Saturday, 29 August 2009

Four reactions when a business faces inevitable change

By Tim

I'm following Editor Marc Reeve's consultation exercise on the future of the Birmingham Post with a mixture of fascination, frustration and hope, as well as admiration for the way Marc is handling it. Marc's appeal for views on how the Post needs to change has so far received 39 comments on his blog and I suspect there are many more private views in his inbox.

Below, I've tried to analyse and make sense of the comments sent in by Post readers but first, here is one clip from a longer interview with Marc answering Yoosk users' questions on the decline of print media:

Looking at the responses to Marc's appeal in detail, there were a variety of suggestions or comments which fell into four braod categories:

1. A daily edition of the Birmingham Post is nothing that can’t be fixed with the right management, ownership or customer loyalty

-Strategy of aggressive growth, going after new audiences with innovative products and content

-Invest in quality and web presence, do the same but better

-Take voluntarily submitted content: become a curator of quality user generated content

-Expand geographic and demographic coverage, gain new readers with new content

-Focus entirely on business, up circulation figures within that core sector, add supplements

-Rely on business readers to rally round, increase sales by 10,000, increase the cover price

2. It’s possible to achieve ultimate success as a viable business but in a very different form

-Less is more, consolidate, adopt the weekly model and focus on quality

-Adopt an FT-like online subscription model, with daily web publication and a weekly print edition

-Merge with the Mail, rationalise, concentrate on the online business brand

-Concentrate more on local communities and key target groups, introducing supplements and an expanded web presence

-Leverage the brand in the areas of business information, analysis and networking and explore other revenues beyond cover price and advertising, such as events etc.

3. The model is broken, news will live on but not newspapers like the Post, that’s just the way of things

-12,000 readers is small and irrelevant figure, it’s all over, there’s no point in bidding back the tide

-Going weekly is equivalent to death by a thousand cuts, doing irreparable damage to the brand and the precursor of inevitable closure

4. It’s too important to be left as a business decision, it’s a political issue

-Return to local ownership, either through selling to a philanthropist or by community buy-out or syndicate of local business

-The Post is an advertising vehicle for the region and its businesses, it is a civic good which if lost, may signal the decline of Birmingham towards a parochial backwater

-Confront the council head on, on ethical and business grounds, especially about their advertising spend on jobs. The public sector is competing unfairly with private business.

Four predictable responses?

I'd say yes: these very positive and well intentioned suggestions all seem depressingly familiar. The West Midlands has seen the decline of many of its flagship industries and companies in the last 40 years (and some in the last year) and these are the traditional positions adopted whenever a large, well established company falls on hard times:

1. “It’s the fault of the owners and managers, there’s nothing wrong that can’t be fixed by doing things better. Management haven’t invested enough, or in the right equipment, the right factories, they aren’t marketing the product well enough. We can find new markets and recover with different managers and owners.”

2. “This came from nowhere and while serious, can be fixed. We can still succeed, we just need to restructure, redesign our products, consolidate and focus.”

3. “We are the subject of market, technological and social forces beyond our control, no one can be profitable in this environment, it’s time for everyone associated with this to take their money, labour and skills elsewhere.”

4. “This is too big to be left to market forces: at stake are the fundamental wellbeing of the region, the community and the people who live within it. Public money must be used and political forces mobilised to solve the problem.”

Lenin said the only real questions that matter are, “who?” and “to whom?” Who exercises power and over whom do they exercise it? In these situations, this can be rephrased as:

Whose responsibility is it? Who stays? Who goes?

For the four basic views described above, the answers are:

1. Managers’ fault, workers stay, managers go.

2. No one’s fault, (some) managers stay, (some) workers go.

3. No one’s fault, no one stays, workers and managers go.

4. Everyone’s fault, everyone stays, no one goes.

What do I think?

I'm firmly in the number two camp.

I think I support Marc's plan to go for the weekly edition, supported by increased investment in a daily site- but it's clear it'll have to be accompanied by a painful reduction in overheads. My sympathies got out to the staff who'll inevitably lose their jobs.

At the same time, I have huge personal sympathy for the challenge Marc and his fellow senior managers face- I've been there and soon I'll write about what happened and what I learnt. I have only met Marc briefly once but it is clear to me that he cares deeply about the Post and the people who work there.

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