Why JCPenney and Newhouse have a lot in common

by Kevin Slimp, August 2012

Why JCPenney and Newhouse have a lot in common | times,picayune,slimp,baton,rouge,advocate,kevin,kevin slimp,news guru,newhouse,steven newhouse,jcpenney,ceo,president
I realize that I’m dating myself, but here goes.

When I was a little boy, drug stores used to have these bins that held bags filled with multiple “secret” items. They were often called “grab bags” and you never knew what would be in them. As an adult, you realize this was older stock that the store had trouble selling, but as a kid it was exciting to get a bag filled with “valuable” items for a quarter.

That’s what I felt like when I looked at my calendar for the next few weeks. There’s a publishers’ summit, an advertising conference, a keynote at a state newspaper association event, along with a couple of training sessions.

When I look at these from a distance, I see a bunch of scattered events in different areas of the country with unrelated topics. And as I try to decide what to say to these very different groups, the task can seem overwhelming.

I see the topics they’ve requested and they vary from “How to Increase Revenue on Newspaper Websites” to “Finding Ways to Adapt to a New Marketplace” to “The Present and Future Relationship Between Print and Mobile Journalism,” with a few other topics thrown in, just to keep me on my toes.

As a speaker, teacher and consultant, the idea of trying to say something that will be helpful and valuable to different types of audiences, even though they’re all related to the newspaper industry, can be very daunting.

In the constantly evolving world of communication, of which we are a major player, we are bombarded daily with the idea that we’re missing something. There must be some golden key out there which will unlock the door to future success. Without that key, we fear, we are doomed to failure.

JCPenney thought they’d found that key a year ago when they hired former Apple exec Ron Johnson as their CEO. I was speaking at an advertising convention, of all things, the week after the announcement was made about the company’s new marketing strategy, and a major topic of a panel discussion was “How will this change affect JCPenney?”

While panelists felt like it could go either way, most agreed the change would prove to be a huge success or failure within a year. I’m more apt to express an opinion during these conversations so I shared that I believed sales would fall between 20 and 30 percent within a year and that the CEO would be gone before Christmas 2012.

As you’ve probably read, sales are down around 20 percent and, while Johnson is still on board as I write this, former Target Corp. Chief Marketing Officer Michael Francis left his position as JCPenney president in June. I see a direct correlation between what’s happened at JCPenney and the demise of The Times-Picayune as a daily newspaper in New Orleans. During an interview with Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon, Advance.net Chairman Steve Newhouse recently said that transforming The Times-Picayune and other properties to a digital-centric operation is necessary for the company’s survival. It sounds to me that Steve has been drinking the same juice that Ron has been drinking at JCPenney. “We must convert everything to digital!” might be their rallying cry, but they’re listening to bad advice.

OK, back to my upcoming schedule. While the topics and audiences are different, I realized as I looked at my calendar this morning that attendees at all three of these events want to know the same thing: Will I have a job next year?

If Michael had realized that what works for Target doesn’t necessarily work for JCPenney, he’d probably have a job today. If Ron realized that JCPenney isn’t an Apple Store, he’d probably still have a job in January.

Now it’s time for Steve to learn that The Times-Picayune isn’t The Huffington Post or Amazon.com.

I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts with these groups over the next few weeks. Don’t expect to hear that the sky is falling. Because unless you drag it down from the heavens and try to recreate it, the sky will probably stay right where it is.