I don’t mean to be a “prophet of doom” to borrow a line from Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics, but times are still tough. However, Charlie looks at some recent research to find out management strategies of news organisations that are successfully navigating this disruptive period and transforming themselves into multi-platform news providers. In a recent piece in inPublishing, Charlie says:
Recent research on the most progressive newsrooms says that the successful ones are those that combine commercial, technological and editorial management most closely. This is not just a case of slavishly following the money by following the clicks. Instead it is more a case of linking editorial tactics to a clear plan for revenue growth.
This reminds me of a conversation I had this week with my former editor at the BBC, Nic Newman. In the past, we had editorial, commercial and technical silos in news organisations, and we need a lot better coordination. There is a lot of discomfort from journalists about breaking down the wall between editorial and commercial, but I believe Charlie has found the right way of putting it. We have to link editorial strategy to revenue growth if we want to have sustainable, independent news organisations, and I think that there are a lot of ways to build the business of journalism to support the mission of journalism. However, as Nic says, we’ve all got to work together, commercial, technical and editorial.
Joy Mayer, the director of community outreach for the Columbia Missourian, the newspaper run by the faculty of the University of Missouri and staffed by journalists there, wrote a great piece on how to create editorial tactics that work. Speaking specifically about social media strategies, she says that to create an effective strategy, you need to ask three questions:
1. Why am I doing this?
2. What do I hope to happen? (Is your answer measurable or trackable?)
3. How will I track what works and use that feedback to craft future strategies?
With print, broadcast and digital strategies, we need to ask why we are doing something, and I think that this is really important in terms of opportunity costs. What is the cost of doing this as opposed to something else? Let’s stay on the topic of social media. This week there was quite a hullabaloo about Popular Science shutting off comments on all but a handful of debate focused articles. PopSci associate editor Dan Nosowitz said in a radio interview: “we think that the current form we have for comments wasn’t doing our readers much of a service”, according to a post on Poynter.
Let’s step back and look at a different way. What is the opportunity cost for PopSci of comments in their current form? What would it cost in terms of staffing to improve the experience? Is that staff time better spent elsewhere? Of course, I skipped to question two on Joy’s list. Going back to her first question: Why do they have comments in the first place? Is there a better way for them to achieve their goal another way? What are the metrics for success of this new strategy? If you answer the why question, you’ll be able to communicate more effectively to staff what they’re trying to achieve, and as an employee, I can remember examples when editors or managers helped me be more effective by giving me clear guidance. Yes, we want to experiment a lot, but we also need focus to be effective.
This is what transformational management looks like: Clear goals that achieve the journalistic mission and help generate revenue to support that mission.
The high desktop/laptop number makes sense — an awful lot of online news is consumed by deskbound office workers — but the tablet share has to be disappointing to all the news execs who bet the iPad would revive their business models.
This is why some news leaders, such as Digital First Media’s Steve Buttry, have long been arguing for a mobile first strategy. In 2009, Buttry said:
News organizations are belatedly, reluctantly and often awkwardly pursuing “web-first” strategies. As we fight these web battles, I am increasingly coming to believe that “web first” is what the military would call fighting the last war. News organizations need a mobile-first strategy.
The digital world never stops moving, and Steve, who I count as a friend, is right. We need to keep pace with the rapid shift in consumer preference.
Since the iPhone, people expect the internet to just work on their mobile devices, and Boyer believes that it is his job to make sure that their apps work for their audience. That makes sense, but catering to mobile users isn’t just about user experience, although that it is important.
Mobile first is more than making sure your content fits the smaller screen of a smartphone, but just as importantly, the strategy is more than being mobile, being on the move. As Jessica Weiss pointed out in IJNet:
According to Business Insider, 77 percent of people in the U.S. use mobile phones while lying in bed, 70 percent while watching TV, 65 percent while waiting and 41 percent in the bathroom.
Boyer said that mobile news is about filling the “cracks in the day”, the “in between moments” people have. That might be “before they go to work, while they are commuting or ‘in bed after children are asleep”.
