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(Originally published May 28, 2012, in Capital, here.)

If you want a quick lesson on how not to do business, look at the news media here. There is no better example in Romania.

I’m not suggesting that all the news companies here are failing. I’m only saying that, on the whole, they lack the one most important ingredient in a truly successful company: understanding who they are.

In the Critical Thinking class I teach for business students, the most difficult question we discuss – and by far the most important –is defining who you are. Whether as a person or a business, understanding who you are is (after all) the only first question you can ask. Everything starts there. Because until you answer that, you cannot know why you are – in other words, your mission.

But for the news media here, these simple questions (from all appearances) remain unanswered. And it is why, I would argue, after more than 20 years, there is still no dominant and healthy quality newspaper setting the national discussion.

The fact is there’s no excuse for that. The answer is not a secret. You’re not inventing anything here. “To enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news, information and entertainment.” That, from The New York Times, is a pretty good place to start. And how do you succeed? “Make the important interesting and the interesting important.” That’s my answer. If you can do that, you will have readers, devoted, thankful, everyday, and best of all, paying. If you don’t do that, you won’t. It’s that simple. The answer usually is.

So what do we have here? An industry that does not seem to know who they are or why they exist. (Hint: “To make money” is not an answer. “To feel important” is even worse.) An industry that seems uncertain what is important, and is incapable of making even the interesting interesting. (Sorry, but sex, nudity, gossip, and faux scandals do not count.)

Yes, you distribute news. But your approach seems to be: “If we print it (or show it), it’s news.” Here’s some advice: that tautology might convince you, but it won’t convince your customers. Compiling a list of facts is not sufficient. Dedicating valuable time to conversation does not make the conversation valuable. Making newspaper pages pretty does not make them worth reading.

Now, it’s true that readers and viewers are notoriously bad at knowing why they like or dislike your product. Mostly it’s a feeling, somewhat vague and ill-defined. That’s true in most industries. Your customers are not experts. But as with pornography or art, they know what they like. And when they like it, they will buy it. They don’t need to know why.

But you need to know. Your product is information. Information is valued, but only when it’s trusted. Trust requires integrity. Without that, it is empty gossip and lazy. And while maybe that’s fun, it quickly gets boring – and worse, it becomes optional.

So I say decide who you are. Decide why you are. Then work to become that. Whether you like it or not, the Fourth Estate is a business. And unless you know why you’re in business, how will your customers? And unless you can explain it and be interesting, you will never truly succeed.

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