retail news in context, analysis with attitude

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Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe, and this is MorningNewsBeat Radio, available on iTunes and brought to you this week by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.

Sometimes it seems like the problems never stop coming.

One week it is salmonella contamination. The next week it is swine flu. Both take place while we’re grappling with recession and high unemployment and a credit crunch. The question isn’t whether something else is going to happen next week. It is what is going to happen next week, and whether we’re going to be prepared to deal with it.

Sometimes, it seems to me, problems dictate solutions. Sometimes, though, the solutions actually predate and cause the problems…but are then positioned to take advantage of the opportunity.

An example of this latter scenario, I think you could argue, is the ability to download music from the Internet via services like iTunes. I don't any of us realized that CDs were an obsolete technology until downloading made it so…and then the idea of going to the store and buying an album that someone else had put together suddenly seemed so 19th century.

I’m not sure the same thing could be said for what is going on in the newspaper business, which has never looked so vulnerable as this week, when it has seemed like the Boston Globe seemed perilously close to the precipice of going out of business, just like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post Intelligencer before it. And let’s face it, the Globe got a reprieve this week, but it still has a death sentence hanging over its head, just like virtually every other print newspaper in America.

It’s not quite like the music business, though. Unlike listening to music, reading the news requires a greater level of active engagement…and while there are an awful lot of us who get our news and information via the Internet, newspapers haven't figured out how to monetize their online offerings yet. Most of us are fully on board with the idea that we should pay 99 cents for a song download, but would we pay 99 cents for a daily newspaper download? Would we pay a nickel a story? The jury is still out on that one.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions. It has been widely reported that a number of companies – including Amazon – are working on portable readers that would essentially recreate the newspaper experience but without actual paper and ink. You actually can download newspapers and magazines onto the Kindle, but Amazon has apparently developed a new Kindle that will have a bigger screen that is friendlier to the newspaper experience. Now, I understand how Amazon and its competitors are going to make money by selling the hardware, but it remains unclear whether newspapers can make money by selling the software to enough people.

The problem is obvious, but the solution still seems out of reach and not quite defined. I tend to think that the journalism business probably will have to switch to a largely nonprofit model – what the hell, it isn’t making any profits anyway – and that the shape of journalism is going to change in fundamental ways. I hope this will happen for the better, not the worse…it was both heartening and a little depressing to see the great Anna Quindlen decide to give up her Newsweek column in part because she thought it was time to give the space to younger blood, thought it was time to get out of the way. (Yikes! She’s only two years older than me, and I still haven't decided what I’m going to when I grow up! Maybe that’s because, as Jimmy Buffett sings, I’m growing older but not up…but I digress.)

I mention all this because it seems to me that whatever business you happen to be in, it is important to do a couple of things. First of all, you have to create an environment in which people are prepared and empowered to deal with the problems we cannot yet see coming and do not understand; speed and sophistication in one’s reaction can be critical to whether one is seen as being credible and worthy of trust. But it also is important to create an environment that looks to create problems…that looks to put the company out of business through new products and services…so that one can actually be nimble enough to get ahead of the wave…and, by the way, get ahead of the competition.

There are different kinds of problems, and there are different kinds of solutions. There also are different kinds of companies, and in today’s warp speed business, technology and communications environment, there is no excuse for being a company that deals only in the present tense. If you’re that kind of company, you may well live long enough to read your corporate obituary in the daily newspaper…unless of course, the daily newspaper no longer exists.

For MNB Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.

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