was really bringing the dollars in for them.

For most of the big city papers I watched the big financial change these things created hit them in less than five years. Their first reaction was to say "oh, we need to have an Internet site, and our reporters need to shoot video, too." How'd that work out for them? Exactly as I predicted: it's a different business, and many of them are still laboring to figure it out. Even the ones that do aren't pulling in the numbers that they did with their printed papers, so success at online didn't necessarily equate to "fixing the paper's problems." 

I wrote these words back in 1998, and I'll repeat them today: give me total control over any large market newspaper and I'll make it a profitable, growing enterprise. The how is easy, but it's not the way everyone is approaching the problem. (By the way, these are not idle words. I have a strong track record in multiple media types, especially running magazines, which have similar problems to newspapers).

The history of media is replete with "X is dead, Y will crush it so that X will eventually just go away." Let's see, we still have radio, movies, TV, and yes, newspapers. Heck, we still have the LP record. In the case of newspapers specifically, the real changes that needed to occur were: reset the contractual obligations, shift from totally ad-based to more balanced and partly circulation-based revenue/profit streams, up the content levels to a quality that shows why you still need a newspaper instead of random (often wrong) tweets and hastily written stories trying to beat TV reporting to the punch.

So here we have the Sun-Times doing the opposite: lowering the quality. Wrong decision. Just for the heck of it, I went to the Sun-Times Web site when I heard the news. Woohoo, forced pop-up windows with ads! One-third of the page mostly ads. And no news about them firing their photography staff. Chicago Tribune? Yep, the Sun-Times firing is breaking news, right where I'd expect to find it, and replete with video interviews of some of the staffers just let go. Hmm, two papers that want to be video outlets.

More curious is the Sun-Times statement about the firing: "...our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news." Really? In a printed paper? Of course they're referring to digital devices, such as mobile phones and tablets. Basically, they want to be Yahoo Chicago or CNN Chicago. Think that's going to work for them any better? And do they really think that giving reporters a video camera makes them great videographers and doesn't lessen their ability as a reporter? 

So I ask you: when did you demand that your newspaper give you more video? Isn't that what we have TV stations for? As far as I know, the Sun-Times doesn't have any ownership in a TV station--and there are some very powerful ones in Chicago--so what I hear them saying is "we couldn't make it in the newspaper business, so we're going to take on the TV stations using our Internet properties." How do you think that'll work out for them with reporters as camera people? 

Prediction: in their next content cost cutting move, the Sun-Times will seek to crowd source their video ("send us your smartphone video"). 

If you're in the content business, there's one simple rule you have to remember: create the best content for your chosen media. First, you can sell great content to customers (circulation revenue). Second, you can sell your access to a great set of customers to others (advertising revenue). Corollary: if you don't invest in the content, you'll die. First, because you don't attract a large enough audience and can't hold them. Second, because the declining audience will scare advertisers away. Finally, if you just run from your chosen medium to try to dominate another one, you're playing moose to someone else's elephant. Prepare to get stepped on.

This applies to photographers, as well. It's really tough to stand out as a photographer these days, as great gear is ubiquitous and digital has helped lots of people get far better skill levels. Still, if you want to stand out, you have to create great content, content that's above the rest of the crop. That means you have to constantly practice and refine your craft and develop images that are uniquely yours. Compelling images where nothing detracts from what you were trying to achieve. Images that haven't been seen before, either stylistically or in how you approached the subject. Images that sing. Or you could just outsource your imaging to your kids and their smartphones. Let me know how that works out for you.

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