gas guzzlerIt seems to me that cars and newspapers have been the canaries in the mine. I look around at where many companies find themselves today—on the brink of obscurity— and I wonder who in these companies has been the visionary? Isn’t that where so-called leaders should excel? Isn’t there a chief of strategy or “truthiness”?

As a Ford brat living in Motown, I grew up in the heyday of the big three. I remember my Dad announcing at dinner one evening that the union had negotiated birthdays off for employees and that this “benefit” trickled up to the white collar workers too. There was mutual agreement in our family as to how ridiculous this seemed and that unions had gone beyond the pale. So yes, the undermining of the future of the auto giants began many moons ago and yes, there are many culprits.

But, where were the company pragmatists who had to be aware of the growing environmental and strategic concerns, yet allowed their company to focus primarily on building trucks and big gas-sucking cars? Sure the economy was riding high, but everyone knows what goes up is likely to come down. Doesn’t someone have the job to say, hey what could go wrong here and how can we be prepared for it? Evidently not. I don’t buy the excuse that they were just making what consumers wanted. These companies could’ve begun shaping the consumer mindset long ago and perhaps today would be regarded as heroes rather than losers.

And now to the newspapers: a few weeks ago we canceled our subscription to our hometown newspaper (a major city daily) that has undergone modifications several times over the past year. We truly wanted to be supporters. My husband and I enjoy print, and still subscribe to the NY Times* and several magazines. We cancelled because we felt insulted by the lack of substance, photos that filled most of the page and copy that was written to a second grade level—not because we were getting our news elsewhere. Why should we pay to be less informed and insulted? Is dumbing down the paper a new vision or lack of one?

I point to Newsweek magazine’s new direction as a proactive, thoughtful way to think about the future of print publications. “Mass for us is a business that doesn’t work,” noted Tom Ascheim, Newsweek’s chief executive. “We did it for a long time, successfully, but we can’t anymore.” Newsweek has lowered its rate base to a core of educated, avid news consumers that are interested in not just story-du-jour analysis and commentary, but who look for an “opinionated, prescriptive or offbeat take on events.” A willingness to carve out a meaningful niche appears to be the future of media in general. After all, the consumer – that means us – is now empowered to make specific choices about what we want to read or view and when. Hopefully our selections also will include differing viewpoints so we ensure that we adequately inform our thinking and decision-making.

Companies, organizations, countries, cities and people are paying the price of their own stagnation and lack of vision. Those that invigorate, evolve and reinvent themselves will be poised for success. Hopefully, some will take bold, innovative directions and it won’t be a case of too little, too late.

*Check out the NY Times prototype Article Skimmer. It lays out articles in a grid to allow for quick scanning. And, by hitting the space bar you can jump to the next section of the paper (or choose the section manually).

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