It's 2021; Don't Fall Behind

By | Friday, November 12, 2021 2 comments
My day jobs over the past 25-ish years have all been based around the web. Sometimes design, sometimes development, sometimes management... but always web based. By contrast, I have a friend who, until a couple weeks ago, had spent the last 20 years at a newspaper. He finally got fed up with how he was being treated there, and I helped him get a job at my current employer.

Earlier this week, we had a global staff meeting where they relayed the status of various major initiatives, new clients we've signed, etc. Since my friend is less than two weeks into the job, I was shooting him some message to provide some context. And about half-way through the meeting, he said felt like he'd been in the Dark Ages before. But interestingly, he wasn't responding to the technology -- I think going from a primarily print business to a primarily online one comes with some understanding that you're going to work a little differently. What he was responding to more was the organization of the company itself: who was in charge of what, what internal initiatives were underway, how the company responded to employee concerns and issues... basically how the company functions.

I like my employer and I think they give a lot of consideration to their employees. But the roles they're creating, the processes they're putting in place to accomodate growth... they're nothing particularly revolutionary or even that progressive. They're more-or-less standard best practices for businesses the 21st century. This is the stuff being taught to MBA students today -- hell, this was stuff I was taught during my MBA nearly 20 years ago! And yet the newspaper my friend was working at had none of that. Whether they hadn't heard about any of it to begin with or knew about but actively ignored it, I don't know. Heck, maybe someone there was pushing for it and it was one guy in upper management who said "no." Regardless, much of it was new to my friend.

When COVID started really blowing up last year, my company was able to pivot quickly and make a number of changes to how it operates. Our industry (online education) was one that was very much buoyed by the pandemic, but it was only because we weren't sticking to old thinking and old scripts that we were able to capitalize on those external factors. Had the newspaper been able to move remotely similarly, they might not have had to let go over half their employees.

And that's why I bring this up. When people complain about how entire industries (like, say, comic strip syndicates) aren't keeping up, it's generally not about the technology. That newspaper has computers and posts their content online; they send their files to the printer digitally for their print edition; the company's physical assets look very much like any other similarly sized business. But they're still holding to old thinking. Not just an archaic business model, but the way the company is organized and structured, how decisions gets made, who's in charge of what... all the elements that allow a business to be successful. This is why long-running companies often fail -- not because their product is suddenly no longer wanted (although that does happen sometimes) but because they stuck in old practices that prevent them from moving quickly enough to adjust to a changing market.

You know what changed Marvel's fortunes? Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, before Disney purchased Marvel, before the successful movies based on Marvel characters done apart from their own studio... the big shift for the company was around 1999 when they stopped looking at themselves as a comic book publisher and started calling themselves a "character-based entertainment company." That change didn't alter what their actual assets were, that change didn't affect their publishing schedule, that change didn't affect any of the licensing deals they'd already brokered... What that change did was alter everyone's mindset in the company about what they should focus on. The bean counters still had to account for where any money was being spent, the editors still were editing the comic stories to the best of their abilities, the sales folks on the licensing team were still trying to push contracts with t-shirt companies and the like... the change was in thinking how their work serviced the company as a whole. They were no longer selling a Spider-Man comic book or licensing a Captain America lunch box, they were promoting an intellecutal property. The Hulk coffee tumbler wasn't intended to help promote and sell the comic any longer; it was part of a lifestyle brand. Same with the comics. And the t-shirts. And the lunch boxes. And the movies. And the action figures. And everything else.

That's the shift that companies find difficult. That's how they don't move into the 21st century. Yes, it's a cynical approach to operating and, on an individual level (if you're making a webcomic, for example) it might be something you actively avoid because you just want to make good comics, but in the American flavor of capitalism today, that's how you have to operate, lest you go out of business. The technology is important to keep up with so you can work effeciently, but it's the broader thinking and general mindset you need to keep up with in order to continue to work at all!
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Billy Hogan said...

I worked at a local small town newspaper for 27 years before I was laid off in 2014. When I started it was owned by the New York Times as part of their regional newspaper group. After they sold these papers around the time they began pursuing buying the Boston Globe, I saw each successive owner cut staff more and more, until now, as I talk to a few people who have kept up with some of the remaining staff, the staff is basically a skeleton crew, without so much as a publisher or editor. An editor of another nearby company paper comes in a few days a week. It seems little thought is put into any journalistic excellence. Instead, it's more about squeezing as much profit out of the paper with as few resources as they can get by with.

There's a lot going on wrong with newspapers in general. Almost entirely due to old thinking. What you're citing there is specifically tied to their business model, a business model that was set in place back in the 19th century! That they're not shifting away from that is the stagnant thinking they're using -- the landscape shifts very quickly now and, as a business, you have to respond accordingly. Adapt or die.