Thursday, March 17, 2011

Humpty Dumpty and the information highway

The New York Times’ David Brooks makes the point in a recent column that our president seems to have shifted gears in recent months. Obama, the candidate who was all about change, is looking much more like Eisenhower now then, say, FDR. Today he seems to be a man content with the status quo, believing apparently that there is virtue in patience.

Of course, Washington is a place where patience often morphs into stagnation. Obama certainly wouldn’t be the first president intent on shaking up the established order, only to learn that battling Congress is often an onerous ordeal that moves at a snail’s pace – if at all.

Politics isn’t something I spend much time writing about here and I’m not about to start now. Why bother? I’d end up either preaching to the choir or alienating my very good friends on both the left and right who obviously don’t understand the subtle nature of living life as a reactionary.

No, it’s the difficult problem of change that I’d like to address today. There’s been a great deal of it going around lately, most of it a product of the new technology that has revolutionized the way we go about living. Once upon a time we chatted on blocky, black phones, listened to music on stereos, read books for information and entertainment and got our daily dose of news from local newspapers and national magazines.

Telephones – at least the sort you plug into wall hookups – stereos and records are fading memories. Meanwhile, book, newspaper and magazine publishers are struggling to remain viable in a world that spits out faster and cheaper ways to communicate daily. Most all of these changes have made life much more efficient. Entire industries – and millions of workers – have gone the way of the dinosaur. But, hey, nobody ever said life would be a bed of roses!

At first blush, it seems that much change has happened in the last decade. But the proverbial handwriting was on the wall long ago. Back in the late ’80s – that would be the 1980s – I can recall sitting in meetings at that place with the printing press, listening to reports that detailed the decline in newspaper readership. There was much wailing and hand-wringing. Committees were formed and studies commissioned.

For at least a decade, well before the internet took hold and began reshaping the world, a wide variety of plans were put in place to increase circulation – focus on the core city and younger readers; write more expansive features dealing with lifestyle issues; pay more attention to the suburbs; change the paper’s design, font style and web size – trust me here, it’s a newspaper thing; use more photos and play them bigger; use less photos and play them smaller.

Despite all these efforts, circulation continued to plummet and then, in the late ’90s, the full impact of the internet began to be felt. It would take another decade of planning and committees and high-paid consultants to figure out that newspapers were, ah, toast! One last desperate effort was put in place to turn things around.

Teams of consultants, editors and reporters spent tons of hours rethinking the newspaper biz – how we do what we do and how we change it; what the paper of the future should focus on and what it should look like. Team leaders spent hours attending focus groups, listening to all the things “real” people wanted in their daily newspaper. Designers were hidden away in secret rooms, whipping out prototypes of edgy new sections. After years of effort, the really big editors and the really big consultants came up with a massive master plan and a detailed timeline was created to implement the changes.

But a funny thing happened as the newspaper of the future was rolling out. The economy cratered and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Sometimes we plan for change and sometimes it’s unceremoniously thrust our way. To their credit, the really big editors at that place with the printing press, their horses and men, have done a good job pasting together Humpty Dumpty’s shell. But if you look closely, you can’t help but notice they haven’t been able to cover over all the cracks. Worse, in all the scurrying about, I don’t think they’ve managed yet to find Humpty’s heart!

I hope they’re still looking.

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