In my last post, I compared the current troubles in the newspapers business to the decline in ice harvesting. Today, my metaphor is sewing machines. Newspapers can learn a lot from them.
I got the idea for the sewing machine metaphor from business blogger and Squidoo-founder Seth Godin . He blogged recently about the Singer sewing machine company in its heyday and noted past success is no guarantee of future success. And what he calls the “cycles” of this success are getting shorter as technology advances. That’s where I can see a comparison with newspapers.
Sewing machines were hot once because that’s how most people made clothes. Store-bought clothing didn’t exist except for the very wealthy. So if you wanted clothing, curtains, sheets, blankets, what have you, you made it. Sewing machines were intrinsic to people’s lives in a way that we can’t imagine today, at least in the industrialized world. Sewing machines enabled people to make their own clothes so much more easily and quickly than hand-sewing, which was what people had to do before that.
So sewing machines’ product wasn’t sewing — it was convenience. I’ve argued before that for newspapers (or news organization as I prefer to call them) to survive, they must figure out how to sell convenience. Their product never was — and never will be — news.
A bit of sewing machine history: When Isaac Singer patented the sewing machine in 1851, his machine was slow and clunky, but it freed women from hours of work, according to a history of the Singer sewing machines by Alex Askaroff. Later, sewing machine companies such as Singer saw success they probably never dream of, as machines improved and more and more people bought them.
Then, industrialization and first child labor and then cheap labor overseas turned ready-made clothing into a bargain, rather than the luxury it used to be. So eventually sewing machines were no longer selling convenience.
So how did Singer respond? Here’s a synopsis, according to the Singer Web site’s history:
- Diversified: Singer acquired electronics companies in the 1960s.
- Innovated: The company created the first electronic and then the first computer-controlled sewing machines in the 1970s. It continued to innovate, adding a steam press to some machines (like the ones at dry cleaners) and incorporating microprocessors into its sewing machines.
- Catered to the niche: It introduced a new line of sewing machines that offered a variety of stitching options, such as monogramming, embroidery and even sideways sewing to appeal to the small, highly interested niche groups of sewing machine users.
In a sense, Singer ensured that sewing machines still sell convenience. They make the visceral process of making something from scratch easier for novice sewers who just want to dabble in home-sewing as well as for the aficionados who needs a high-powered machine to do a very specific task again and again.
I think it would be tough to argue that sewing machines are as intrinsic to American life as they were 100 years ago. But they are still vital for many home sewers in a very different way than in the past.
Some people, like me, haul a sewing machine out once or twice a year for Halloween costumes or to sew something up for the school play. I recently sewed my daughter a simple summer dress, which cost me far more in money and time than if I’d bought it at Target. But it did it because I wanted the emotional feeling of making something from scratch for someone I love.
Others use their sewing machines frequently for a hobby or business built around monogramming or embroidery or sewing American Girl doll clothes.
In the past, everybody used sewing machines pretty much the same way — to make all the clothes for the family. Today, people use them in a variety of fragmented niches. Singer found a way to transition to a company that served this new reality.
What’s the lesson for newspapers?
- Look forward not back: Realize that just because you were wildly successful in the past doesn’t mean anything for the future. Technology changes, and you must change with it. Dwelling on what used to be will just slow you down from realizing what could be.
- Cater to the niche: Newspapers still have so much to offer readers, but they need to realize that the mass audience is gone. Not everybody sews anymore. But small groups of very dedicated people sew. Serve them, and serve them very well.
- Innovate: Rather than curse the technology that is helping to kill your business, use it to work for you. Invent ways to use the Web to serve your readers better and interact with them, rather that wish the Web had never been invented.
- Sell convenience: Figure out what will make your readers need to make sense of their world and give it to them, even if it doesn’t fit the traditional definition of news. Make surviving in this increasingly fragmented world with its over-abundance of information easier for people.
Sewing machines didn’t die, and newspapers don’t have to either.