Barnes and Noble, USA Today and the Church

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, September 6, 2010

Barnes and Noble, USA Today and the Church

"How did Barnes and Noble fall so far so fast?"


This was the question asked by James B. Stewart of the Wall Street Journal as the giant bookstore chain put itself up for sale this month. 


Simple answer? The internet.  More to the point, the internet of, kindle, the iPad, e-readers and digital books.


But here's the real question insightfully raised by Stewart: with such market-share dominance in the book business, why didn't Barnes and Noble, with dominant market position, do what it should have done? As Stewart observes, it could have "out-Amazoned Amazon, leveraging its brand and innovating when it began marketing and selling books online." After all, Barnes and Noble was an innovation itself, putting many independent booksellers out of business with its deep discounts and in-store coffee bars.


Stewart's conclusion: Barnes and Noble never really embraced the internet or e-books.   In truth, it stayed tied to the old-fashioned world of physical books and stores. It was unwilling to destroy its old business model, so it simply focused on managing its decline, leaving Amazon to concentrate on the new world it was creating.


A similar story is happening with USA Today. As Jeremy W. Peters of the New York Times notes, "The history of USA Today is full of firsts for the newspaper business: the first general-interest national paper of its kind, the first to use color widely in charts and photographs, and once first in the number of copies printed each day."


Now? Its advertising revenue has collapsed and its circulation has plunged.


But unlike Barnes and Noble, USA Today is fighting back. It recently announced the most extensive reorganization in its 28-year history, shifting "its business model away from the print edition that has become ubiquitous in airports, hotels and newsstands across the country."


Now the paper will focus on its digital operations, breaking news on its website, a stand-alone sports edition called USA Today Sports, and making content more available in digital form in order to snag a larger percentage of the tablet and mobile phone news market.


There are lessons here for all businesses.


There are also lessons here for all churches. 


First lesson: You can go the way of B&N and simply manage your decline. Or you can go the way of USA Today and preserve your core while attempting to stimulate progress.


What is the core of the church that must never change? The message of the gospel; a defined new community in Christ; worship and the sacraments; the Great Commission, and the cultural commission inherent within it.


What must change? Methods, strategies and forms of communication. 


I have often reflected on the demise of the railroad barons. They dominated their era until a new invention came along - the car. Instead of seeing the potential of the automobile, they fought it, working instead to preserve the railroad industry as they knew it. 


Their mistake was that they thought they were in the railroad business. 


They weren't. 


They were in the transportation business. 


Failing to see this cost them everything.


USA Today is not in the newspaper business. It's in the news business. They are realizing that this means they don't have to live, and eventually die, with the newspaper. 


Similarly, the church is not in the business of the hymns of Fanny Crosby, age-graded adult Sunday School, door-to-door leaflet campaigns or the King James Version of the Bible. We are in the business of worship, community/discipleship, evangelism and the Bible itself.


But there's another, more subtle lesson to be learned. Both Barnes and Noble and USA Today were recent innovators. Very recent. Like 90's recent. 


And now? Struggling to stay current. That's how fast things are changing. 


The good news for USA Today? It is not resting on its laurels.


Unlike many churches.


I'm finding an increasing number of churches that did innovate - but then, once they "did" the innovation, firmly cemented themselves in that innovation. 


So now, while they may not be mired to Fanny Crosby, they can't seem to move beyond Darlene Zschech; while they abandoned Sunday School, they can't think beyond small groups; while they no longer use the KJV, they don't realize the NIV is beginning to be a bit worn in places; and while they wouldn't dream of handing out tracts, they don't realize that the older seeker services with a drama sketch doesn't connect like it used to.


Cutting-edge churches have moved on to internet campuses, a multi-site approach, music by Jesus Culture and widespread use of film.


And if they're smart, those same cutting-edge churches will hold those very things with an open hand, along with an open eye.


The goal is not to be "hip", as a recent cover story in Christianity Today outlined. The goal is to be effectively standing, and contending, on Mars Hill (Acts 17). Paul wasn't trying to be hip; he was trying to connect. 


All to say, never before has there been such a need for leaders to be like the men of Issachar, who "understood the signs of the times and knew the best course for Israel to take" (I Chronicles 12:32, NLT).


Or perhaps we should say, keep understanding the times.


James Emery White





"Clearance Sale: Barnes and Noble Didn't Evolve Enough," James B. Stewart, The Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2010.


"USA Today to Remake Itself to Stress Digital Operations," Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times, Saturday, August 28, 2010, p. B1.  


"Hipster Faith," Brett McCracken, Christianity Today.

Barnes and Noble, USA Today and the Church