I went over to speak at the Trenton Rotary last week. The speech didn’t go as well as I would have liked, but I learned a few things about the Trenton Rotary and a little bit about social organizations and their customs, as well. And, the hidden bonus, the event sharpened up the thinking that went into my presentation.
About the Trenton Rotary: Get this, the organization has been meeting pretty much non-stop for 99 years. It’s also had some historic moments. Bill Bradley announced that he was running for the U.S. Senate in 1978 during an appearance at the Trenton Rotary Club. In 2009 Chris Christie visited the Trenton Rotary during his gubernatorial run. The meeting place has changed a few times over the years — currently the club meets Thursdays at Freddie’s Tavern near the West Trenton Train Station.
About these service organizations and their customs: I am not much of a joiner, and I have attended no more than two or three Rotary meetings in the past. I was expecting the meeting to start with the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. And it did. I didn’t expect the group to then join together in song. But it did. The Trenton Rotarians chose a fairly easy one at my meeting, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and I found myself joining in with the enthusiasm of a kid waiting for the first pitch at a baseball game.
Over the years I have read dozens of articles about maximizing the effectiveness of meetings. I can’t recall any that talk about starting the meeting with a song. Maybe there is something to that.
Then, after a few more bits of Rotary business (including a trivia contest in which I provided the winning answer for my table — who was the first president to hold a televised news conference?), I got up to make my presentation.
It proved to be a challenge. As everyone knows, it’s one thing to have an idea in your head and then put it down on paper. And it’s one more rhetorical hurdle to put it down on paper and then turn it into an oral presentation. In my case at the Trenton Rotary my title — “If Print Is Dead, Then I’m in Big Trouble” — seemed manageable on paper but it didn’t work out so well in person.
Just a few minutes into the presentation I began to feel that I had bitten off more than I could chew. My premise was that, at a time when many people (and especially some in the media) are saying that print will inevitably be replaced by online media, my two new partners and I have doubled down on print by essentially buying shares in each other’s community newspaper businesses through our merger.
Not only that, but we all have tried — and continue to try — to formulate an online presence that could turn into a sustainable business. So far no luck, I told the Rotarians.
The costs of printing and circulating several tons of newsprint every week are the burdens that are going to kill us, the online proponents argue. But those costs, I respond, impose a discipline on print that forces us to define reasonable and measurable audiences. And we are also forced to maintain a reasonable and regular publishing schedule.
Those were the theories I had to present, but for me at least the best speeches are not expositions of theories, but rather a sharing of stories that illustrate the point. I’m still having a hard time coming up with the entertaining anecdotes that will illuminate these theories.
So I slogged through the presentation, before what seemed to be a sympathetic audience of Rotarians. At the end came some good questions, including one particularly incisive one from a seller of online advertising. R.J. Lewis represents online publications in the medical field, with a total reach that does appear to be sustainable.
Afterward — and this is one of the interactive benefits of appearing in person, as opposed to delivering your thoughts in print or online — Lewis continued the discussion. Look into the work of Clayton Christensen, he suggested, a Harvard Business School professor who has written about disruptive technology and how the established industry often turns a blind eye toward it — until it’s too late. Our community newspapers may not have given the online ventures the time or effort they deserved, he suggested.
Something to look into, I agreed, and maybe the subject for another column, if not another public appearance. Game on, I thought. I left Freddie’s whistling another tune: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
P.S.: The trivia answer is Ike.