Too much ‘I’, too little team thinking at legacy media for innovation?

It’s not news that digital technology is driving rapidly changing consumer behaviour, and while it took some time for that shift to affect the economics of the media, the disruption is now in full swing. While the metered paywall has given a number of legacy media companies breathing room, to use the bump in reader revenue as a base to build on rather than a temporary reprieve from the dust heap of history will take focused, innovative thinking.

I’ve been involved in journalism innovation since 1996, when I took my first job as an internet news editor. I’ve held pioneering positions at major news organisations such as the BBC and The Guardian. Both of those organisations can be innovative in ways that have proven difficult for other media organisations because they aren’t purely commercial. How do other news organisations keep pace with their audience and just as importantly create new revenue opportunities?

Charles Warner, part of the Forbes network teaches Media Management Program at The New School, was recently asked how to drive innovation at an “old-line media company, and he thinks it is down to the individualistic culture at legacy media organisations.

Finally, success in legacy media companies (newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio) is driven by individual success – stardom – not by collaborative team success. The internecine, hand-to-hand combat inside legacy media companies is about who gets the credit for a hit or success, not about innovation or team success.

I’ve seen this first hand, and I used to say to colleagues, “Our real competition isn’t down the hall but across town” at one of the other newspapers, broadcasters or now one of the digital news and media startups.

This isn’t unique to media companies. Office politics is pretty universal. One of the benefits of having done consulting both inside and outside the media industry is that I have realised that positive corporate culture is rare and needs a lot of work. In media, you’ve got a lot of creative people, and journalism is populated with professional sceptics who question everything, including management’s latest change strategy.

However, that doesn’t excuse just how frankly, effed up the culture is at a lot of news and media companies. In the past, when owning a media company was a licence to mint money, we could afford these poisonous, dysfunctional cultures. We can’t anymore, and besides, it’s a lot more satisfying to succeed as a team than fight amongst ourselves on the decks of sinking ships.

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.

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.

The long view in building news businesses

Google News Timeline

When Google Labs released their News Timeline feature, it prompted Mathew Ingram at Harvard University Nieman Journalism Lab to call for more creativity from news organisations. Mathew wrote:

One question kept nagging at me as I was looking at this latest Google effort at delivering the news, and that was: Why couldn’t a news organization have done this? … Isn’t delivering the news in creative and interesting ways that appeal to readers what we are supposed to be doing?

In the comments, people pointed out projects that news organisations had done such as the a graphic visualisation of recent news at NineMSN in Australia. I pointed out time-based navigation at El Comercio in Peru. Mark S. Luckie who writes the excellent blog about journalism and technology, 10,000 Words wrote:

It’s kind of sad showing off innovative technologies over at 10,000 Words, knowing it will be years before most newsrooms adopt them, if at all.

Another commenter, Dan Conover, said, “I wish it wasn’t this simple, but the truth is that the newsroom culture is, and has been for years, overtly hostile to the geek culture.”

Getting past the frustration, how do we bring more innovation to news organisations? It’s something that Suw and I write about frequently here at Strange Attractor.

  1. Journalists, editors and senior managers need to learn about the software development process.  
    I often say that journalists think that technology is like Harry Potter. Many believe that developers need only to wave a magic wand and voila, faster than an editor can drain a cup of coffee, we have a new interactive feature. Web and software development is more like the Matrix. It’s a rules-bound world. Some rules can be bent, but others cannot be broken. Also, just like in life, some choices preclude others. Web technology is not a blank canvas. A good, dedicated developer can do amazing things, but no developer can do magic. They can’t rewrite the rules, rewrite a programming language or rebuild your CMS in a day.   
    Most editors don’t need to learn how to code, but editors do need to learn the art of the possible. Some things can be done quickly, in a few hours. Other projects take more work. A basic understanding of what is possible on a daily deadline is essential.
  2. Develop a palatte of reusable digital elements
    When I first started doing online journalism, we often built one-off projects that took a lot of time and had a mixed response from our readers. We were still learning, not only how to execute digital journalism projects, but also we were learning what type of projects people found engaging. We soon learned that ‘evergreen’ projects often were best, things that had a life-span much longer than most news events. Besides, there are very few editorial projects that merit huge one-off investments, and most news orgs can’t afford this in 2009.
    At the BBC, when I started, we had a limited palette of things that we could add quickly to primarily text-based news stories. The News website was still very young. But over time, we built on that limited palette. Our Specials team built things, and they tried to determine what worked and what didn’t. The things that worked were added to the ongoing list of elements that journalists could add to their stories.
    Modular interactive elements are easier in the Web 2.0 era. For instance, we often build maps, not just locator graphics but actual maps that draw on data (for instance one could create a map using data of the H1N1, swine flu outbreak). More news organisations are using Twitter and other third party services that call external APIs and cache the results.
    If you’ve got limited resources (and who doesn’t), you must think in a joined up way. Think of elements that will add value to your entire site not just to a certain section. Think of elements that will work in many areas of coverage.
  3. Interactivity is a state a mind and doesn’t always require technical development
    Much of this isn’t even about software development. It’s about a state of mind. Interactivity isn’t just about the web. It’s still about letters and phone calls. It can be about text messages. When I worked for World Have Your Say on the BBC World Service, Americans called or sent emails. Listeners in the UK mostly called, and Africans sent text messages by the hundreds. The first and most important step isn’t about developing a technology strategy but about developing a philosophy of collaboration with your audience.
    Everything will flow from that philosophy because there are many non-technical ways to get your audience involved. One of the most powerful things on World Have Your Say was getting people around a microphone in Africa to talk to Americans who had called in. The marriage of mass media and social media can be an extremely powerful combination.
    Add to all of this no-cost of low-cost web services, and you can do many things on a daily deadline.
  4. Strategic projects require long-term vision
    When I was writing the post for the Guardian about Google News Timeline, I found out that Google had begun creating a historical archive of news content in 2006. News is ephemeral, but as news is the first draft of history, news stories put in context can be a fascinating look at history. Google decided that archiving this content might have some value.
    There are a lot of things that take a strategic decision and not only long-term development but also a long-term commitment from a news organisation. I think that geo-tagging is one example. It’s a choice that takes a bit of development but actually more commitment from editorial teams, but the addition of a small bit of structured data generated by journalists creates a lot of opportunities, some which might have revenue.

Taking a long view is difficult as news organisations face very serious short-term challenges, but the lack of long-term thinking is one of the things that got a lot of news orgs into this mess. Developing a long-term, multi-platform strategy might have goals five years out, but that doesn’t mean developing the perfect five-year plan. It means setting some strategic goals and getting there one day at a time.