Ezra Klein is the new Reggie Jackson

I agree with Anna Tarkov, the org charts at traditional media companies are washing away, and a new holacracy is slowly being born, whether or not we’ve all recognized it yet.

But I think a few things need to be pointed out. These points don’t make the old-shcool management right, but helps us understand why they are reluctant to change (at times).

First, is what I’ve characterized as a Vichy regime of Publishers that must account for their P&L.

The fall of the print model has a been a sloooowwww process. Many Publishers were and still are able to do nothing (or very little), trimming here and there every few years, reducing the workforce through attrition, while still maintaining a frail and declining (but certain) profit.

All companies vary, but we know the industry has taken a huge hit, and we also know that many are still in business. And this has been going on for many, many years.

In many of these cases, especially when a Publisher has an eye on retirement that is less than 10 years out, the safe bet is to try to keep the ship afloat by bailing. The holes in the hull can’t be fixed and who knows whether those lifeboats work well in these stormy seas. Let’s just wait it out.

In these cases, the Publishers  don’t want to fight for a free future, just survive. That’s why I characterize it as the Vichy style of newspaper management. It isn’t noble. It lacks guts. But it is still safe at the moment. It won’t last much longer, of course.

The second take is the Publisher that cares about their workers, and uses that as a shield against taking too much risk. When you are in a startup, everyone knows there is a decent likelihood of failure. It’s accepted. Sure, all workers in the newspaper industry know their jobs may be on thin ice at any moment, but the mentality is different, and these managers feel an obligation to save as many jobs as possible — unless it cuts into the owner’s investment. : )

And remember  that many of these jobs are still tied to print revenue. So while moving forward is the only way to a sustainable future, it will certainly have a negative impact on some of the current workforce.

While more noble than the previous example, this style is also certain doom.

The next approach is something we are starting to see a lot more of, thankfully. That’s making a clear statement of strategy that no matter what the consequences, we are a digital company. There is going to be a lot of pain in the short term, but we need to put digital first. And of course, that is how John Paton coined that term (disclosure, I work for Digital First Media).

And to do so, we also need to invest in new strategies. And some of them need to be free of the existing structures if they stand a chance.

At Digital First Media, we have Digital First Ventures where we invest and cultivate new ideas. The company is also great about letting internal ideas blossom, some of which may become standalone entities.

But getting back to the topic of Ezra Klein and Anna’s point. There are also different shades of setting these companies free, as she puts it. And different ways of launching them.

I think every company will need to do this type of thing at one level or another, but I also feel there is danger, if done incorrectly. But the danger is in company morale. It’s not whether I think it’s a good idea. (I do, but with less of an initial investment than was asked for)

If the venture fails, other journalists will be sore that that money was squandered. Also, it sets a precedence on what a blogger is worth based on the kind of audience they can attract, when in fact there is more to a successful business than just that. We need to drop this page-view thing, but that’s another post.

That said, I’m usually all for transparency so I don’t have a good answer here.

We certainly need to take risks like this. They certainly cost money. The key players know they are worth a lot. It’s not going to change back to the old ways.

In fact, I think this is exactly like Money Ball. And Ezra Klein is like Reggie Jackson, minus the chanting. He is one of the first to declare himself a free agent.

So, I guess Anna is right in her use of the term free. We do need to set it all free. In fact, we have no real choice.

But maybe we shouldn’t go around waving eight figures into the air. Seven would have  been fine. It was good enough for Reggie. ; )

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