How can the newspaper industry be encouraged to embrace risk, invention and change when there is a such a strongly rooted culture of tradition, consistency and standards? It’s a topic I’ve wanted to cover ever since Andy Vogel, a colleague and friend, wrote about it in a post titled Newspapers need a jolt of Silicon Valley DNA.
Andy does a good job paraphrasing the problem. “Newspapers are all about faithfully and efficiently producing a well-defined product according to time-honored standards and procedures. In other words, the culture values tradition, consistency and predictability, which, by definition, are inhospitable to change – particularly the sort of disruptive change that the web, mobile and social media require.”
Newspapers used to be leaders in their community and on a more global scale. They were a trusted news source, delivered on a daily (of twice daily) basis, with columnists and reporters that you grew to know and respect.
One of the key points that Andy makes is that “with new technologies, media formats and business models emerging at an ever-quickening pace, newspapers must learn to think and act like start-ups – or risk falling to the margins of the media world.”
I couldn’t agree more. Today newspapers wait for technologies to be established before testing them out – long after the consumer already has. They wait for their competition (or worse yet – bloggers) to test new publishing platforms. And they have been slow to embrace social media and mobile devices – which is unfortunate when you consider how the news cycle has changed.
Nearly a year ago I considered returning to my roots at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. While I was very happy with my position at Laughlin Constable I was intrigued by the possibility of improving the newspaper’s digital channels, growing revenue through local markets, and eventually push the adoption of tablet publishing.
Unfortunately the position was much more restrictive and was focused on developing incremental local advertising revenue . The venture, later launched as State Street Digital, was just a shell of what I used to do at Journal Interactive. While the group may be successful in selling small packages to local advertisers, it hasn’t been ground breaking either.
I know I would have been unhappy in a role that was looking to automate social media and was adverse to looking more closely at publishing in new digital channels. And cloning the Groupon model for a local market is just another example of copy and paste ideas. To be fair Betsy Brenner, President and Publisher, was excited to bring an outside view into a company made mostly of newspaper veterans – but one voice is not going to change the way a newspaper does business. (Even though I’d like to think my voice carries some weight)
While Vogel says “the good news for newspapers is they have an abundance of the most important asset every business needs: great people,” I don’t know if they are the right people.
The newspaper industry is focused on revenue and content. They probably should be just as focused on technology, and find a way to separate the decision making process on how their content published and consumed from the newsroom. Finding technology and channel experts could help local and national newspapers rocket into the present and future.
Equipping your journalists and reporters with the right tools is a start. But focusing on new delivery platforms like tablets should be a focus in their technology group. There is no reason that tablet and handheld devices shouldn’t offer customized news, segmentation, be location aware, feature rich media, and offer contextual relevancy that has been lost since bringing news to the web.
Newspapers should become early adopters instead of focusing on pay walls.
I have high hopes for the future. I hope newspapers begin to realize that the startup mentality can benefit them and that taking risks can be rewarding. As long as they are calculated risks and you are ok with failing, as long as you fail fast.
Just look at what the Guardian is doing with applications and APIs into their platform or the New York Times is doing with data visualizations. There is a world waiting for the authority that newspapers can bring, they just need to embrace the technology to deliver it to the waiting masses.