Sisyphus and Cassandra don't live here any more

In the nearly 15 years that I've been advocating on behalf of online media at newspaper companies, it's often seemed that the heroes of online journalism were Sisyphus and Cassandra.

Sisyphus was a crafty and devious king of Corinth. We've all been crafty and devious from time to time. Breaking the rules may be the only way to get anything done.

Sisyphus broke enough rules that he came to the attention of Zeus, who arranged a novel and eternal punishment. Sisyphus would roll a huge rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down onto him. And then he'd have to go do it again. Endless, crushing cycles.

Sort of like site designs. Or CMS implementations. Or sales training.

Cassandra was a Trojan beauty who attracted the eye of Apollo, who granted her the gift of prophesy. She spurned him, and his revenge was to make no one believe her predictions. The Trojan Horse, the death of Agamemnon ... she saw it all coming, but could do nothing, because her warnings were ignored.

We've all been there. Nothing about the current troubles of the U.S. newspaper industry should be a surprise, but for years every warning was met with "there will always be a need for newspapers," "you're just being negative," and "I'm to busy for that; I have a paper to get out."

But things have changed. Sisyphus and Cassandra don't live here any more.

I don't mean to say everything's OK; far from it. But I think a lot of onliners are laboring under a curse that's been lifted.

Credit, or blame, Bruce Sherman. He's the investor who kicked the legs out from under Knight-Ridder.

That brought to an end a decade in which editors could pretend that everything was just fine. In the ensuing economic carnage, it's become clear to almost everybody that the era of print-centric thinking is every bit as dead as the era of cheap gasoline and mammoth Detroit-built SUVs.

Now a lot of onliners are the ones stuck in the past, protecting territories, railing against the print guys the way political crackpots rail against the nonexistent monopoly of "mainstream media."

This is not the time for that. There are still curmudgeons to be dealt with (or left behind), and there are obstacles to be overcome, but this is the time to create new organizations, not refight old battles.

I've spent a bunch of time with editors recently. Among the many I've met, the denial is gone. What's left includes a great deal of something else from Greek mythology: Chaos. But Chaos led to the birth of a whole new world.


When I was a copy editor, I felt much like Sisyphus. Each day I would do the same work with the same end result. I got to use different words. But each day I would find that rock sitting on my desk for me to roll out to the printing presses.

Glad you have found editors finally willing to face the inevitable and maybe try to do something about it. Those at my place still largely prefer delusion and denial. Not just the higher-ups, who seem to be working double-time now to quell questions and dissent, but also many of the middle and lower managers who insist this will all work out fine in the end. Why? Because people will always need newspapers. In the past week I have heard from four different mid-level types at my place that the biggest mistake newspapers ever made was to give away their content. If they had just banded together and built the great cyber wall around their sites (it would not have been visible from space, btw) then everything would be fine. Ask these same people why newspapers didn't band together to built Google, YouTube, Craigslist and you get angry retorts. That's not our mission, those sites just steal from real journalists, we're better than that, they don't do anything worthwhile anyway. I'm glad you are meeting people, as we stand on the brink of unhappily never after for many newspapers including my own, who now seem ready to face the future and respond. Send a few of them my way.