This is the second instalment of Kevin Anderson’s series about navigating digital disruption. You can find the first part here.
Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Germany’s Axel Springer, said at the World Publishing Expo last month that he would have bought The Washington Post, now sold to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, immediately at the sale price of $250 million with no due diligence.
That’s corporate speak for saying that a legendary newspaper, the newspaper that brought down a US president, had reached the bargain basement price of an impulse buy. A bright new start it may well be, but it is a sad end to the Graham era.
No one doubts that newspapers and, in many ways, print media businesses in general, need to adapt to a radically different marketplace. Clark Gilbert in the US is one leader who has managed to help a news group, Deseret News, adapt.
Between 2008 and 2010, display advertising dropped by 30 percent and classified advertising dropped by 70 percent at the Deseret News, according to the Pew Research Journalism Project. Gilbert became CEO in 2009, and since 2010, the group has enjoyed a dramatic turnaround, seeing on average 44 percent annual increases in digital revenue.
But such turnarounds are not easy, and one of the biggest challenges faced by any transformation leader is cultural. Gilbert told Pew that 60 to 70 percent of his job is focused on changing culture. ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’, goes the business maxim attributed to management master Peter Drucker.
Riffing on that theme, Gilbert said that strategy will only get you, at most, 49 percent of the way to the dual transformation of print and digital that you need. A change in culture coupled with solid execution is what you need to get you the rest of the way.
Print culture change must accelerate
Culture change can’t come quickly enough for frustrated industry leaders or digital troops in the trenches. Frédéric Filloux, he of Monday Note fame, highlights the cultural battles still being fought at print media organisations. In a recent note, he praises the nimble digital-only business news publisher, Quartz, part of The Atlantic’s print-digital empire, and he compares their agility with the frustration of a traditional publisher. He wrote:
A couple of months ago, I met the digital management of a major UK newspaper. There, execs kept whining about the slow pace evolution of the news staff and the struggle to get writers to add links and basic metadata (don’t even think about pix or graphics) to their work product.
By and large, most legacy media I know of, in France, UK and the United States, are years behind swift boats such as Quartz, Politico or the older but still sharp Slate.
Are we still struggling to get journalists to add links to their stories, to do the most basic elements of digital production, in 2013? Really? What would happen if a journalist consistently turned in half-finished copy for tomorrow’s newspaper?
I was recently speaking to a very entrepreneurial journalist who has gone solo and learned to code. His drive and digital skills mean he has been courted by a couple of national newspapers, offers which he has declined. I asked him why he didn’t take the jobs, and he responded:
What? And suffer the ball ache of trying to get anything done? The startup world is full of young people, money, and optimism. The media world, the vast majority of the time, is not.
Legacy media, you’ve got a problem. The inability of media organisations to be nimble is becoming a competitive disadvantage in retaining exactly the kind of talent you most need to compete.
Transforming your culture
As I said in the first instalment of this series, digital experimentation has never been easier, but the challenge of cultural change, the challenge of shifting the organisation from a print focus to a multi-platform focus, is still a wicked problem. The challenge of creating an agile, risk-taking culture is even harder.
I think one of the most soul-destroying things for digital journalists like myself is that these arguments never seem to end. We rehash the same discussions over and over, and argue whether the 21st Century journalist’s job includes digital responsibilities. How do we move on and focus on the job to be done, rather than getting bogged down in this pointless haggling?
Clark Gilbert decided that he would have such discussions once, and only once. He created an exchange team to sit between his legacy print and broadcast businesses and his disruptive digital businesses. (In many organisations, these might not be separate organisations but rather people with different roles and responsibilities.)
This exchange team is charged with the task of helping knowledge, understanding and information flow between the two sides of the business, and with mediating cross-business decisions. Gilbert gives the example of discussions about a rubric for the home page which defined the nature of the top seven stories on the homepage. He said:
Just imagine if I had to decide the rules for what went on [the] homepage every day and it was a negotiation between the web team and the newsroom everyday. Think about how much psychic energy is going to be poured into that instead of everyone doing their jobs.
That was what was going on when I got there. I mean literally you had people in the newsroom pulling stories down because they had an in with someone on the web team, just because they didn’t think it was journalistic.
What would happen in a traditional newsroom if an individual journalist went up to a page or programme editor and told them to remove a story from the page or from the running order? I predict a riot.
Gilbert gathered senior editors and managers from print and digital and, as part of the exchange team, they bashed out the guidelines. They discussed the homepage rules for three months, and there were fierce debates, Gilbert said.
That might seem like a long time, but after that, the issue was settled. And Gilbert made sure that it stayed settled, that the debate wasn’t reopened again a few months down the line.
Gilbert is focused on transforming both his print and broadcast organisations, as well as creating a digital organisation that can take advantage of the disruption that technology has brought to media. By creating these exchange teams to decide thorny issues, he believes that he can move transformation forward more quickly. At the International Symposium of Online Journalism in April, he said:
I’m not going to slow down the organisation. I’m not going to have this discussion at 50 levels of the organisation.
Gilbert’s is one strategy to achieve rapid cultural and operational change. We do not have the luxury to keep re-fighting these battles over and over again. We need to employ strategies like these, and others, to move forward to the future together.
Kevin Anderson is a journalist and digital strategist who has worked for the Media Development Investment Fund, The Guardian and the BBC.
Image via Flickr courtesy of twatson used under a Creative Commons licence