Something in common: Electric cars and newspapers

By Steve Outing

My wife and I saw Who Killed the Electric Car? tonight. Please go see it — and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, too. I feel like with both of these films, it’s a moral imperative to see them and educate yourself about our society’s most pressing problem — our dependence on an energy source that is choking the planet, and a corporate and government system that protects the status quo no matter how obvious and urgent the need to change becomes.

Watching Who Killed the Electric Car?, I was struck by some similarities between the auto industry and the newspaper industry (the latter where I’ve spent much of my career, either working in it or advising it). This quote, used in promoting the Gore film, applies to both of those industries:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” –Upton Sinclair

Frankly, what GM and auto industry executives did with the electric car borders, in my mind at least, on evil. GM sunk money into developing an electric car that worked and that people liked because the state of California required it to. But at the same time, GM filed lawsuits against the state and succeeded in getting California regulators to back off requirements to have a percentage of its fleet be zero-emission. After that “success,” it then scrapped the electric car program and destroyed all the cars it had produced. (The EV1’s were leased to drivers, so they had no choice but to give them back to GM.)

That short-sighted decision made sure that no alternatives to internal combustion engine cars would be available to the public anytime soon. Rather than embrace a new type of car and turn that into the company’s main revenue stream in the future, GM squashed the threat to its old way of doing business — to the detriment of our planet and its inhabitants.

I find nothing so sinister with the newspaper industry, of course, but I do think that newspaper executives over the last decade have had blinders on about the need to change their industry to adapt to obvious changes in the media environment brought about by the Internet. Oh, sure, newspapers have done lots of good things and made significant progress in figuring out how to publish and do business on the Internet. There are plenty of smart people working at newspapers who understand where things are going. (Hint: Young people don’t read printed newspapers.)

But it’s obvious with hindsight that newspaper executives suffered from what Sinclair so eloquently described. It’s the Googles and Yahoo!’s that benefited and built multi-billion-dollar businesses, because the jobs of their executives depended on them figuring out how to succeed on the Internet. Newspaper executives remained too focused on protecting the old way, so they never had a chance to reach Google/Yahoo! heights online.

Who Killed the Electric Car? made me pessimistic, to tell you the truth, about the future of the newspaper industry. It’s human nature, unfortunately, to protect what you’ve got and resist radical change. Newspapers will probably limp along, and maybe some will prosper with their Internet and digital initiatives. But they won’t hit it big online. Human nature will see to that.

Is that too pessimistic?

Oh, well. At least newspaper executives’ resistance to change doesn’t threaten the planet on the scale that GM’s does.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!