Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Robert: The future waits for no one

Here is an essay, written by Robert Cook, about progress, and the importance of keeping up:

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The news is alive and well. The newspaper business just hasn't adjusted to the times in terms of providing the best way to deliver their product. The thing is that newspapers are just one of several industries that haven't recognized the real changes in our economic climate and the ways that affect how consumers do business.

Industries that are consumer-driven are struggling right now. Three of the most visible are newspapers, the automotive industry, and retail stores. I see three strong factors in how people are doing business these days is taking a toll on these businesses:

1. The economy. This seems like a no-brainer but I don't think it's affecting things in a completely obvious way. Sure, people who have lost jobs or income can't pay for a newspaper or buy a new car or go shopping. It’s more than that, though. Everyone is being more cautious and thoughtful about how and where they spend their money. There are easy ways to sacrifice without really sacrificing and there are some easy choices where people can cut back without having to completely do without.

Families opting to ditch the second or third car or people deciding they don't need to replace the 2- or 3-year old car just because it lost that new car smell is a modest and sensible adjustment when you’re not feeling confident about the economy -- but this is having an impact on auto sales. Shopping at a high-end retail store when the items you want are available online or at a big box store at a substantial discount gets less and less appealing when the extra money is essentially going toward the shopping experience and not toward a superior product. With newspapers, the news is already coming into people's homes for free. They're already paying for cable and the Internet, so using those tools to get their news is only logical. They might miss the feel of the paper in their hands and the smell of newsprint but those are luxuries when the information is already waiting for them in their homes.

2. The information age. The computer has made everything easier and it's changing people's habits. As mentioned, the news is already in people's homes. What's more, there is more news than anyone can possibly digest and with blogs and RSS feeds, people can choose news sources that are tailored specifically to their points of view or interests. Telecommuting is reducing the need for actual commuting and the need for multiple cars in some families. Shopping online is more convenient and cost-effective because online stores do not have the overhead associated with the costs of retail display. Online stores pass the savings on to the consumer while allowing them to shop in the comfort of their own homes.

3. The green movement. Online shopping has another appeal to some consumers: reducing car use. The segment of the population that is trying to reduce its environmental impact is growing. Shopping online means one less car on the road that day. It's one less necessary parking space. It may mean one less giant building filled with unnecessary stores turning off its lights. Telecommuting isn’t just an easy thing to do in the information age – it has a green benefit . It ends up being one more reason to not buy a car. People are riding the bus or their bikes to work, too. People who tried the bus when gas was four bucks figured out that they like being able to read a book instead of stressing out about the person who just cut them off. People who chose a bike are starting to like how they feel with the extra exercise. As for the newspaper business, people are less inclined to cut down trees so they can read and they don't want trucks taking the news to them when it can get delivered over a wire using power that is also getting greener.

The problem for these industries is not that the economy is failing or that consumers are abandoning them. It's that those businesses lacked the vision to anticipate the changing times. Things are in place in more and more parts of the country (and world) to live a modern lifestyle without a car, with online shopping. And no one really needs a newspaper anymore. It seems like businesses that succeed are the ones that provide what people will want next, rather than providing the same old thing. The phone companies have survived by providing high speed internet, cable television alternatives, and mostly by providing wireless telephone service so that they are still getting the phone business as people turn away from land-based telephone communication. The entertainment industry has delivered fast and easy access to films, music, and television programming via the internet in anticipation of its market moving that way entirely.

Meanwhile, retail businesses continue to sink big money into big buildings that are expensive to keep open and into inventory that is moving more slowly just as people become less interested in driving to stores. Meanwhile, Amazon has come along and started providing *EVERYTHING* cheaper and more conveniently. It's a better business model and businesses that can't adapt to it are doomed.

The automobile industry is going to watch its product become obsolete while some other mode of transportation takes over. The automotive manufacturers have pushed the idea of the car as an extension of one's personality instead of pushing to develop better transportation models. They lobbied the government to force the infrastructure toward highways, streets and roads when they could have worked with the government to develop faster, cleaner, safer forms of transportation. Now, as people's attention slowly turns to other ways of traveling, they're looking for a handout. The government should be pushing bailout money toward manufacturers and industries that are providing tomorrow's transportation -- not yesterday's -- and giving an incentive to those companies that will train our auto workers to do it. Our government should be subsidizing growth, not stagnation.

The newspapers are failing because the Internet is where most people get their news and most newspapers aren't providing the best online news or doing it in a way that will earn them enough money. Blogs and national TV media seem to be providing the news with a profit model that allows them to stay in business. As newspapers fall away, the demand for the quality that is lost will probably and eventually get met by the most successful of these enterprises. It will be interesting to see how local coverage gets handled -- if small newspapers will continue to survive as they meet small community needs or if local blogs and online news sources will pop up to address that need as well. One of the nice things about capitalism is that if there is a market for something, someone will start a business to provide it.

The bottom line, to me, is that businesses are failing because they aren't adapting, and the shame of it is not that businesses are going under but that workers are not being prepared for the transition. Auto workers could have been trained to make super-fast trains (and still can be), whether it is for GM or for some new company that is making super-fast trains. Retail workers can be trained to provide customer support for the increased volume of online shoppers or provide customer service selling tickets for super-fast trains. Sportswriters can … well…I guess the transition won’t be easy for everyone. Apparently, there is no need for sportswriters in a world of super-fast trains. Unless we race them!

Actually, sportswriters can write interesting blogs, develop an audience and make sure that and have someone local and knowledgeable covering the Royals or the Nuggets or the Browns. Local sports fans will expect more local coverage from national outlets, as will local residents looking for more general local coverage. It doesn't matter if the Rocky Mountain News is open as long as someone is providing news about the Rocky Mountains and that the journalists who used to work for that paper can still feed their kids, ideally doing something they enjoy.

I realize this essay isn’t newspaper-specific but I see the issue as bigger than just the newspapers. Understanding the plight of newspapers as part of a larger picture seems useful to me. It is also important that we, as a society, remain open to change as something natural and inevitable. The horse and carriage and town crier industries have been in tough shape for a while but there was not an intermediate stage where we were without news or transportation. Blacksmiths making horseshoes gave way to mechanics just as people who were good at ringing bells and yelling gave way to news writers. Some blacksmiths probably learned to become mechanics and some town criers developed their writing skills. Industries are born and grow and change and fail in a more or less constant flux. People get left behind and hurt and that is a harsh aspect of reality but businesses and industries giving way to something new is progress and, when it's faster, cheaper, easier, and cleaner, that's a good thing.


  1. Re not just newspapers: According to Bob Garfield's article in Advertising Age, all media are in trouble.

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