Print and digital: Managing the crocodile and the mammal separately

I used to be a big booster of print-digital editorial integration, but I’ve had a change of heart for a lot of reasons, reasons which I’ll outline more broadly at some point. When I first got into online journalism in the mid-90s, to be honest, I probably was suffering from a little of resource envy. The legacy business just had a lot more money, but it also made a lot more money. However, I’ve changed my mind. Simply put, I think that print and digital are two entirely different sets of products, and they often have different audiences.

I was just summarising a Pew report on successful revenue models for local newspapers for Knowledge Bridge, the site that I edit for the Media Development Investment Fund, and I found this eloquent and excellent metaphor for managing media disruption from former Harvard business professor Clark Gilbert who is now head of Deseret Management Corporation, owner of The Deseret News in Salt Lake City. He said:

In Gilbert’s theory of media evolution, the Deseret News print product is the crocodile, a prehistoric creature that survives today, albeit as a smaller animal. He believes the News, which has already shrunk significantly, is not doomed to extinction if properly managed. Deseret Digital Media is the mammal, the new life form designed to dominate the future. Armed with graphics, charts and a whiteboard that looks like it belongs in an advanced physics class, Gilbert speaks with the zeal of the cultural transition evangelist he has become. He argues that the path ahead does not involve merging the crocodile and mammal cultures, but maintaining them separately.

That makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s a sensible starting point. The next step, he admits, is the challenging part, which is to execute that strategy, which involves a lot of wrenching cultural change. However, he’s already got some success to show for his strategy. Digital revenue has grown on average 44 percent annually since 2010, and it now makes up 25 percent of the groups revenue. For those on the crocodile side of the equation, while print revenue dropped 5 percent in 2012, at least circulation numbers are headed in the right direction. Circulation is up 33 percent for the daily newspaper, and it’s up a stunning 90 percent for Sundays, due in large part to a new national edition.

It sounds like his excellent metaphor and smart strategy also is backed with some very good execution.

Integrated newsrooms must remember print and digital are different products

I’ve seen integration happen as several newsrooms, and I was at The Guardian as it began integration.* Much of the integration since 2007 has been driven by economic concerns with little focus on products or even efficient newsroom workflow to serve those products. Alan Mutter, who writes the excellent blog Reflections of a Newsosaur, says that as Jill Abramson takes the reins at the New York Times she will have to choose between two irreconcilable paths.

She either will have to cannibalize the flagship print product to build the strongest possible digital franchise for the Times – OR – she will have to concentrate on sustaining the commercial strength of the print edition at the risk of channeling insufficient resources into assuring the strongest possible digital future for America’s newspaper of record. …

The problem for Abramson is that the print and digital media demand significantly differentiated products, which the Times has not been able to produce to date with even its enviable strength.

I think the New York Times has stepped up its game in this respect over the last two years. Andrew de Vigal has done an excellent job honing the multimedia work at the Times, bringing a coherence that has escaped many other newspapers. Aron Pilhofer, interactive news editor at the Times, has done some excellent work in terms of building great projects and doing great journalism with data.

However, I think that Alan hits the nail on the head. Integration makes sense, but it has to be seen in the context of serving different and differentiated journalism products across print and digital media. Torry Pedersen of Norway’s VG has one of the best ways of understanding this. At a conference in 2009, he put it this way:

He then compared newspapers and the web to a bottle of water and a waterfall.  The waterfall represented the web–continues flowing, raw, unlimited and in real time.  The bottled water represented newspapers–limited space, distilled, refined and bottled.

I think this is why The Atlantic and The Christian Science Monitor are navigating the changes in media successfully. They aren’t pitting print versus digital, but strengthening both print and digital products. In 2010, that allowed The Atlantic to turn a profit for the first time in a decade, and it built on that in 2011 even as many other publishers struggled. Yes, The Atlantic beefed up its web presence, but it also put a focus on writing talent. In 2011, it’s profits doubled in print, digital and events. It improved all of its businesses and even built new revenue streams.

