business news in context, analysis with attitude

Tina Brown’s is one of my favorite websites, serving both as an aggregator of content as well as generating original editorial material. This week, Brown started the year by listing four things that she thought people should stop complaining about. (Actually she used another word, not “complaining.” But you get the picture.)

Anyway, one of the pieces of conventional wisdom that she believes is essentially incorrect is the notion that newspapers are being killed off by the internet, and that investigative journalism is an endangered species. Here, in part, is what she said about this fallacy:

“American newspapers are dying mostly because they were so dull for so long a whole generation gave up on them. They needed to innovate back in the Fax Age of the 1980s but were too self-important and making too much money with their monopolies to acknowledge it.

“In the U.K., there is a banquet of glorious newspapers to feast on in the morning despite the presence of the Internet. All of these papers look nothing like they did 15 years ago. Furrow-browed broadsheets like The Times of London and The Guardian got snappy new overhauls, cut down to a more modern-feeling tabloid size, with a use of pictures and color that's imaginative and striking and appealing to the younger demographic.

“These ‘serious’ papers are replete with sexy culture coverage and hip fashion stories as well as foreign reporting and brainiac columnists that make them a guilty pleasure to read. It's one of the biggest fibs going that American newspapers are now being forced to give up their commitment to investigative reporting. Most of them gave up long ago as their greedy managements squeezed every cent out of the bottom line and turned their newsrooms into eunuchs.”

Think about these observations for a second. They are about an industry that was complacent, that didn’t change as fast as the population, that was so focused on the bottom line that it did not understand that its product was gradually becoming less and less relevant to its consumers. And then, the industry whined about the competition that did see where things were going...not understanding that the enemy was within.

Such observations could apply to any business, to any industry.

We ignore them at our own risk.

I’ll give you an example of how newspapers have made fatal misjudgments. I was talking to a reporter yesterday who told me that his newspaper now only runs paid obituaries.

Now, this is extraordinary. Obits - which were the first thing I wrote when I started out in newspapers - are the some of the most locally oriented stories that any newspaper can run. It is one section that almost everybody reads. And yet, looking for some source of revenue and looking to cut down on costs, this particular newspaper decided to virtually eliminate them as an editorial component.

It simply doesn’t make sense. But it is the kind of eyeshade-driven, myopic business decision that companies make all the time.

It is looking at the short-term, not the long term.

BTW...if you want a terrific further discussion of this topic, check out Michael Sansolo’s chapter on The Bridge On The River Kwai in our new book, “The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies.” To learn more about the book, click here. >

Sorry for the shameless plug. I can’t help myself.

I have long said in this space that Burgerville, the Pacific Northwest fast food chain, is my idea of what such a chain should be all about - offering things like natural beef and Tilamook cheese, along with some fabulous berry smoothies.

Well now, they’ve apparently taken their differential advantage - fast food that actually tastes good - to a new high, selling a “Roasted Portobello Focaccia Sandwich that features a garlic- and olive-oil roasted Portobello mushroom cap topped with provolone cheese, caramelized red onions, spring greens and garlic aioli, served on fresh baked, parsley and honey focaccia bread with a sundried tomato spread.” All for $4.49.

Now, that’s my definition of fast food.

I fly a lot, and so I’ve been paying very close attention to all the debates about security screenings. Here’s where I come down on the issue.

You can full body scan me all you want.

Just don’t make me look at my own scan.

I saw so many movies over the Christmas holiday that I can’t possibly write about all of them in one “OffBeat.” So let me focus today on the best of all the films I saw, and the one that offers the most specific business message.

“Up In The Air,” starring George Clooney and co-written and directed by Jason Reitman, is easily one of the best movies of the year, and will end up being considered one of the best movies of the last decade.

The basics of the plot are fairly simple. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a consultant who flies around the country firing people at companies run by people who do not have the stones to do it themselves. It is a heartless job, but Bingham copes with it by keeping his own life as uncluttered as possible - his apartment is less homey than the average hotel room, and he is pretty much disconnected emotionally from friends and family. Bingham’s great consolation is frequent flyer miles - he’s got travel down to a science, and he’s well on his way to having ten million miles on American Airlines.

But two things happen to Bingham. First, he meets a woman, played by Vera Farmiga, who seems to share his priorities, travels as much as he does...and therefore, is someone who can get past his emotional roadblocks. And, he finds his whole way of life threatened when another woman (Anna Kendrick) joins his company and begins to implement a plan that will have all the layoffs done via online conferencing.

The ad slogan for “Up In The Air” is an apt one: “The story of a man ready to make a connection.” But this doesn’t just go for Bingham. in fact, the entire movie is about the importance of human connections. While Clooney’s character may seem like has has a heartless job, the fact is that he understands the importance of being present - really present - at an emotional moment that will be one of the most important in many of these people’s lives.

These kinds of connections often are underestimated by businesses, especially today, that are obsessed with cutting costs, with being efficient, with making the numbers. We can see them everywhere we look. In voice mail systems that give us buttons to touch but seem to delay until the last possible moment giving us a human being with whom to speak. In self-checkout systems in supermarkets that eliminate the last human touch point - sometimes the only human touch point - that exists in that retail environment. In e-commerce businesses that are almost completely automated, and in which the only customer service personnel are located in a faraway land with only a passing familiarity with English. In self-service gas pumps. In the town where I live, there will no longer be a guy selling train tickets at the commuter station, and all tickets will have to be bought from the kiosk. The list goes on and on...

Now, a perfectly legitimate argument can be made for all of these changes, and I must admit that in some ways, these shifts make our lives easier and more convenient. But there is a level of depersonalization going on, and we have to wonder what the long-term impact will be. The risk of not considering it, I’m afraid, is that our culture morphs into something less than it should be before we even know it has happened.

It should be noted that when they started working on the script for “Up In The Air,” it was designed to be something of a farce. But the recession intervened, and the filmmakers were smart enough to change course - even to the point that they used real people in the beginning and end of the movie, talking about their experiences being laid off. It gives the film an anchor in reality, a compelling reality that is hard to shake.

“Up In The Air” is a serious movie for serious people, done with a light touch. Clooney is a the top of his game, cementing his position as someone with both move star glamour and rare good taste in the projects he chooses. (Think about a career that includes “Out of Sight,” “Three Kings,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and “Michael Clayton.” All pretty much in a single decade. Be hard to point to many other actors with that kind of creative track record.) But he also shows a thoughtful vulnerability in “Up In The Air,” a side that he hasn’t much shown before.

“Up In The Air” is a terrific movie. It almost certainly is going to get a bunch of Oscar nominations. But more importantly, it is that rarity these days - a movie that makes you think about serious issues.

I told you before Christmas that this was going to be our holiday wine, and now I’m going to tell you that the Roads End 2007 Pinot Noir from Oregon is one of the best pinots I’ve ever tasted. It was so smooth, so supple, so elegant, so delicious...I was sorry I only had one bottle, because it was hard to find something to follow it.


That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend..and I’ll see you Monday.

KC's View: