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4 Higher Ed Lessons From "Why American Newspapers Gave Away the Future"
March 29, 2012 - 8:15pm

Why American Newspapers Gave Away the Future by Richard J. Tofel

Date Published:  February, 2012
Price: $1.99

Pop quiz. In what year did newspaper revenues peak? Way back before the Internet? Wrong. The answer is in the year 2000. The fall of newspaper revenue, driven by the steep decline in advertising dollars, has been as dramatic as it was unexpected. The newspaper business (as measured in everything from newsroom staff to profitability to newspapers ceasing publication) is not in good shape - or at least is a pale shadow to what it once was.  

Could higher ed go the way of the newspapers?

This question is not addressed by Richard J. Tofel's excellent new short e-book Why American Newspapers Gave Away the Future, published by nowandthenreader.com. We will need to extrapolate.  

Tofel is the general manager of the amazing ProPublica site (Journalism in the Public Interest), and a longtime newspaper insider (with a stint as the assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal). While Tofel never addresses higher ed, his thesis as to how newspapers got themselves into the untenable economic position in which they now must somehow navigate has some lessons for our industry.

Lesson 1. Revenues Will Not Take Care of Themselves: Tofel's main argument is that the newspaper industry's fundamental mistake, the original digital sin, was to give away the content of their papers free on the internet. He believes that the free Internet option trained a generation of consumers to expect that news would be free, while never having a chance of making up subscription and print advertising revenues with web advertising dollars. In higher ed we are experimenting with all sorts of new educational models, from MOOC's to certificate programs, and all this experimentation is a good thing. We probably would be wise, however, to always recall the experiences of our cousins in the newspaper business and keep a sharp focus on investing in areas that drive our revenues.  In the news world, newspapers neglected to make investments in the reporters and editors that were the traditional comparative advantage of print media, and could have provided the service (in-depth reporting) that could have motivated readers to keep paying for content. In higher ed, we should be sure to invest in our greatest resource - our faculty - as we depend on the teaching and research that they produce to bring in students and research dollars.  

Lesson 2. Management Must Be Better in a Digital Age: The best and the brightest in the newspaper world can be found among the editors and reporters, not the managers. This is a function of many big city newspapers being owned by families, limiting the ultimate influence and career heights that professional newspaper management can reach. Mediocre management was okay in the pre-internet era, as business models were stable and consistent (print ads, classifieds and circulation). After Craigslist destroyed the classified business, and blogs-Twitter-Facebook made reader attention scarce, newspapers required a new breed of management confident enough to experiment and innovate. They were not up to the challenge. How confident are we in higher ed that our current management (us, I guess) is up to the new challenges from a Udacity, Khan Academy, MITx, 2tor, for-profit education, and whatever comes next?

Lesson 3. Be Weary of What Technologists Tell Us: Tofel sees the decline of the newspaper business as one largely of a clash of cultures between the old East Coast news establishment and the West Coast technology upstarts. In this story, the East Coast newspaper folks were the squares, the Silicon Valley dot-commers the cool kids. Not wanting to be "un-cool", the newspaper managers bought into the whole notion that "information wants to be free", and promptly destroyed their own business models. Us retro, campus based higher ed types must be very careful to not make the same mistake as the old guard newspaper folks that we so resemble.  We should never, ever, take Facebook or Google (or even Amazon) as our model of how we should organize our businesses or our cultures.  

Lesson 4. Things Can Change Quickly: The final lesson that I take away from Why American Newspapers Gave Away the Future is just how quickly the most stable and secure business can change. The decline of the newspaper industry is not a lesson about the value of doing nothing, but rather a lesson in the danger of doing the wrong things. Will we be able to create and nurture the next generation of leaders in higher ed who will help us understand how to successfully navigate a global and digital economy?  Are we combining experiments and innovation with the necessary investments into our core strengths? Are we spending enough time with people outside of higher ed, asking them about what lessons they have learned about change and transformation?

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