More broadly though, one of the things that I see in terms of news organisations is that those who develop not only great journalism projects but also marketable journalism and information products are the ones best navigating the wrenching changes in the journalism business. This is a mix of transaction businesses, such as those at Fairfax in Australia or Schibsted’s digital classified business, Finn. Some of those transaction businesses might be built around data, especially business data. The products also usually include events such as conferences or dinners, cruises or talks with key journalists. As Suw and I build our little consultancy, the real gap in journalism businesses we see is not necessarily of editorial innovation but of product and revenue innovation.

* I get a sense that The Guardian is only now moving through the first process of integration as it unifies its ‘digital first’ strategy largely under the management of print editors.

Digital journalists and the battle over newsroom integration

I’ve been meaning to write about newsroom integration for quite a while and so I’ve written about it for The article is based on conversations that I’ve had with journalists in newsrooms around the world and also from some of the well known examples in the industry, including the experience at the Washington Post. A lot of the quotes are unattributed, but I can say that there is a remarkable consistency to the comments I’ve heard.

Last summer, I was speaking to an award-winning digital journalist, and in terms of the fight for integration at his organisation, he asked: “Was there a battle that we lost?”

I want to say up front that I’m not opposed to newsroom integration. In many ways, I am a big booster of bringing digital newsrooms and traditional print or broadcast newsrooms together. I have worked at organisations where the newsrooms have been physically and organisationally separate, and it’s never been productive. I started working in an integrated newsroom in 1998 when I joined the BBC working in their Washington bureau. Not only did I work closely with radio and television correspondents and producers, but I also covered stories for radio and television. Working together was really positive for me and the broadcast staff. My esteemed former colleague Paul Reynolds used to tell me on a regular basis that I was the future of journalism, and I had all the support that I needed and more from bureau chiefs Andrew Roy and Martin Turner. It was a collaboration of mutual respect.

I think that Jim Brady has it spot on when he said that digital editors still need the autonomy to push news organisations in directions that they might not naturally head. Digital innovations are still often counter-intuitive to leaders in legacy media. We still need people who think different at the table.

However, based on conversations with fellow digital journalists and editors, newsroom integration has been very difficult for them, especially for those organisations that have tried to integrate organisationally as well as at the platform level. Many digital editors and sadly far too many digital journalists have been pushed aside or in some cases completely pushed out. From a business standpoint, especially for those news groups suffering financially, the motivation has been efficiency. As Francois Nel said in the piece, integration has to be about efficiency and effectiveness. Francois is the director of the Journalism Leaders Programme at the University of Central Lancashire, and he’s worked with WAN-IFRA to help newspapers groups including the Johnston Press in the UK with their integration efforts.

I’m surprised that news groups continue to pursue the ‘pure’ integration model because for those organisations that moved early in that direction, such as the FT, many have since pulled back. There is a realisation that print and digital often serve difference audiences, and I think this is especially true as digital has continued to develop. Editors now understand (what I’ve known for years) digital journalism is a practice with its own skills and proficiencies just as print reporting or broadcasting. The dream of the super journalist equally proficient at everything was always more myth rather than reality. Few journalists excel at all roles, and even if they did, the demands of any one role, especially in the age of shrinking staffs, would cause sacrifices to be made, corners to be cut.

One area I only touched on briefly in the piece for was the role of middle managers. Francois said, in a quote that didn’t make it in the final piece:

The most critical person in the any individual’s daily work life is his or her line manager. And, as such, the best examples of change management are those where courageous and visionary leaders empower and equip middle management to handle the fallout.

Right now, middle management is one of the key issues in terms of integration. The subject comes up again and again in the conversations that I have with digital staffs. Even at organisations with strong digital leaders at the top and willing staff, middle management can still stop change dead in tracks, and often this where the energy comes in terms of marginalising digital leaders. They have the most invested in the status quo and least motivation to change. Middle management can and should lead the charge ahead and create a constructive environment for collaboration. However, in a lot of organisations, this is where change lives or too often dies.