You’ve gotta know the territory

Joe Gandelman has an excellent post on the decline of the once-great Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. As a former newspaperman himself, he concludes with a lament:

When I sought a staff newspaper job after writing on a freelance basis for five years for newspapers such as The Chicago Daily News and The Christian Science Monitor from New Delhi, Madrid, and other foreign news spots, Knight-Ridder was the up-and-coming JEWEL of newspaper chains. (Several journalists in the late 70s would say that KRN editors had a high divorce rate because they were so “married” to their newspapers).

The quality was consistent: you could visit a small city and see a Knight-Ridder paper and it had the same quality (mainly because it was usually staffed by many reporters and editors seeking to move on to the bigger KRN papers and their standards were exacting).

I ALMOST FORGOT how I noticed a definite change. This change seemed dramatic in recent years, at least in terms of the consistency of KRN newspapers’ overall look. Some years ago, after not seeing the San Jose and Miami newspapers for many years, I picked them up and was shocked by the change in the papers’ overall content and “feel.” They were still good papers but it was as if someone had decided to reduce quality content and not necessarily because the “news hole” had been reduced, as pages became fewer and advertising was not necessarily as plentiful.

The papers seemed less compelling, less satisfying, less sparkling, less aspiring to be regional (or national) voices. Now they were just good local papers. In the 70s, 80s and even the early 90s they seemed to be so much more. It was NOT as if you felt you were reading papers less committed to excellence; it seemed as if the papers had somehow been punched in the stomach.

The “heart” that Joe mourns the loss of is missing from a lot of American businesses these days: not just newspapers but the automobile industry, airlines, entertainment companies, many others, representing practically every segment of the economy. After the 2000 contraction even the tech sector seems to have lost its sparkle. Does Microsoft still have the missionary fervor they had 20 years ago?

The obvious answer is greed but I think the problem goes a little farther than that. I blame professional management—not just MBA’s but the concept itself.

75 years ago, say, you’d go to work for Ford or GM or United Airlines or a big newspaper as a youngster and work for it for much of your productive life. That very experience builds loyalty not merely to the company but to the industry to which it belongs. CEO’s had spent years in the trenches of production or sales. The idea of a soft drink executive being tapped to head a major computer company or a hotel man getting the job as CEO of the largest airline in the world woud have been absurd: you have to know the territory.

Nowadays, of course, the path to top management is through the professional management programs and newly-minted MBA’s being hired into management positions isn’t too uncommon. Of course their loyalty is to their training, to the stockholders, and to management—it’s what they know.

They’ve been enormously successful: over the last 25 years the stock market (and executive compensation) has risen ten-fold even as market share, paid subscriptions, and destinations have dwindled.

Autres temps, autres moeurs.

UPDATE:  Tony Ridder, the subject of an interesting post from Shaun Mullen, is a weak example of the phenomenon I’m talking about: his career has been spent in the newspaper business but note that his degree was in economics.  I can’t quite tell from his official biography:  what was his first job?  The timing suggests that there was one prior to his joining The Mercury News.  In what capacity did he go to work for the paper?

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