Tidings are not always glad

There’s a chorus of sorts at this holiday season bringing tidings of things to come.

The theme of these messages is that newspapers, TV stations and magazines are not doing enough to save themselves by radically rethinking their businesses.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer perhaps makes the argument most poignantly in the “The Digital Slay-Ride. What’s killing newspapers is the same thing that killed the slide rule.”

It appears to me that most newspapers–by choice or by necessity–have made the “decision to liquidate,” to steal the phrase from Philip Meyer’s excellent 2004 book, The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age: They’re cutting costs, cutting staff, cutting pages, cutting features, cutting quality, and will continue cutting until the last reader and advertiser depart. (Local TV news looks to be following a similar script.)

I keep waiting for one of these distressed, failing newspapers to realize that it has nothing to lose and get a little crazy and create something brand new and brilliant for readers and advertisers. I keep being disappointed.

After looking at each of the Web sites of the Top 100 U.S. newspapers, the good folks at the Bivings Group came to much the same conclusion: finding lots of incremental improvement and little reinvention.

Mark Glaser over at MediaShift takes a look at what seems to be working and what’s not “Your Guide to Alternative Business Models for Newspapers.” (Our recent relaunch of Knoxville.com gets a mention, thank you very much!)

Glaser, I think, hits the target on why reinvention is so difficult when he suggests: Most likely, there won’t be a “silver bullet,” an idea that will catch on as the savior for the newspaper business. Instead, a successful online newspaper will need a mix of many different revenue streams to survive in the digital age.

The other issue is the classic innovator’s dilemma is that the customers newspapers have are very comfortable with the way the product is and resist nearly every change. If an editor would like to hear her phone ring, just change a comic or leave the crossword out.

But it’s hard to use the innovator’s dilemma as an excuse when you know full well what the result has been for companies that failed to adapt quickly enough to technology shifts because of the siren song of dwindling or soon-to-be dwindling customers.

My Christmas wish for 2009 is to see some great ideas of reinvention tested at media companies in 2009.