THE BLOG

When You Don't Understand the Business You're in, You're Screwed (Good-Bye Newspapers)

03/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My father taught at Harvard Business School a long time ago, and one thing he never ceased to marvel at was businesses that didn't understand the business they were in. A simple case of confusing tactics with strategy. He started a long list of historical examples and since his passing, I have added a few.

His top two were the railroad companies at the turn of the last century, depending on who does the rating, between six or eight of the ten largest companies in America in 1900 were railroad companies. But he believed they were in the people transportation business and, as such, or if they had defined themselves as such, the largest airline in America would have been the spawn of a railroad company.

He also thought it was a shame that American Express hadn't viewed themselves in being in the cash dispensation business versus the traveler check business. He never understood why all the ATMs in the world weren't owned by American Express.

Today, I look at the end of the newspaper industry with a touch of nostaglia but also with the same sense of bewilderment. For the better part of the past 20 years, newspapers have been focused in the paper and not the news. "All the news that's fit to print" is fine, when printing was the only option available. "All the news" is really the core issue.

The Rocky Mountain News's road ends today. The San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Post Intelligencer and many more are not far behind. Ironically, delivering news through new media is cheap, fast and easy. Readers made the transition, it's just too bad so many newspapers, with so many good people, never did.