It's a little dizzying to read that The New York Times is on the verge of shutting down the Boston Globe. And here I thought bloggers were the scoundrels killing the newspapers. Turns out it's...other newspapers.
And that's true not just in the sense that the Chicago Tribune is wrecking the Los Angeles Times, which it owns, or the New York Times is threatening to shutter the Boston Globe. It's true because readers of the Boston Globe can now read the Washington Post or the Guardian right there on the internets. Newspapers from different regions didn't compete with each other 30 years ago. They do today. They didn't compete with Craigslist 30 years ago. They do today. Large regional newspapers once had near-monopolies over both news and advertising in a region. They've lost both. That's why they're failing. Not bad management.
Which is what makes insider accounts of "what went wrong" so unsatisfying. David Warsh is very convincing in his argument that the New York Times has mismanaged the Globe. But he's not convincing -- cannot be convincing -- on the counterfactual: Even if the New York Times had led wisely, there is little chance that the Boston Globe would be profitable today. Their contraction is part of an industry trend. You could look at aggregate newspaper data from the past 30 years and predict that the Globe would be in dire financial trouble even if you knew nothing of their ownership.
And that's the problem. Journalists have very strong opinions on the management of newspapers they work for and are better positioned than most to publicly argue that bad management crushes good newspapers. When manufacturing jobs get offshored, line workers rarely get to make their case against the management in public. But if each individual firm is unhappy in its own way, you still have to account for the fact that they're all unhappy at the same time. And it doesn't make a lot of sense to argue that all management turned bad all at once. What we're seeing is a failing business model. We may also be seeing bad managers, but they're not really the point.