Five Days Of Newspapers Are No More ‘New’ Than Five Hummers Rolling Off Assembly Line

Thinking back on the Minneapolis Star Tribune shortly after it was bought by McClatchy, Steve Yelvington ruminates on the difference between competence and innovation.

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.

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.

Before the paper was bought in 1998, he says, the Star Tribune leadership tried innovative things—creating a web site (hey, that was innovative for 1996, right?), creating a place in-house to conduct focus groups, and so on.

That ended in 1998.

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.

Now, as Steve notes, the Star Tribune is bankrupt.