An Epiphany for Tough Times

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I've got Cable News Network droning on in the background — yes, someone still watches it—while I scan the front pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

It's all very unnerving. People are buying gold instead of the blue chips. The color code for heightened terrorist attacks just rose last Friday to orange — the second highest level of severity on a scale of five.

We are coming closer to a war with Iraq; the debate over smallpox vaccinations continues; oil prices are soaring; and now the latest news is that that hiring has hit its worst slump in nearly 20 years and is at a near standstill.

That's not news to anyone who works in the media business. Most media companies continue to flatten their organizations during this long and unabating spell of bad news. Ask executive search recruiters how their business is doing. If they are honest, the answer is that it's a depressing game of musical chairs with more people seeking work than there are positions to fill.

We are all in that same boat. Two weeks ago, I attended our parent company's corporate meeting in Amsterdam, and heard from my Dutch colleagues — and the media outlets there — that the European economy is probably now in even more perilous shape than the U.S. economy.

Last week, gratefully back on American soil as world tensions mounted, I attended our company's executive retreat and heard my peers discuss how they were ekeing it out. It was like being in an echo chamber as stories reverberated about how they've grappled with doing more with less.

But there I had an epiphany: I served as moderator for a panel of our readers, a thought-provoking group of four industry leaders who carved time from their busy schedules to attend our meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz. Not only did they give us their take on how we were doing, but they also shared some glimpses into their own worlds.

Cox Communications Inc. president and CEO Jim Robbins told us what he's been telling his own employees for years, in one word: execution. We hear you.

Lifetime Television president and CEO Carole Black advised our senior management to make cost cuts once, but not in programming — or, in our case, editorial content.

Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing president and CEO Char Beales told us that our own headcount cuts were starting to show up in the pages of our magazines. She found our marketing coverage lacking, and she is right.

Court TV's chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff told us that some of our special reports, well, weren't all that special. Touché.

Although some of their feedback was stinging, it was a shot of adrenaline for me. Those four executives are also taking their troops through waters that none of us have ever navigated. So many thanks to Jim, Carole, Char and Henry for caring enough to tell my senior management team how they view our world, and how we can become even more indispensable partners to them.

My management heard what they said. Bottom line: We will do a better job of helping you do your job during these extremely difficult times. Maybe we can't change much of what is happening in the world, but we can change ourselves. So heads up to one and all.

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