My trip to Minneapolis has reminded me of how much the newspaper world lost when the McClatchy Company acquired the Star Tribune in 1998.
While it was never McClatchy's goal to do so, it snuffed out one of the few bright spots where innovation critically important to the future of newspapers might have happened.
McClatchy turned out to be very good at what it had set out to do: run newspapers profitably. In the following decade, the Star Tribune threw off vast quantities of cash. McClatchy used to that cash to pay down its considerable debt and position itself for its acquisition of Knight-Ridder.
Operational competence is a virtue for a company, but it's not the only one, and it's an entirely different strength than innovation.
Innovation requires several elements:
- An understanding of what customers are struggling to do.
- Creative ability to imagine a better way to get it done.
- Freedom to experiment with solutions, because your first try is probably wrong.
- A sense of urgency.
Innovation tends to happen in small, fast-moving settings.
Newspapers aren't innovation studios. They're factories assembling parts (news and advertising) into products. While newspaper people sometimes say the Daily Miracle is a new product every day, in reality it's not that at all.
Five days' worth of newspapers are no more "new products" than five consecutive Hummer SUVs rolling off an assembly line. And as autoworkers are now discovering, the efficient operation of the factory and the build quality of the car are unquestionably essential but can't deliver success if the product is a great big mistake.
So let's go back to the Star Tribune in the era of 1995 to 1998. It operated a booming business, with a great profit margin, new automated production tools (robots in the pressroom), and a smart and dedicated workforce. As a newspaper factory it was pretty awesome.
But it also had a host of innovative projects at various stages, of which startribune.com was just one, and enough innovation smarts to know that such projects needed enough separation from the factory floor to enable quick decisions. It encouraged experimentation. It had a tremendous focus on research and on listening to customers formally and informally. Multiple rooms were equipped with microphones and video cameras so focus groups and other discussions could be conducted in-house.
There was an acute and urgent sense that the era of the big "one size fits all" daily newspaper was about to end. Strategic thinking focused on personalization, customization, and entirely new lines of business derived from smart analysis of customers' business challenges. The Star Tribune had both the resources and the will to completely reinvent itself.
But its owners chose a different path.
I'm not suggesting that no one at McClatchy does any innovative thinking, or that McClatchy was unaware of the forces on the horizon that would come to threaten newspapers. But as someone observed in a side conversation today, McClatchy's real strategy was to be the last mass medium standing. And while my friends who stayed at the Star Tribune continued to do great work every day, I think something precious was lost.
(Note: I left the Star Tribune in 1999. McClatchy sold the Star Tribune in 2006 for half what it had paid in 1998. Today the Strib is still the biggest single mass media product in town, and it's bankrupt.)