Take It From an Ex-Journalist: Adapt or Die

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

September 23, 2013

Somewhere between our group's discussion of three-year bachelor's degrees and its deliberation over the value of general-education courses, the sensation swept over me: I've seen this before—or at least something close to it. Déjà vu.

The people engaged in the conversation were different this time. They were members of Cleveland State University's senior leadership team. We had gathered for President Ronald Berkman's annual two-day fall retreat, which began with an overview of the forces that are driving the need for urgent change in higher education.

Noting our industry's notorious reputation for being stuck in its ways, President Berkman baited his vice presidents and deans: "Do we really have an appetite for change?" he asked. Thus began a vigorous dialogue among my colleagues in which we delved into all manner of institutional innovation.

The scene reminded me of similar sessions at another time, in another place, concerning urgent change in another "mature" industry. That industry was the newspaper business. I began my professional career in 1984 as a newspaper reporter, and after about 10 years, I had ascended to the management ranks of the Chicago Tribune. I recall countless conversations around that time with senior staff and peers at national conferences where we would discuss the powerful forces threatening the industry and how we desperately needed to respond.

We never really did, at least not sufficiently enough to stem the onslaught of technological advancements, disruption of business models, and shifting consumer preferences that have since conspired to pretty much dismantle newspapers as we knew them. Tribune, parent company of my beloved Chicago paper, filed for bankruptcy a few years ago. In my current home, Cleveland, The Plain Dealer recently ceased home delivery on certain days in order to prolong its survival.

I moved to higher education more than a dozen years ago, just as newspapers were beginning their rapid descent. However, listening to my Cleveland State colleagues during the president's retreat, I could not help but draw comparisons between our current predicament and the one newspapers faced a few years ago.

Back then, the fundamental challenges were apparent enough and amazingly similar to those that higher education faces now, especially public institutions: Newspapers' most reliable source of revenue—classified advertising, not state subsidy—was steadily disappearing. A host of online providers had emerged that were willing to deliver information to consumers faster, more cheaply, and more conveniently. And our loyal customer base of longtime newspaper subscribers—not unlike the seemingly endless supply of high-school graduates—was starting to lose confidence in us.

And yet, our change-the-world brainstorming sessions more often than not devolved into debates over the merits of making incremental, operational adjustments. The most radical ideas were usually deemed either impossible or not really necessary. Just the exercise of entertaining the notion of a paperless edition or allowing citizens to serve as journalists (now we call them "bloggers") seemed like progress, even if we seldom followed through.

To this day, I believe the newspaper industry could have avoided such a steep decline had we made a serious commitment to adapt to change. How much better off might we have been if we had been bold enough to adopt the open-minded approach that the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos expressed upon his recent purchase of The Washington Post: "I don't want to imply that I have a worked-out plan," Bezos said. "This will be uncharted terrain, and it will require experimentation."

Looking back, I can now see why newspaper executives and journalists had trouble getting there. For the same reasons, too many university administrators, deans, and faculty members are struggling to usher in significant change as well. Perhaps this will sound familiar to you.

First, we really didn't believe we had to change. Sure, we heard all the doomsday predictions, mostly from those outside the industry­—but, come on! The Chicago Tribune had been around since 1847. Its abolitionist campaign helped lead to the founding of the Republican Party and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. The Tribune Company had just purchased the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. Sure, we might struggle a little bit, but go bankrupt? No way.

Second, despite all the evidence that the public's views of news and media were shifting, we thought the public was wrong. So what if every reader survey ranked international news coverage near the bottom of what people wanted to read? Didn't they know our Africa correspondent had just won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting? People needed international reporting even if they were too ignorant to recognize it, and we were determined to give it to them, no matter that the enormous expense of housing reporters all over the world was killing the bottom line.

Finally, we just could not envision a reality that was too far removed from the one we had experienced. Even when we finally conceded that the Internet was becoming a more popular source of news than newsprint, we thought the solution was simple: Just paste the newspaper online in the same format. We could not imagine that people would use the power of the Web essentially to assemble their own virtual newspapers, focusing on the topics that interested them and pulling from a variety of sources that they trusted most.

Along the way, we missed innovative opportunities to reinvent ourselves in ways that responded to emerging demands while retaining our core values. For instance, we kept insisting that our reporters were the only legitimate transmitters of information, even though all kinds of information was becoming readily available, in real time, to anyone who wanted it via social networking. Is this sounding familiar yet?

These memories surface when I see the stark gap between the public's perception of higher education and that of university and college administrators and the faculty. A survey of 1,000 American adults and 540 senior-level administrators released last fall by Time magazine and the Carnegie Corporation of New York bears this out. While 62 percent of the administrators included "to learn to think critically" as either the most-important or second-most-important reason people should go to college, only 26 percent of the public ranked it as such. Likewise, 80 percent of the adults said that at many colleges, the education students receive is not worth what they pay for it. Only 41 percent of the administrators agreed with them.

How many times have I watched college leaders roll their eyes because they cannot understand why parents and students would insist that a degree lead to a job rather than simply being enthralled by the privilege of learning from us? How much time do we waste haggling over whether courses should be taught traditionally or online, as though students will tolerate any instruction in the future that does not take advantage of some online component?

I appreciate President Berkman's challenge for those of us at Cleveland State to reject the fallacy that we can just dabble around the edges and expect that higher education's predicament will work itself out. Do we really have an appetite for change? I'm betting that we do. I've seen the alternative one time too many.

Byron P. White is vice president for university engagement and chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University.