Here I am, fifteen years into retirement, and Cowboys and Cannibals is in pre-publication edit. Even when you escape the conceptual confines of the corporate suite and sit on the patio in the Spanish sun with a glass of Albariño in your hand, it takes a while for the fog to lift sufficiently for you to see clearly. Turns out I got the book done just in time. The newspaper industry is on the verge of complete collapse.
Newspapers had a great run, a 200-year run, but they have become cultural artifacts from a bygone age, like post offices and malls and old cold stone churches, their relevance and value fading away along with their grey-headed audience. Their print passing was bound to happen.
But their digital dysfunction was not.
I interviewed more than 30 people when preparing to write this book. Almost all of them went immediately to the currently-fashionable thesis of “disruption” to explain what happened. Drives me crazy how this simple-minded sloganeering spreads through the business herd like a bloody virus. I’m an adopted son of the United States. To new citizens like me, economic determinism is profoundly un-American. The Internet may have killed newsprint, but it didn’t kill newspapers.
In business, every threat marks an opportunity that should have been obvious. The Internet offered newspapers the rare prospect of resuscitation and renewal. They had every advantage, too – dominant market position, plenty of capital, directly relevant business assets, lots of smart people and above all, an historic connection with their audience. It all amounted to nothing.
They could not, would not, extricate themselves from print. Incredibly, not one created a genuine Internet product, born on the web. To a publisher, squashing the newspaper down a coaxial cable looked the answer to a bottom line prayer. To a user, particularly anyone under 30, the online newspaper was practically useless.
Just as the digital generation comes of age – or maybe because of it – the next generation of news franchises is rising to serve them. Because every member of that generation has a supercomputer in their pocket, this is one of the best times to be in media since Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg invented mechanical movable type – and that was the most important invention of the second millennium.
But how to approach the story of newspaper capitulation was the challenge. Should it be a business text featuring management lessons learned? Or, should it focus on the evolving business of news? Finally, a sympathetic book publisher gave us advice that went to the heart of the matter. “Just tell the story,” he said. “Take us inside what it was like to be fighting for the future of your company when the Internet came to town.”
Cowboys and Cannibals is the story of a small group of media guys who figure out early on that new digital players will overwhelm their newspapers unless they harness the ruthless forces of disruption for themselves. This they do by creating brand-new businesses designed to supplant their centuries-old franchises before the digital competition can, a kill-or-be-killed strategy which brings them into brutal political conflict with the parochial interests of the very companies they work for.
It is a tale of people who have inherited huge fortunes together with the unearned stewardship of influential media companies and how they flinched when asked to risk it all. It is a tale of well-intentioned people trapped by the narrow range of their personal experience and unable to rise above it. It is a tale of the seductive power of the status quo and the anger that rises when it is threatened. And it is a tale of the courage and transcendent loyalty of a band of quite ordinary people bound by a mission to secure a digital future for their companies – and what it feels like when you lose again and again but finally win big, bigger than you could have imagined, when the chips are well and truly down.
Look for Cowboys and Cannibals, Inside the Fight for the Future of News. Out soon.
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