There are few examples of newspaper publishers who effectively and productively managed the stultifying industry changes of the last decade. Newspapers tried to ignore first the internet and then social media; they adapted poorly and failed miserably to understand that everyone, not just a few editors, now controlled the media.
But American newspapers flourished for 150 years and they seem to be righting themselves in what for them is a scary new world. They will likely never again claim 30 percent profit margins, or revenue levels and influence that made them, in general, the most powerful and influential, if resented, institutions in their cities.
National newspapers owned by publicly traded companies, like those in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, watched their value shrink faster than the circa 1900 horse and buggy they are often compared to.
Investor Warren Buffett, whose fortune started with his Washington, D.C. paper route, has long loved newspapers. However, his recent purchase of his hometown Omaha World-Herald, does not represent a turning point for the newspaper business.
First, it’s a rare emotional buy for Buffett for what has to amount to chump change for the multi-billionaire. He nonetheless couched the purchase with his usual clear-eyed view of the market landscape: “It won’t be like the past. But there are still a lot of things newspapers can do better than any other media,” he said of his reasoning.
In a crisis, don’t forget those words. Most local newspapers, which will continue to shed staff, still have a reporting roster twice or thrice the size of local TV and 10 to 20 times what radio stations and news web sites can put on the street. That results in original reporting, usually with experienced and talented journalists who know where to look.
This means newspapers remain the key media player in a crisis — unless the crisis is solely web or social-media based. The role of most local newspapers goes well beyond “reporter of information,” especially in a crisis. Newspapers set the media agenda that, like it or not, all other media tend to follow.
If a newspaper sinks its teeth into your crisis and flogs you mercilessly, TV, radio and blogs will likely act like the terriers they usually aren’t. If a newspaper gives you a pass or ends coverage because it’s satisfied you answered all the questions properly, the other media will crawl back in their holes as well.
An example? In 2006, the Syracuse Post-Standard went to appropriate lengths to determine if sexual abuse allegations against Syracuse University assistant men’s basketball coach Bernie Fine were true. The newspaper, as explained in a blog post after the revelations of 2011 emerged, decided they could not be corroborated, just as the university’s separate internal investigation.
If it had decided otherwise and published a series of stories effectively branding Fine as a molester of young boys, there would be no 2011 crisis and someone other than Jim Boeheim and Fine would have been coaching SU basketball the last five years.
Most crisis managers have love-hate relationships with their local newspapers. That’s fine, but don’t ever dismiss yours in a crisis as insignificant in your extraction strategy, or in its power to keep the crisis alive.
Newspapers may not be the media monarchs they were in the 20th Century, but they still wield the biggest sword, command the largest army and command fealty among the competition.