business news in context, analysis with attitude

Last week in this space, you may recall, I wrote about what appears to be the steady decline of the suburban New York Gannett-owned newspapers where both Michael Sansolo and I got our start three decades ago. In writing about the layoffs and readership declines that have plagued the papers, I noted that it seemed to me that at some level they are victims of a world where newspapers simply are going out of fashion, are becoming irrelevant to the people who used to read them.

We’ve been talking about this a lot over the past week or so, and one of the ways that we’ve identified as taking the papers off the rails is that they got progressively less local, less connected to the community.

Thirty years ago, there were eight or nine Gannet newspapers in Westchester County, each one having its own editorial staff and news section. Sure, they shared some staff, stories and resources…but the Daily Times was not the same paper as the Reporter Dispatch.

Now, over time, this changed. They merged all the papers into one, the Journal News, hoping that this would give the company efficiencies that would pay off in the long run. But precisely the opposite seems to have happened – by being less special, less distinct, less differentiated, the papers lost whatever appeal they might have had…and the Internet actually made the situation worse.

In other words…and you’ve heard this gospel here before…Gannett chose efficiency over effectiveness. And while it might have looked good on the balance sheets for a little while, ultimately it did not work.

There is a lesson to be learned here by anyone in the retail business – that even today, when cost-cutting and finding efficiencies are high priorities in almost every organization, it is critical not to lose the local edges that give one a differential advantage. It is critical not to become so efficient that one is no longer very effective.

Sure, they’re selling news and you’re selling food. But you’re both selling…and it is essential to remain intimately in touch with the audience/customers that you need to survive.

By the way…and this is important to the metaphorical construct I’m building here…there have been a number of stories recently about how organizations such as MSNBC and the Huffington Post increasingly are looking for was to localize their news coverage. They may be national news organizations, but they understand that in many ways, news – like politics – is mostly local. They want to be in the game…and in doing so, may make the likes of Gannett’s network of local newspapers even more irrelevant.

Think about that for a moment. Can businesses like actually use their national strengths and marketing muscles to create a more localized shopping experience, one that could eclipse so-called local retailers?

I’m betting yes…unless local retailers decide to confront the challenge head-on. Tomorrow will be soon enough, though I would have preferred that they had done so yesterday.

But waiting longer than that may be an unacceptable option.

It was interesting to read in the San Jose Mercury News this week that CD sales still outstrip music downloads in the US…a fact that surprised me because the growth in downloading has been so much faster.

But the balance of power is shifting. Experts believe that next year, the two will be neck-and-neck…and by 2011, music downloads will be greater than CD purchases in terms of dollar volume.

USA Today reported this week on a new study saying that binge drinking, long considered to be the province of the young, actually is a growing problem among aging Americans.

According to the story, a study by Duke University suggests that “22% of men and 9% of women ages 50 to 64 engaged in binge drinking — five or more drinks at a time — within the past month of the survey.” And, the same study found that 14% of men and 3% of women over 65 had engaged in such risky behavior.

USA Today also notes that the survey also found that 19% of the men and 13% of the women between the ages of 50 and 64 “had two or more drinks a day, considered heavy or ‘at-risk’ drinking under American Geriatric Society guidelines for older people.”

Now, I may be right in the middle of this demographic group, but I have to admit that I find it annoying that the American Geriatric Society is even analyzing behavior by people my age.

I define “geriatric” in very specific terms – anyone 25 years older than me.

And I intend to persist in that definition until the day I drop. No matter how old I am.

So what were the odds two weeks ago that on August 20, I’d find Michael Vick to be a more sympathetic character than Brett Favre?

Just asking.

My wine of the week is the 2007 Vouvray Chenin Blanc from Yves Breussin in France…a delightful wine that is great with shellfish or just sipping on a hot August night.

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