The Lileks Caper

James Lileks who’s day job as a columnist for The Strib (The Minneapolis Star Tribune) is a popular figure in the Blogosphere. He is unique because he is multi-talented and prolific in his very own quirky style. Indeed his Strib column is called The Quirk – and I probably would have written ‘quirky’ to describe him even if that wasn’t the case. He telecommutes and regales us with tales of his daughter Gnat and everyday life via his blog The Bleat. He does a 50s style radio serial called The Diner. He collects and photographs endless examples of mid 20th century memorabilia from matchbooks to comic books – even money and stock certificates and old postcards from restaurants and motels. He documents the urban landscape of Minneapolis and New York including ‘pre mall’ street signage. And, oh, he podcasts and does web video too. As the tag line at Lileks.com puts it: Unpacking the past with joy and ambivalence since 1996.

So the Stib is dropping his column and saying he must do straight reporting and stop telecommuting. Lileks, the blogosphere and even some in the MSM are a bit outraged by this move. Several bloggers have cannily observed that the Strib’s peculiar behavior may be part of a campaign by the papers new owners to force out expensive unionized staff by assigning them unpleasant work. Powerline, which is blog run by people from the Minneapolis area, puts it that way:

James’s announcement follows on the Star Tribune’s March buyout of 24 staffers including reporters. In theory, I think the Star Tribune could easily improve the paper while downsizing its staff, but James’s announcement suggests that that’s not what’s going to happen — as Hugh Hewitt observes rather more pointedly. Union rules may make the Star Tribune unmanageable. James’s announcement makes it a joke.

And that’s the problem. If the new management thinks they are just streamlining a newspaper operation in financial trouble and think Lileks is just a columnist they haven’t got the full picture. Dan Riehl of Riehl World View takes the position that the managers may be quite aware of Lileks potential but have no way to turn it into profit soon enough to do any good. That’s possible too, but assigns more awareness to the managers that I think the evidence suggests. It looks to me like a case of what McLuhan would call driving with the rear view mirror. For me the give away is that they have apparently made no attempt whatsoever to utilize Lileks special skills and – here is the rear view mirror – asked him to do a job that is essentially the same as they might have offered Mark Twain in the 1850s. Maybe they can’t use the potential Lileks has, but I see no evidence they even are aware of it. Like anticipating that the negative reaction in the Blogosphere might be significant.

What I find refreshing about that reaction including Lileks’s own is that people are seeing that the problem is one of form, not content. New media versus old. The newspaper guys don’t seem to be getting it that they have someone on their staff that might help them make the transition to what McLuhan would call an emerging media environment. Here is Lileks himself at The Bleat pointing to his strengths in those new forms pretending they have given him the opportunity to do for them what he is already doing on his own.

I’ll be developing new content, both video and audio, as well as blogging throughout the day in a new, improved, evolving Bleat! History buffs will relish the new “Then and Now” feature; podcast fans who want something new to hear on the way into work may enjoy my new “Constant Comment” feature, in which I read the stories and offer small editorial asides (think the MST3K approach, applied to a newspaper, spoken aloud.) Since the production costs on the podcast are nil, we’ve lined up some unusual sponsors who otherwise might not be able to afford print ads. (Comic book stores, online merchants, start-up sites, and other niche clients.) The video stuff I can’t quite describe yet, but I know the objective: get the clips into YouTube and beyond, with the StarTribune logo embedded in the corner for all to see.

Diner? Yes. Weekly. And perhaps a Joe-Ohio type serialized online novel, set in Minneapolis, using the old Star newspapers from the 30s to drive the plot; it’ll be a way of promoting the new deep archive feature that makes the entire history of the paper, and hence the community, available as a searchable online resource.

In short, it’s everything I’ve been looking for. All these worlds are mine, except Europa! There are union rules about that, I gather.

Hah! Just kidding.

MSM reporter Michael S Malone gets as snarky and sarcastic as any blogger in this piece from ABC News:

But no one has suggested what seems to me to be the obvious solution for both him and his newspaper: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune should simply let its employees go work at home or at Starbucks, sell off its building and printing plant, and use the resulting revenues to buy editorial space on Lileks.com.

Lileks already got more readers than the Strib, and they are certainly more loyal. And, of course, his site is actually growing. But best of all, his business judgment seems far superior to the clowns currently running the newspaper.

I’m not sure about the business acumen. Lileks doesn’t seem to be advertising on his site or otherwise engaged in entrepreneurial activities other than selling his books on Amazon. Nor has Lileks developed his multimedia blogging activities into a huge profit making conglomerate – yet. But one thing seems clear. He isn’t going to do it in partnership with the new owners of the Strib. He needs to look elsewhere and in part that is just the way transitions happen. Companies established in one business are not necessarily qualified to take advantage of new opportunities – even in related businesses. IBM, with all their computer know how, couldn’t do PC operating systems as well as Microsoft. Established businesses may be positively disqualified because they understand the way things used to work and it needs fresh and open minds to make the new opportunity work. So maybe MSNBC or Yahoo should consider hiring him. Hiring all his talents and as part of the package let him telecommute from the snow belt where he feels at home.


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