Dither, dither, dither. Nero allegedly did in 64 AD and fiddled while one of the world’s great libraries burned to the ground. (That’s actually a myth. There were no fiddles then and he was 30 miles away debauching someone, but it fits here.) General George McClellen did it in 1862 and almost lost the Civil War for Lincoln. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did it in 1938 and Hitler took Europe. President Johnson did it during the 1960’s with the Viet-Nam war and 58,000 Americans were killed.
They all had the same disease, they were in a state of nervous agitated irresoluteness. It is an insidious mind crippler that today manifests itself in many of the country’s newspaper owners and publishers. They dither while one of America’s bulwarks of freedom swings in the wind of irrelvance. Where is the impulsivness, the drive to win, to survive, to maintain the trust newspapers have been given in the 1st amendment?
Thirty eight years ago I was the ad manager of the Bristol (CT) Press. A small 6-day daily twenty miles west of Hartford. My mentor, publisher owner Bart Barnes, Yale class of 1929, told me to come to the editorial conference room and listen to a presentation he was going to make to several state senators and representatives. Bart was trying to get them to cooperate to build a new 4-lane State Route 72 through Bristol. It would mean a lot to our community. As he talked I could tell the glassy eyed politicos could care less. All of a sudden Bart jumped up and said,”what have you guys done, nothing, nothing, you are not any better than a pile of sh–, sh–, sh–!” He slammed his hand down on the glass topped conference table and quite nicely broke it in half. He told them all to get out, smiled at me and said, “well now maybe we’ll get somewhere!” He didn’t dither!
Twelve years later I was the publisher of the Bristol Press and wrote a weekly column about community, politics, friends, fools and heroes and, of course, newspapering. I had hired Frank Keegan from the Gannett chain as our editor. Frank is one of the finest newspaper people I have ever worked with. (I think I fired him during the interview.) He is passionate, a firecracker kind of editor who suffers fools lightly and will set the hounds on a story until he got it no matter who was involved. He also has a temper.
The mayor of Bristol at the time was Bill Stortz. He didn’t like me. The town Republican chairman brokered a meeting. I told Frank to be there but to keep his mouth shut, listen and behave, after all the guy is the mayor.
Stortz looked up from his chair and told me I was the worst thing that ever happened to Bristol. I was a moron, a liar and a disengenuous, spineless, demonic fiend. My column was a farce and only denegrated the communuty. For a moment I was paralysed. Then I leaped over my desk, yes I did, grabbed him by his suitcoat and threw him out of my office with a suitable string of expletives. I turned to the town chairman and he just sqeaked and ran out the door. Keegan turned to me and said, “oh my, very nice boss, just be quiet, polite, you know, treat him like the mayor.” I didn’t dither!
I am not neccessarily proud of losing my cool. But I cared about the newspaper I was running. I cared about the community and the readers it served. I knew what our mission was and I wouldn’t let some puffed up politico demean that.
There doesn’t seem to be any urgency in our business when it comes to the reason we exist. “Back in the day”, as they like to say, newspapers were cash cows. When I was President & CEO of the York Newspaper Company in York, PA in the late 1990’s our profit margin at the JOA level was over 50%. Newspapers in general averaged in the 30% range. Life was good. Advertising was plentiul. The bottom line was strong.
About 10 years ago it all started to change. Some of the big newspaper companies had CEO’s who were incompetent to manage through the downturn, sinking circulation and the growth of the internet. They started cutting newsrooms, content and quality slipped, and readers and advertisers left their pages in droves. Some of the biggest newspaper companies in America were sold or went into chapter 11.
Today every newspaper faces the challenge of morphing from the print world into the digital world. But I don’t see anyone jumping over desks! I see them still cutting and slashing and acting like a moon-eyed Heidelberg man.
I am convinced there will always be newspapers. No entity can deliver what we do every day, every week, all year long. Here at The Blade we have a plan. We work for an ownership family that gets it. OK, that sounds like a pure sycophantic response. But it’s true. Our Chairman, Allan Block understands the need to stay ahead of the curve. He promotes urgency and nobody who dithers lasts long around him.
Most of our revenue still comes from print. But our digital income is rising by almost 40% every month. We have a product called “Page Flipper” that will deliver a full NEWSPAPER in digital replica form exact to every word in the printed newspaper. It’s the future….now! It’s being written and edited in an enlarged newsroom with a Keeganesque attitude led by VP-Executive Editor Kurt Franck and Publisher, Editor in Chief John Robinson Block. They produce the printed Blade, its Page Flipper replica, and the content on every electronic platform all from a pure cloud based Libercus publishing system that relieves us from having expensive, maintenance heavy, servers while saving us from huge future capital expenditures.
Our management team is planning and scheming and acting impulsive. Impulsive people make mistakes. I sure have made more than my share. But as Bart Barnes told me,”Joe when you make a mistake take five steps back and study that egg you just laid. Then never lay that one again!”
I am getting too old to leap over desks. But I hope for all our sakes and for the safety of our country and our way of life, the next generation of newspaper owners and managers understand the urgency to try! God help us all if they dither!