This is the year of the great reunification. Throughout the newspaper industry, the Internet and print people are being bound together into one organization. It is dangerous, but I'm pushing hard for it.
It's dangerous because we could lose any ability to innovate, especially in the area of content. Clayton Christensen has documented how successful organizations fail because they kill innovation. It's not that people are bad or stupid -- the organizations strangle on their own history of success.
Newsrooms are factories, assembly-line systems for producing news products. They're not designed for product development and they're highly risk-averse. They're lashed to a hungry monster called "the newspaper" and it demands to be fed, right now. We've all heard it: "I don't have time for that -- I have a newspaper to get out." That sort of thing.
So why is unification necessary? It's not to help the Internet -- it's to help print. Readership continues to decline. The audience is wandering away. Many print editors continue to be in deep denial that anything is wrong. "Our circulation is still strong ... our loyal readers are still with us ... family newspaper." Market growth and circulation flimflam have masked the problem. Data on readership frequency, especially among younger consumers, point to big trouble.
A shakeup is in order. To succeed, our newsrooms themselves must change, and this may be our best opportunity to do it. We need to move while we still have the strength to move.
The Internet has created a new conversation space where we can reconnect our journalism processes with our audience's reality. The best online journalists have figured this out. The best onliners are the ones who have discovered the new role of journalism: facilitating conversations, listening and leading, adding value by participation, sharing control while earning respect.
A few years ago I was in Zurich, Switzerland, for an invitation-only think-tank session. There were two dozen of us representing U.S. and European media companies. Dr. Peter Kruse, who specializes in using computer software to extract insights from the minds of business executives, wired us all into a network in a meeting room in the stock exchange building, and set to work squeezing our brains.
Two days later, one thing was overwhelmingly clear: In order to for our media companies to gain the perspective and flexibility needed to succeed in this rapidly changing world, it was imperative that entrepreneurial risk-takers from the online divisions ascend to senior roles in their companies.
One newspaper that gets this is the Guardian, which has admitted it may have just installed the last presses it will ever own. Emily Bell, editor of Guardian Unlimited, is now executive editor of the newspaper.
Print editors can do it. Two print guys I absolutely trust are Kyle Poplin and Rob Holquist of Bluffton Today. For them, the goal is sustaining "a community in conversation with itself" with professional journalism playing an integral role. The Web and print products are just tools to get there, and listening is as important as writing.
But I have seen other cases in which onliners were pushed aside (and even out the door) when a newsroom seized control of a Web operation. If concerns about power and office politics determine the outcome, the result is two giant steps backward. We can't have that when it's critically important to be leaping ahead.