Don’t Go the Way of the Newspapers

TO:  University Presidents

RE:  Don’t Go the Way of the Newspapers

I was a young corporate strategy executive at media conglomerate Tribune Company in the early to mid 1990s. Their flagship newspaper, Chicago Tribune, was founded in 1847 and at that time was proudly approaching its 150th anniversary. Journalistic awards were numerous and business profits had never been higher. But just after its 160th birthday, Tribune was bankrupt.

What really happened? And what is the lesson for higher-education about technology?

Most employees of the newspaper, from the publisher down to the metro desk reporter, knew about the Internet, and many were even early adopters of online services. My colleagues were smart, learned, and aware. We talked about the negative impacts the Internet would likely have over time on our franchise. Fewer and fewer young people would read newspapers, resulting in less circulation (the heart of any newspaper). Fewer and fewer companies would use the newspaper to advertise, resulting in less classified and display revenue (the lifeblood of any newspaper). We got it.

So the fall of the great Tribune Company was not about getting blindsided. It was not about failing to understand what was going on with new technologies. It was about failing to act.

The newspaper industry’s Shakespearean fall is a lesson in inaction (like the fate of hero Hamlet). Inaction in the face of disruptive technologies took many forms. “Won’t be a major game-changer,” most said. “Won’t impact good companies like ours,” some opined. “Won’t impact the company until long after I have retired,” others demurred. The leaders of colleges and universities must not make the same mistake of sitting on their hands.

Higher-education is similarly filled with brilliant thinkers, so the tendency will be to over-analyze: “To do . . . or not to do.”  Both the newspaper industry and higher-education are risk-averse, so the strong bias will be the status quo. Higher education has decentralized decision making, so the likely result will be too much debate and common-denominator compromises.

So what to do? Lead. Act. Now. Start by experimenting with new technologies. Test things, try things – see what works, learn what doesn’t. Build on the successes. Don’t fret about the mistakes. Support those who try to innovate. Universities that act have plenty of time to harness technology to be better and stronger. The newspapers were on notice. So now are the universities. University Presidents have the opportunity to write a different ending to their story.


Donn Davis

Donn Davis is a Founding Partner of Revolution Growth.

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