That New Coke moment

VolunteerVotersCompanies often have the uncanny ability to do precisely the wrong thing at the exact right time.

Business history is a virtual junkyard of Edsels, New Cokes, Bic pantyhose.

Decisions months or years later reveal themselves as the turning point to a failed strategy or tactic.

How is it that bright, highly successful business people can do such boners?

Venture capitalist and former Apple executive Guy Kawasaki has some thoughts on that inspired by Mortimer Feinberg’s Why Smart People Do Dumb Things.” And Madeleine L. Van Hecke in “Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things” lists factors such as “Missing the big picture.”

Whatever the reasons for doing the wrong thing, I believe we — those of us who work for traditional media companies — are in one of those exact right places to do them.

Times are tough in media industry is an understatement of comical proportions.

We know the story.

Newspapers just ended the worst year in 50 years and prospects for 2008 seem no better. The prospects of local TV stations are none too bright either.

Structural changes in traditional audiences and advertisers; an economic downturn; and tremendous competition online for audience and advertising from digital competitors unencumbered by traditional media’s problems form a triple assault force.

The result for newsrooms and journalists? It sucks.

And, I believe, the short-term pressures to make plan, cut expenses, trim the fat in the old businesses is resulting in blind spots to opportunity for the future businesses.

The examples are not hard to find. A recent “What are They Thinking” decision by a Nashville television station is one of the trend. I’m sure you can point to others, and please do in the comments.

This one involves Tennessee blogger A.C. Kleinheider and his VolunteersVoters blog, which became in less than two years a must read for links and quick reaction to political news in the state.

On March 14, Keinheider announced that he had written the last post for VolunteerVoters due to budget cutbacks at its owner, Nashville TV station WKRN. The station, not a broadcast ratings leader, had in recent years become one of the most innovative mainstream online presences in the state — and even in the TV business. BusinessWeek and NPR did pieces. But these are troubled times for its owner, Young Broadcasting.

React to the VoluntterVoters deicison was fast and passioned. As I type this, there are 165 responses on his final blog post.

PS-WKRN–You’re making yet another mistake is in the first comment. They don’t get more positive.

Blogger and communications director for the state Republican Party Bill Hobbs wrote:

It’s been a week, and I’ve come to a conclusion about the demise of It’s not a big loss. It’s a MAMMOTHLY HUGE loss. There is a giant hole in the media fabric in Tennessee when it comes to political news. VV was the indispensable go-to source for all things political involving Tennessee, and provided depth and context that the various disparate news outlets often lack.

Additionally, while MSM outlets mention or quote from press releases and documents and such, VV often uploaded the whole thing, or gave readers a link to it – making it a far more valuable resource than any single MSM outlet for politics junkies.

It’s a damned shame that WKRN couldn’t figure out how to monetize the single most valuable political news property in the state. Here’s hoping that some other news outlet, one which understands the new media – and the new media consumer – and wants to be an information portal for its readers rather than just an information destination, decides it wants to take over VV, or at least hire Kleinheider to build a VV replacement for them.

I’m sure some smart business people made what they believe is the best decision. But I’m left thinking they just dumped a content franchise and what could have been a future source of sizable audience and revenue.

Perhaps other local media agree. It was announced last week that Kleinheider would be hosting a blog at the site of another Nashville news outlet, the Nashville Post.

The ability of a company in the midst of a downturn or tightening financial conditions to invest in innovation and emerging opportunities is so counterintuitive that it takes guts not consensus.

Kawasaki came up with a list of 10 ways to prevent doing dumb things. Not a bad list.

Here’s a starter list of questions in search of suggestions.

Is an online community disposable because it can’t be monetized today?

Is a reporter blogging so much they “aren’t covering their beat” a bad thing?

Is converging print and online the way to compete online?

Will improved news deadlines based on printing schedules lead you to a brave, new digital world?

Are registration walls helping grow audience?

New Coke moments to ponder?

Some links on A.C. Kleinheider and VolunteerVoters.

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(This post is part of the Carnival of Journalism hosted by Will Sullivan)