A number of sites are now seeing an evening mini-spike in traffic as people take their tablets to bed. How are we serving those consumers? How many news organisations are developing evening tablet editions for these consumers? Would this be an attractive edition that would add subscribers to a bundled print-digital paid content strategy? How can news organisations use mobile notifications more effectively? There is a lot of opportunity here, and news organisations need to be prepared to move quickly with this rapidly changing market.
In one of my data journalism presentations I look back at the history of data journalism, and one of the key dates is 4 November 1952: the first US election when a TV network, CBS, used a computer to analyse and predict the election results.
CBS used the room-sized, vacuum-tube powered Univac. The idea came from Remington Rand, the makers of the Univac, because sales weren’t as strong as they wanted. In a creative bit of marketing, they approached CBS to use the computer to help analyse the election results. Of course, CBS also saw a marketing opportunity and mentioned Univac in their election coverage ads. Last night, in a lovely bit of luck, I heard one of those ads.
I often listen to old radio dramas while I’m making dinner and, much to my surprise, last night when I was listening to the 13 October 1952 episode of the western radio drama Gunsmoke on Old Valve Radio, I heard CBS run an advert touting how “Univac, the electric brain” would be assisting Edward Murrow and his team on election night coverage the following week. My jaw just dropped to hear this message announcing the dawn of computer-assisted reporting, as it was called in the US, 70 years before the term data journalism came into vogue. You can hear the ad yourself on Podbay.fm, and, if old western radio drama isn’t your cup of tea, fast forward to 13:43 to hear about how the CBS election team would be backed up by “Univac, the electric brain”.
For a lot of data journalists, the CBS-Univac partnership is a famous and well known bit of history, but if you aren’t familiar with the rest of the story, it is fascinating. Both Remington Rand, makers of the Univac, and CBS saw value in the arrangement, as Wired explained when they looked back at the day in 2010.
The eight-ton, walk-in computer was the size of a one-car garage and accessed by hinged metal doors. Univacs cost about $1 million apiece, the equivalent of more than $8 million in today’s money. The computer had thousands of vacuum tubes, which processed a then-astounding 10,000 operations per second. (Today’s top supercomputers are measured in petaflops, or quadrillions of operations per second.)
Remington Rand (now Unisys) approached CBS News in the summer of 1952 with the idea of using Univac to project the election returns. News chief Sig Mickelson and anchor Walter Cronkite were skeptical, but thought it might speed up the analysis somewhat and at least be entertaining to use an “electronic brain.”
However, just as traditional political pundits heaped scorn on stats wizard Nate Silver in 2012, CBS’s editors were not willing to join the Univac team out on that limb. On air, CBS hedged:
In another story about the election by Ars Technica, we learn that the Univac team figured out that they had entered the New York results incorrectly, overstating Stevenson’s votes by a factor or 10. They ran the numbers again, but they got the same result. Univac predicted that Republican Dwight Eisenhower would win the Electoral College 438 to Stevenson’s 93 votes, and the computer set the odds of an Eisenhower win at 100-1.
As the night went on, Eisenhower gained momentum. The final vote was 442 to 89 to Eisenhower, and Univac’s early prediction was off by only one percent.
While I’ve known about this story for a while, it was great to hear the advert of CBS advertising how it was going to use an “electric brain”. I also learned something new about Univac. It was programmed by computer pioneer Grace Hopper. Her team fed the computer with statistics from previous elections, and she actually wrote the code that allowed Univac to make its prediction. Sadly, her contribution was not mentioned in reports at the time.
Quartz, the newest member of The Atlantic Media network, launched in 2012, but by July, it already had 5 m users and said that it had already passed The Economist’s web traffic in the US and would soon pass the Financial Times, and Jay Lauf, the publisher of the site, kicked off Journalism.co.uk’s News Rewired 2013 talking about the strategy behind the site’s success.
Lauf started by saying that digital media need to ask: Where does your audience come from? Do they come to you directly, via search or social?
• Direct: 10 to 15 percent of traffic – While it is nice to think that people come straight to your homepage, he compared that to the fanciful idea that his young daughter comes to him every night as he eats dinner and asks for his advice, any nuggets of wisdom he might impart. It’s a nice idea, but as every parent knows, this isn’t reality. Similarly, journalists believe that their audience online are coming to them directly to learn the news of the day. Even on big sites like CNN and the New York Times, direct traffic is only 10 to 15 percent of traffic. That leaves 85 percent of your traffic off the table, Lauf said.
• Search: 25 percent and stalled – A couple of years ago, the focus on was on SEO. It was the search game, a game of trying to “trick the robots, writing for machines not audiences”. He said that some journalists were encouraged to misspell the names of celebrities so that these sites could capture the 50 percent of traffic from people who commonly misspelt those celebs’ names. “That leads to a lot of questions. What does this mean for the quality and intellectual honesty of journalism?” Lauf asked, adding that it was a “waning game”
From a business standpoint, he said that search traffic referrals have “flat-lined” at about 25 percent, so a focus on SEO still leaves a lot of traffic.
• Social – sharing and ‘dark social’ – However, the rest is coming via sharing, either through social and sharing networks – Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pininterest – or through ‘dark social’, simply sending links via IM or email.*
He said that we could all debate the value of the audience from these sources, but Lauf said that if a news site wasn’t winning with SYBAWs – smart, young and bored at work readers – they were dead. He said that media consumption had moved from pull (with the image of US newspaper sales box) to push (social media and mobile notifications).
Lauf summed up the new news consumer with the quote:
If the news is that important it will find me.
For Quartz, the question is how they get into these streams, these social streams that will SYBAWs are using to monitor news. They focus on three things:
• Be visual “Embrace the fact that the web is a visual medium. Liberate content from the conventional constructions of the print world.”
• What’s the thing? – Lauf said, that every story has a nugget, a data point, a new angle that gets to heart of something new and interesting. We love to share nuggets. “That doesn’t mean that story can’t widen, but think of headline first. Think of headline as a tweet. Will people share this? Will it travel?”
• Radically simple, responsive design – They have created a radically simple site that looks clean on the desktop, the tablet and mobile. They don’t need separate tablet or mobile apps because the site looks good on all platforms, and it uses an infinite scroll. They didn’t clutter the site with a dizzying choice of 50 links when “people came to read only one story”, Lauf said.
They have also carried this radical simplicity to their ad strategy. Lauf said:
We rethought the way that we designed advertising. We wanted to avoid a Piccadilly Circus of drop-downs, pushovers and distractions.
The ads appear in Quartz’s news stream, much like ads now appear in the Facebook mobile news feed. They are labeled as sponsored content, and they are shaded subtly differently in the navigation.
They have 50 full-time staff, split almost evenly between business and administrative staff and editorial staff. Developers sit side-by-side with editors and journalists, he said.
Quartz might be based in the US, but it is obvious that it has global ambitions if for no other reason editor Kevin Delaney requires his journalists to speak fluently at least two languages. Of the site’s 50 or so full-time journalists and contributors, they speak 119 languages.
As the publisher, Lauf might be on the business side, but he ended on an inspirational vision for journalism. He said:
I started out as a journalist, a wide-eyed idealist, and I’m still a wide-eyed idealist. I still believe deeply what we’re doing on the business side is essential and important work. Intellectually, honest journalism is the underpinning for a democratic society. If we can figure out how to make this commercially valuable for hundreds of years to come, we all win.
Amen. With some of the long-standing tensions between the business and editorial sides of news organisations especially during this time of cuts and chaos in the industry, it is essential to hear business side leaders making the strong case that smart commercial thinking supports the mission of journalism. Business leaders in journalism are not all ‘bean counters’ obsessed with the short term. If we can solve the commercial problems and develop new revenue streams and rejuvenated business models, journalism, journalists, audiences and democracies all win.
* If you’re unfamiliar with the term dark social, Journalism.co.uk did a recent podcast on that. It’s called dark social because it is listed simply as ‘direct’ traffic from analytics services. This could be traffic from people directly typing in the URL, people sharing the link via IM or email or people using secure search.
Most media companies, when they’re trying ot decide about the quality of their content, they hire an editor they really trust to make a judgment. Here, it’s like, ‘Let’s build a tool.’ It just shows our very different mindset of building a virality machine here.
Disruptive, or empowering innovations, create jobs, but they take time to pay off, while efficiency innovations eliminate jobs and free up capital (save money) in the short term, Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen said in a talk entitled “The Capitalist’s Dilemma” at the RSA in London last night. The problem he sees is that management has become a conversation almost entirely focused on spreadsheet-driven financial targets and short term efficiencies rather than longer term value creation, which also creates jobs.
If you’re not familiar with Christensen, he sums up the focus of his work in the preface of The Innovator’s Solution, a book he wrote with Michael Raynor. He says:
It is easy to explain why poorly run companies fail; but many of history’s most successful and best-run firms have lost their positions of leadership, too. Why is so hard to maintain success?
Last night, Christensen was talking about innovation in much broader terms and looking at the affect of focusing on short-term cost-saving innovation versus longer term empowering innovation.
What he wanted to understand was why unemployment has been taking longer to return to pre-recession levels since the recession in 1990. What was interesting is that he was looking not just at unemployment but more precisely the “lag from when real GDP returns to the pre-recession peak to when employment returns to the pre-recession peak”.
As you can see from the graph, looking at recessions in the US from 1948 until now, the average lag was six months, but then the lag began growing from 15 months to 39 months to the current lag after The Great Recession. Sixty months after it began, and we still don’t know when unemployment will return to pre-recession levels. What is causing these jobless recoveries?
To put it succinctly, he blamed a short-term focus driven by the financial models easily run in spreadsheets by “26-year-old analysts”. He summed it up the theories and the practice of finance that is leading to this short-termism in this table.
A theory of finance
Tools of finance
pre-eminence of returns on capital
spreadsheets – Visicalc, Lotus, Excel
calculus needs something to maximise
measurement via ratios
Milton Friendman gave the target
NPV (Net present value)
Guided by Delaware courts, not legislation ever since
Management becomes the assembling, optimising and shipping of numbers.
Just to look at the power of spreadsheets, he said that they were the biggest recent development, adding:
A 26-year-old can build the financial models of companies and effortlessly test the impact of different inputs onto outcomes that matter.
He said that business is now driven by “the church of finance”, in which finance becomes a religion both in terms of how it is taught and the level of belief of its adherents. With the true believers of finance driving management, decisions are boiled down to measuring the efficiency of deploying capital.
Christensen explained the effect of this finance-driven focus through his framework of innovation. He sees three types of innovation:
• Empowering, which make the expensive and inaccessible, cheap and accessible.
• Sustaining, innovation that simply replaces an old model with a newer model
• Efficiency, “These reduce the cost of making and distributing existing products and services,” as he wrote in the New York Times.
Empowering innovations create jobs but they use capital, and they are longer term investments, often taking five to 10 years to see a return. “Efficiency innovations pay off in a year or two. Instead of using capital, they save it,” Christensen said, but instead of creating jobs, they eliminate them.
The problem he sees in the US (and the UK, although he wasn’t ready to say that will full confidence) is that he estimates there is now a third of the empowering innovations being created as there were in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Why is the US economy so anaemic? It isn’t weak corporate balance sheets. He said they were “pristine” and stronger than they had been in years. The problem also isn’t lack of capital, and he said over and over that the US is awash in capital, which is why private equity and hedge fund managers say that so much money is chasing so few deals these days. The problem is that the “finance mechanism hijacks capital and recycles it unto itself”, Christensen said.
That’s the problem, and he did point to a few solutions. For one, he said that capital needed the will to invest in longer term, empowering innovations. He pointed to the US tax code that punished short-termism by charging the personal rate of tax on investments of less than a year, which for top-bracket income earners would be 35 percent. However, if you hold that investment just one more day, 366 days instead of 365, then the tax rate drops to 15 percent. He said that 366 days is not the kind of long-term investment that will spur empowering, job creating innovations. Instead, he recommended low or zero taxes on money invested five to eight years.
He also criticised the solutions spun by the Democrats and Republicans, the two dominant parties.
I think the Democrats and Republicans are both wrong on this redistribution issue. In the US, the top 1 percent own 28 percent of disposable income. The Republicans say that we have to let them keep their money to invest in jobs. Most of them don’t invest in jobs but use their capital to create more capital.
The Democrats are wrong as well.
If we don’t have empowering innovations, the solution isn’t to redistribute wealth in the other direction, which is in line with the Democrats efforts to increase taxes on higher income brackets. I like how Christensen put this in the New York Times:
If the I.R.S. taxes their wealth away and distributes it to everyone else, it still won’t help the economy. Without empowering products and services in our economy, most of this redistribution will be spent buying sustaining innovations — replacing consumption with consumption. We must give the wealthiest an incentive to invest for the long term. This can create growth.
Of course, one of the great debates in our current politics is how to deal with rising debt in our societies. Christensen is pro-growth, and when asked whether “we can say definitively that austerity doesn’t promote prosperity”, he said very quietly, “yeah”. However, Christensen seemed to nicely get around the gridlock of the current debate on how to deal with the debt. However, he does admit in his article in the Times that the issues are complicated.
Innovation and journalism
For me trying to think about how innovation affects journalism, I had one take away. When a product becomes commoditised, it opens up opportunities both above and below the commoditised project. I do believe that the over supply of information has commoditised much of breaking news such that as Christensen pointed out in a 2011 study:
The wealth of information available almost instantaneously has lowered the value of the general interest news story such that it’s often less than the cost of production. General interest and breaking news reporting comprised of answering the “who, what, when and where” has become commoditized. It cannot create enough value to sustain a news organization in the long term.
The question becomes what opportunities exist above and below the commoditised “general interest news story”. What could those products be? It’s a good question, and it’s one of the reasons why I bought a copy of The Innovator’s Solution after the talk. I managed to get a few seconds with Christensen after his talk, and I thanked him for his research in 2011 and asked what he would recommend in terms of how to work within a traditional news organisation. His answer was sobering, but that will have to wait for another blog post.
He broke down the response of media managers to digital disruption like this:
Asteroid deniers, who don’t believe that digital is a threat.
Radio astronomers, who spot the asteroid at a distance and know the world is doomed but see the threat as so distant that they take no action.
Naked eye astronomers, who have only just spotted the asteroid and are making frantic but futile changes.
Rational scientists, who spot the asteroid early and invest in a rocket ship to carry them away to safety.
As Neil points out, being able to spot the asteroid doesn’t mean we’ll be able to save the planet. One of the major lessons of Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma is that even once a disrupted industry sees the asteroid as a threat, they still too often fail to adapt successfully.
For many years, the systems and processes used to gather, distribute and sell the news worked well. And in most respects they still do. It is a marvellous sight to witness a newspaper brought to life or a newscast on air, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Those systems were designed precisely for that process. But what was once an advantage has become an albatross.
The result is that much of print media finds itself stuck. Christensen, Skok and Allworth put the situation for news organisations like this:
Four years after the 2008 financial crisis, traditional news organizations continue to see their newsrooms shrink or close. Those that survive remain mired in the innovator’s dilemma: A false choice between today’s revenues and tomorrow’s digital promise.
At this point, if you’re a regional newspaper publisher in the UK or a print consumer magazine group, you know that your traditional audiences are declining, but you also know that your current digital revenue won’t pay the cost of supporting your traditional business. Yes, print media groups are all trying to grow their digital revenue as quickly as possible, but the big question still remains for most groups in this very different market: How to adapt?
Try new things, in the expectation that some will fail.
To make failure survivable, because it will be common.
And to make sure that you know when you’ve failed”.
When I was digital research editor at The Guardian in 2009 and early 2010, my goal was to bring down the cost of experimentation down as close to zero as possible and try different things using low or no-cost third party services. It’s a rather simple strategy to increase experimentation.
These days if you want to try something editorially, there’s an app, a web service or a plucky start-up for that. To know whether I was successful or whether I had failed, I had a set of goals that ranged from higher user engagement, mining our own stories for data or a more efficient editorial process. In an ideal world, I would have worked with commercial teams to add revenue goals for some of the projects. Goals are important because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.
It is a model that increases experimentation, and for those projects that are successful, they can be deployed across the organisation.
When Steve Ballmer announced that he was retiring, I said on Twitter that the announcement was unsurprising but that Microsoft needed a surprise to replace him. Ever since Microsoftie Stephen Elop took the helm of Nokia, everyone has been predicting that Microsoft would scoop up the fallen mobile giant. The speculation only intensified when Elop decided that the only way to save Nokia’s burning platform was to abandon its own operating system and adopt Microsoft’s minority mobile platform. At a conference in 2011, I asked fellow speaker and media innovator Robert Tercek what he thought of a potential Microsoft-Nokia tie up, and he said, “Tying together two rocks doesn’t make them float.”
Now Ballmer has followed up his rather predictable decision to retire with a rather predictable acquisition, a big chunk of Nokia. I am sure that in Ballmer’s mind he was trying to demonstrate boldness. He has instead shown just how unimaginative he is as a leader. He’s run out of time to launch Microsoft into a new era of growth so instead he’s decided to build a bigger corporate beast.
Microsoft’s Windows empire is besieged by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, and Ballmer and his lieutenants knew they needed to boost their mobile efforts. But how does this acquisition help that? While Microsoft feels like it is just past its peak but still has its strengths, Nokia’s position is much more precarious.
In the PowerPoint explaining the acquisition, Microsoft said that this acquisition would accelerate growth. Pray tell how? Nokia has seen its smartphone share collapse in the last three years, from 34.2 percent to 3 percent. Looking at that slide deck, I see a company in denial. They say that success in phones will drive success in tablets and success in tablets will drive success in PCs. To achieve this, Microsoft would need Nokia’s Lumia line to take off like a rocket, and they also need to sort out their own tablet strategy. Writing off $900 m on their Windows RT Surface tablets means they need a tablet strategy. It doesn’t mean they have one.
Microsoft is facing The Innovator’s Dilemma. They have a couple of lucrative business lines that are under pressure – Windows and Office, but both face competition. PC sales are flagging, and many people are finding that tablets are good enough for most of what they do. In terms of Office, Microsoft is under pressure from cloud competitors such as Google.
Microsoft and Nokia both needed a new vision, a coherent strategy to the relentless change in technology, but instead of inspirational leadership and a clear headed view of how the companies need to adapt, they have an uninspired tie up.
The job search is starting to get interesting, and I am moving from conversations about opportunities to interviews. For that, I am very grateful especially to my friends in journalism who have provided me with the vast majority of solid job leads. I was speaking to a friend in the industry on Friday on sorting through the opportunities I currently, and he remarked, “You certainly do have a lazy Susan of options.” I’ve got options in journalism and in digital media both close to news and not so close to news.
First a few observations of the job market:
• There are jobs in journalism, especially digital jobs. Look at any journalism job listing site, and the number of online jobs dwarfs the number of traditional media jobs out there. (One piece of advice though is to look beyond the job listing sites to the listings for companies you are interested in working for.) The fact that there has been a steady stream of jobs to apply for has been a relief, but I will also say that there are not nearly as many for a mid-career journalist like myself as an entry-level journalist. And when I say digital jobs, I’m not just talking about web development or UX design (there are buckets of those jobs) but digital editorial jobs.
• Competition is fierce. I’m hearing that recruiters and HR departments are getting flooded with applications. Getting a human being to actually review your CV or resume is the first battle.
• LinkedIn has been very useful. I have now had two recruiters contact me with interesting positions via LinkedIn. Some employers now allow you to add your LinkedIn profile. If you aren’t on it, it might not be worth the effort with all of the other demands on your time during your job search, but polishing my LinkedIn profile has been a useful exercise for me.
• Contacts matter more than applications. At the moment, I’m getting most solid leads through contacts rather than applications. My gut tells me it is down to the level of competition out there. For those struggling with their job search, I’d recommend going to every networking event you can. Make contacts with people at the places where you would like to work, and I would also recommend that you keep your presence high on social media.
• Be patient. This is hard to hear, but, everyone I have talked to has said that the hiring process has slowed down. Employers are just taking longer to make decisions to fill positions. However, there are jobs out there, and everyone I’ve talked to has been bullish about my prospects while also preparing me to wait. I’m financially in a position to wait for the best position that I can find.
While Suw and I are financially prepared for this job search, I am starting to do some short-term digital media consulting and digital journalism training. If you’ve got a digital media or digital journalism project that needs to be done urgently, do drop me a line.