Digital first: We need to inspire change not just fear

Last week, the Journal Register Company announced their second bankruptcy in three years and I said on Twitter that I worried that digital first, as a strategy rather than the name of JRC’s parent company, was losing any positive connotation for journalists.

Like a similar comment I made about Advance/Newhouse Newspapers digital first strategy in cutting its print production days, my thoughts on the matter have a lot more nuance than I can possibly convey in 140 characters, and I tried to clarify.

Digital first has been my default position since 1996 when I landed my first job as an online editor. My concern really is about the connotations that are building up around digital first as a strategy and what that means for news organisations as they try to implement change strategies. In announcing their shifts to digital first, Advance (where I worked for one year in the 1990s) and Fairfax in Australia (where I have a number of friends) also announced deep, deep editorial cuts to try to get ahead of the declines in print revenue and the lower revenue base of their digital operations. In a lot of ways, they are simply facing the reality before them. But whilst as a digital journalist I am pleased that the industry is moving in a digital direction, I’m never happy to see fellow journalists lose their jobs or face uncertainty when it comes to their pensions.

This is worrying to me, not because I am trying to deny the business reality that faces these organisations but because I worry that unless managed well, this will make it even more difficult for these organisations to institute much needed digital transformation. Advance and the Newhouses handled the process particularly poorly, allowing employees to find out about their future from the New York Times. Their communications have been appallingly bad and they were on the backfoot for weeks after the announcement of the print cuts in New Orleans.

I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is to change the culture of an organisation from a print focus to a digital focus. You can get the business right and still fail if the culture of an organisation doesn’t move with it. My concern is that as digital first strategies acquire the baggage of redundancies and cuts that it will make this cultural change even more difficult to execute.

Post-industrial disruption

The reality is that there are going to be a lot fewer traditional journalism jobs in the future in the West than in they past. Like Mathew Ingram, I believe that journalism is one of the last 20th century industries to experience post-industrial disruption. The bottom line is that newspapers used to be the most effective way for advertisers to reach a lot of people with their commercial messages and, after competition granted local monopolies to a single newspaper in most American cities, that granted them a de facto licence to charge monopoly rents. Now, new digital advertising platforms, search and social, deliver advertising to larger audiences for lower costs. That’s the reality that we have to adapt to.

How do we get to where we need to be as an industry? First off, it’s important to be realistic about where we are in the process. Newspaper advertising revenue peaked in 2005 in the US but has been halved since then. We’re probably at the end of the beginning of the transformation for newspaper journalism. I agree with Mathew Ingram, this transformation is going to take a while, years and probably a couple of decades.

During this transition, how do we inspire change and not just fear? Kylie Davis on News Ltd (Australia) had some good observations at the International Newsmedia Marketing Association. (If you’re not reading INMA, start. They are doing some great work in realistically meeting the business challenges of journalism.) Davis came away from a recent conference with this great bit of insight: “People don’t fear change, they fear loss.” With respect to the challenges that she is facing at News Ltd, she said:

As we work through major change projects back at News Ltd., thinking about this quote has helped me keep all the pushback and drama in perspective. It has helped me to hear — in what seems to be the never-ending process of communication — what is truly motivating people to resist: their fear. And it’s not their fear of change, but that they will lose something they truly love and value about their jobs or about their personal sense of security.

Yes, there is a lot of pushback and drama, and everyone knows it. This transition was always going to be challenging, and now, the real pain of it is clear. This encapsulates the concerns I expressed on Twitter. To shift newspapers from a print-focused editorial and business model to a multi-platform, digitally-led model, as Davis says, we need to address the fear and find strategies to move on. She has some great advice on how to do that. Go read the entire post, it’s worth it, but I do love her penultimate paragraph:

It’s now time to demonstrate how the key things we value — such as quality journalism, great coverage, fighting for the underdog, and holding institutions to account — can and will be captured and upheld in our new business models.

Yes, the change is real, but we can and will carry our shared values as journalists into the future. Let’s work together to face and overcome the fear (and bitterness) and build a future for journalism that honours its values.