Hired: Driving digital transformation at ideastream

Idea Center at Playhouse Square

Idea Center at Playhouse Square

As I looked for a new job and potentially a totally new direction for my career, I didn’t just want any job but the right job, and not just the right job but also the right move for the next chapter in my life. I have now found that job: I have started as the managing producer for digital media at ideastream, a public media group that serves 18 counties in northeast Ohio. The group includes eight services that span radio, TV — including managing state political coverage for all of Ohio’s public broadcasting stations — as well as distance education and professional educational development services.

If I were to look back on my journalism and digital media career, my focus has really been about helping organisations transform digitally. And this role is all about that, and I couldn’t be more excited. Here is the start of the job listing:

In a time of rapid and disruptive change in the media landscape, ideastream is laying the foundation for its digital transformation and future. The digital transformation and future ideastream is pursuing is one based on an organizational culture shift; one that envisions an organization that operates on the principles of agility, iteration and experimentation while making content and product decisions on the basis of data and audience engagement. ideastream further envisions an organization where its staff, as a whole and over time, has the skills and orientation to produce digital-first content and products.

In that context, the Managing Producer, Digital Media, will play a pivotal role in driving the organization’s digital culture transformation.

As a number of friends said when I showed the job listing to them, it is almost as if the job description was written for me.

Meeting the Challenges of Digital Disruption

In the final stretch of this job search, I realised that if possible, I wanted to play an important role in solving some of the challenges facing journalism and media during this period of disruptive change. I have done a lot of work to help my clients adapt to this constantly changing digital reality over the last two years, and I knew that to really meet these challenges that I needed to be part of a team again.

The public media membership model, plus ideastream’s mission of “strengthening our communities”, can meet the challenge of rapid change and disruption and also to address the issues of declining trust and civic engagement. I am excited to be a part of their team.

Campaign for Community: Filling the Void

In the end, I had a couple of opportunities, and I chose ideastream because I think they are working to address one of the biggest challenges created by digital media: the nationalisation of media, and with it, the decline of local media.

When I was preparing for the interviews, I read ideastream’s Campaign for Community, their recent major fundraising campaign. The Case Statement for the campaign says that for Northeast Ohio to leverage its strengths and meet its challenges that we need engaged, informed citizens. You really need to read the entire thing. It was music to my ears, and I’m sure it would be to most journalists and a lot of news consumers craving for in-depth, local news and information as well as civil debate and discussion.

It didn’t hurt that the statement quoted Clay Christensen, one of my heroes in meeting the challenges of digital disruption, but what really drove me to seek this position was that one of ideastream’s goals was “filling the void”.

The ideastream team wrote:

There is no shortage of national and international content. Peter Diamandis, author and X Prize Foundation Chairman, observed recently that “a Kenyan on a smartphone has access to more information than Bill Clinton had as president.”   What most perceive as a precipitous decline in smart, critical, relevant content stems from a weakness in creating and curating content that is meaningful at the local level and is created in response to defined community needs that are solicited, understood and well-served.

Wow, just wow!

I started work just a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still learning the names of my new colleagues, still in the midst of a move, and still getting my head around northeast Ohio. But I am excited. I’m excited that 20 years after I joined the BBC, that I’m coming home to public media, and that I’m back in my element, driving digital change inside of an organisation. It’s great to be a part of a team hungry to experiment, committed to their communities and eager to elevate the impact of their digital work. We’re going to do some incredible things, and I’m going to take you along for the ride with us.

Creating journalism to engage as well as to inform

The media world is in full freak-out mode about the changes at Facebook, both the changes in the news feed but now its decision to let the Facebook “community” decide which publications are credible. For the record, I find the latter move much more problematic, but I want to focus on the shift to reward engagement. Like a lot of people, I see the shift as an opportunity for news organisations rather than a threat.

The change in the news feed is only a bad thing for news organisations addicted to passively playing the algorithm for cheap clicks. Even if it juices the pageviews for a while, the end of 2017 showed that simply chasing scale without a method to convert those users into loyal, returning users will not deliver a sustainable business model.

Meanwhile, a model built on winning loyalty was winning. As The Economist pointed out last autumn, many successful news groups are succeeding by working hard to convert the casual users, often from social media, into loyal users, loyal enough that they become subscribers. Those groups have married an engagement strategy with data science. Moreover, as Digiday pointed out with Aftenposten, your content strategy is very different if you focus on keeping paying subscribers happy rather than chasing traffic.

The challenge for many groups will be that as they have with many digital innovations, they treated Facebook as just another channel to passively share their content. They didn’t make an effort to engage with their audience, but rather, they prayed to the gods of virality that their posts would be shared widely. Virality would lead inexorably to clicks, and advertising would lead to revenue. As I said, the end of 2017 put paid to that strategy. It doesn’t work.

What to do?

Martin Giesler highlighted the conundrum for news publishers in a very good post on the feed changes. Jump to his immediate, medium and long-term steps to take to respond to the changes. He said:

As there’s no point in betting on traffic, many publishers will now focus on engagement. The problem here is that journalism is not primarily intended to generate interactions. Rather, it is primarily a matter of informing. In a journalistic sense, passivity is not a bad thing – quite the opposite of Facebook logic.

Exactly. Years ago when I was the blogs editor at The Guardian, the New York Times’ Sewell Chan met with me as he was launching the paper’s city-focused blog. I put the shift in publication to conversation this way.

A piece of journalism takes reporting and ties together as many threads as possible as quickly and efficiently as possible. A blog post teases out those same threads as the basis of a debate, discussion or conversation.

Slapping a comment box on the bottom of an article or column opened up a return channel, but especially on news articles, there are no calls to action. The intention of the content was to inform. What response did we expect from people?

Now, we need to think about content formats designed to engage.

  • We need a range of products and features that engage people whether they want to lightly engage or more heavily engage. Think of the range of engagement on Facebook itself. For example, news site Rappler in the Philippines has mood reactions on its content, giving people a lightweight way to engage.
  • Think of social media as the top of your engagement funnel and develop strategies that convert people into more durable, direct relationships with you and your journalism.
  • Work to convert users to products like an app, newsletter, podcasts, and events.
  • Develop novel ways to monetise that attention across the range of engagement products.

Successful media organisations have been doing this for years so should take Facebook’s changes in stride. You could never entirely base your business on the someone else’s business, especially one that introduces opaque changes so frequently as Facebook. Facebook is just pushing you to make necessary changes to end your dependence. Embrace it!