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Washington Post, Boston Globe Sales: Lessons for Higher Ed


What a week for the “old media!”  First came the news that the New York Times sold the Boston Globe for a song to the owner of the Boston Red Sox.  Then came today’s stunning announcement that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is buying the Washington Post.  When I saw that news first appear on Twitter (follow me @TrinityPrez), I thought, gosh, is that a headline from The Onion?

The fact that most of my news now first comes across Twitter, and that my initial reaction is to a parody website, says a lot about what’s happened to the old media in the modern age.

I have a terrible confession to make.  Sometimes my home delivery copies of the Washington Post sit out front for days, annoying my neighbors and turning them into newsprint soup.  Does that mean I don’t read the “newspaper?”  Of course not!  I read the Washington Post avidly, along with many other newspapers, but I read most of them online first thing in the morning.  I’ve thought about cancelling my print subscription, but it’s like turning off my landline (an old fashioned telephone for those of you who never heard of that…).  I just can’t bear to part with the past even though I have little use for it today.

And therein lies the problem that the old media have today, and also the problem that old institutions of all kinds have today.  Being unable to part with the past even though the habits of the past are no longer useful is what is killing newspapers all over the country.  But the disease of “disruption” is not just leaving the newsprint to rot on my front lawn as I scan Twitter headlines on my Droid when I get up in the morning.

Disruption is a major force confronting higher education today.  Just as people no longer get their news exclusively from three network anchors or broadsheets on the front stoop, so, too, students no longer get their education exclusively from teachers presiding over classrooms.   The current debate about MOOCs (massive open online courses) is not just about famous faculty from elite schools delivering canned lectures to thousands of students online.  Perhaps the most provocative idea of the MOOC is that students will engage each other in learning, the true death of the old notion of the “sage on the stage” in favor of crowd-sourced knowledge and analysis.  Is the wisdom of the crowd better than the expertise of the professor?  I’m not sure I want a crowd teaching my future brain surgeon how to make an incision, but at the same time, the crowd might have some valuable lessons to impart about how that surgeon should treat her patients.

Whether we like the idea of MOOCs or not, whether we read books on tablets or insist on hard copy, whether we prefer old fashioned bubble sheets instead of SurveyMonkey for course evaluations, or paper syllabi instead of using Moodle, the absolute reality is that the disruptive power of technology has made it possible for the force of the crowd to change institutions.  Why is the internet banned or severely controlled in dictatorships?  Because the internet and its social media have changed the idea of human empowerment in radical ways.  People joined in social crowds now can drive change — in governments, as we have seen in the Middle East; in institutions, as we can see in the changes coursing through higher education; in the way people experience and engage with major events, as we could see in the crowd-sourced hunt for the terrorists in Boston.

Colleges and universities that want to thrive in the future need to take some urgent lessons from the struggles of the newspaper industry.  Marginal change is not enough; radical transformation is ultimately the only way to embrace the kind of social change that social media is driving.

In his letter to Washington Post staffers today, Donald Graham, the Washington Post Company chairman (and a great friend to Trinity) had this message that should resonate through all institutions facing the disruptive demands of change:

“All the Grahams in this room have been proud to know since we were very little that we were part of the family that owned The Washington Post. We have loved the paper, what it stood for, and those who produced it.

“But the point of our ownership has always been that it was supposed to be good for The Post. As the newspaper business continued to bring up questions to which we have no answers, Katharine and I began to ask ourselves if our small public company was still the best home for the newspaper. Our revenues had declined seven years in a row. We had innovated, and to my critical eye our innovations had been quite successful in audience and in quality, but they hadn’t made up for the revenue decline. Our answer had to be cost cuts, and we knew there was a limit to that. We were certain the paper would survive under our ownership, but we wanted it to do more than that. We wanted it to succeed.”

Colleges and universities have loyal families who are as devoted to them as the Grahams have been to the Washington Post.  We certainly know such love and devotion here at Trinity.  But Mr. Graham’s last two sentences really caught my eye:  to become wildly successful sometimes requires sacrificing cherished outdated notions in favor of wise business strategies.  Higher education needs to pay closer attention to the lessons emerging from the dramatic changes in old media.

Follow me on Twitter @TrinityPrez

See my blog on the Huffington Post (speaking of new media) on the DC Public Schools test scores

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: