When good isn’t good enough, dare to be great

The Insider - - PUBLISHING -

Ear­lier this year I in­ter­viewed Ken Doc­tor of New­so­nomics about the fu­ture of pub­lish­ing and what to look for in 2017. We talked about the rise of lo­cally-based chains in Char­lotte, Pitts­burgh, Philadel­phia and Den­ver — on­line-only pub­lish­ers that were get­ting trac­tion with peo­ple in their mid-twen­ties to late thir­ties who want a voice.

I’ll never for­get what he said, “All of th­ese chains also have jour­nal­is­tic sen­si­bil­ity. That’s why we’re see­ing this level of in­ter­est while old brands are just fad­ing away. I re­ally do think, so sadly, they [old brands] are com­mit­ting sui­cide.”

He went on to clar­ify that, “News­pa­pers can’t recre­ate that old world. But un­less they do more for read­ers and cit­i­zens, the busi­ness is go­ing to be tiny and it will con­tinue to re­cede.”

As much as it pains me to think it’s re­ally com­ing down to that, it’s pretty hard to ar­gue with his opin­ion when you see how many main­stream me­dia com­pa­nies have been hack­ing at the core of their busi­ness — jour­nal­ism — for the past 15 years. And, sadly, it’s not slow­ing down.

Re­cently I was re­minded of Ken’s com­ments when I read that News Corp was cut­ting dozens of pho­tog­ra­pher and sube­d­i­tor jobs to re­struc­ture their news­room to “pre­serve in print and ex­cel in dig­i­tal” — a move that fol­lowed a De­cem­ber bid to slash US$40 mil­lion from the Aus­tralian news­pa­pers.

The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald (SMH) and The Age are an­nounced that are also lay­ing off jour­nal­ists to save US$30M. That wasn’t re­ally a big sur­prise as news­room all around the globe self-in­flicted vic­tims of “death by a thou­sand cuts.”

But what did as­ton­ish me was their plan to out­source more con­tent to free­lancers and share more syn­di­cated news be­cause, as the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Aus­tralian Metro Pub­lish­ing, Chris Janz, said…

“While qual­ity con­tent is our rai­son d’être, scale re­mains im­por­tant to our dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing busi­ness. As sub­scrip­tions grow in im­por­tance, we can’t lose fo­cus on pro­duc­ing great sto­ries that are of in­ter­est to a wide au­di­ence. We must at­tract a large au­di­ence, keep them en­gaged, and con­vince them to re­turn. We can only do so through high-qual­ity jour­nal­ism.”

Why would any­one go specif­i­cally to the SMH to read some­thing that is avail­able else­where?

I feel like me­dia “down un­der” is up­side down in terms of where to fo­cus its en­er­gies. In­stead of out­sourc­ing their “rea­son for be­ing”, why don’t pub­lish­ers out­source what isn’t — i.e. tech­nol­ogy and dis­tri­bu­tion?

Why don’t they see how tech­nol­ogy part­ners can help them? Why do they con­tinue to hold in­dus­try sup­pli­ers in as much dis­dain as they do their read­ers? It’s truly a short­sighted and sad state of af­fairs for an in­dus­try that des­per­ately needs both of them to sur­vive.

Don’t be afraid to give up

John D. Rock­e­feller, prob­a­bly the rich­est per­son in mod­ern history, said, “Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” Ex­cel­lent ad­vice since no com­pany can do ev­ery­thing and be great at it all.

Un­for­tu­nately, too of­ten we see pub­lish­ers do­ing the ex­act op­po­site — sac­ri­fic­ing the great ( jour­nal­ism) for what, frankly, they’re not very good at (tech­nol­ogy and dis­tri­bu­tion so­lu­tions).

Like it or not, the in­dus­try re­lies heav­ily on sup­plier-side tech com­pa­nies. Which is why our stan­dard mantra has al­ways been that pub­lish­ers need to fo­cus on their core com­pe­tency — cre­at­ing qual­ity con­tent — and let the ex­perts in tech­nol­ogy do the heavy lift­ing. This is how the rest of the world op­er­ates. The pub­lish­ing in­dus­try is not unique in that sense.

Un­for­tu­nately, the in­dus­try as a whole of­ten fails to rec­og­nize what sup­pli­ers are do­ing well; they are re­luc­tant to bring tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies into deeper dis­cus­sions about the is­sues that keep pub­lish­ers awake at night.

In­stead of lis­ten­ing and un­der­stand­ing where a sup­plier fits into the vi­sion for an in­dus­try in des­per­ate need of help, they say, “We’ll come to you when we feel we want to know more, or when we’ve al­ready made up our minds; then we’ll just pick and choose.”

Now you might say that pub­lish­ers could eas­ily be in­un­dated with sales pitches from sup­pli­ers and you would be right. But the in­dus­try has ways to pre­vent this through vet­ting from as­so­ci­a­tions whose job is to un­der­stand the whole pub­lish­ing ecosys­tem, which in­cludes the sup­pli­ers.

Th­ese trade or­ga­ni­za­tions should be of­fer­ing a plat­form for sup­pli­ers to share what they do and the value they bring to the in­dus­try, rather than only show­cas­ing the ven­dors who pay to share the stage with pub­lish­ers.

A lot of great work does in­deed go un­seen and un­sung. No­body knows about it. The sup­pli­ers are in­vest­ing a lot of money into de­vel­op­ment and un­for­tu­nately it gets lost on the radar. Look at al­most ev­ery news­let­ter that gets cir­cu­lated or ev­ery trade magazine that gets pub­lished. Most of them are all about the pub­lish­ers; they don’t talk about the op­por­tu­ni­ties sup­pli­ers can bring to the chal­lenges me­dia com­pa­nies are fac­ing.

We work very closely with travel brands, sur­vey­ing their mem­bers to dis­cover the con­tent strat­egy go­ing for­ward, and what we hear from that is that print is check­ing out of ho­tels and air­lines around the world.

United Air­lines re­cently can­celled all print aboard their in­ter­na­tional flights; Qan­tas, Bri­tish Air­ways, Lufthansa, Vir­gin Aus­tralia and oth­ers have re­duced it. And without go­ing into de­tails on some big deals we are clos­ing soon, there are many more ho­tels and air­lines about to pull the plug on print in fa­vor of giv­ing their cus­tomers what they want — qual­ity con­tent on what­ever de­vice they chose to use.

Re­cently we signed a deal with a ma­jor ho­tel chain who de­cided to re­duce their print sub­scrip­tions and of­fer PressReader’s 6,000+ ti­tles to their guests in­stead. Many pub­lish­ers un­der­stood that it was the guests who wanted more va­ri­ety and choice of con­tent on their mo­bile de­vices, but it didn’t stop one cir­cu­la­tion de­part­ment from re­mov­ing their dig­i­tal prod­uct from this en­tire ho­tel chain, some­how be­liev­ing that move this would drive print en­gage­ment up. And in case you’re won­der­ing, it didn’t.

We pointed out that the world is chang­ing and that we would be happy to work with the brand to en­sure its vis­i­bil­ity at all th­ese venues, but to no avail. The pub­lisher’s dis­tri­bu­tion strat­egy was print, and noth­ing but print, even if it meant los­ing out on reach­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple they could never reach on their own.

Go for the great

Un­less you’ve got a deep-pock­eted tech­nol­ogy en­tre­pre­neur at the helm like The Washington Post, you can’t build an R&D cen­ter out of a pub­lish­ing house. You’re al­ready strug­gling with con­tin­u­ously slid­ing ad­ver­tis­ing in­come and sub­scrip­tion rev­enues that are not catch­ing up. Sure, they’re creep­ing up in some cases, but you’re talk­ing about the num­bers of sub­scribers, at what price? You’ve been sell­ing your 13week sub­scrip­tion for $1! I sub­scribe to one US news­pa­per’s emails and they have been on a con­tin­u­ous sales spree from be­fore the US elec­tions, through Thanks­giv­ing, Christ­mas, New Year’s, Valen­tine’s Day and Easter.

So, where are you go­ing get the money? Con­sumers cer­tainly aren’t go­ing to pay for your tech­nol­ogy and all of the con­tin­u­ous in­vest­ment needed to build and evolve it.

I re­mem­ber when we were laughed at for con­tin­u­ing with the dig­i­tal replica con­tent pre­sen­ta­tion (in ad­di­tion to of­fer­ing and con­tin­u­ing to evolve the non-replica for­mat) back in Au­gust 2010 when the first iPad was re­leased. Pun­dits said, “It’s like putting a blan­ket over a TV and com­ing up with a ra­dio.”

This at­ti­tude spurred pub­lish­ers into in­vest­ing in new ways to present their con­tent and they started pump­ing mil­lions of dol­lars into cre­at­ing flashy ap­pli­ca­tions for the iPad. They were pretty proud of their shiny new toys, but then they were faced with a myr­iad of new de­vices that needed unique apps and tech­nol­ogy up­grades.

Sud­denly they were un­able to keep up and quickly be­gan run­ning out of cash. So where did they cut staff to get more money to con­tinue a los­ing bat­tle? The last place they should have ever culled — the news­room. Now, I un­der­stand the need for op­ti­miza­tion, but don’t cut off the hands that feed you. Qual­ity will suf­fer and we all know where that will lead.

Sure, The Washington Post is now a prof­itable com­pany, but that’s be­cause Jeff Be­zos had the cash to con­vert it into a tech com­pany and then added a high de­gree of qual­ity jour­nal­ism on top of it. That’s not the same as be­ing a strug­gling jour­nal­ism com­pany try­ing to add tech­nol­ogy to it.

One might ask, “Is that the trend that’s driv­ing us to­wards a mass con­sol­i­da­tion of the mar­ket? Is Face­book go­ing to be that tech­nol­ogy and dis­tri­bu­tion plat­form where a pub­lisher’s only role will be to sup­ply the con­tent for it? Is this the end game for the in­dus­try?” I don’t know, but the sta­tus quo is def­i­nitely not sus­tain­able.

Be in­spired!

Amer­i­can busi­ness­man, Mark Cuban, learned early in life the power of know­ing and fo­cus­ing on his core com­pe­ten­cies.

“Know your core com­pe­ten­cies and fo­cus on be­ing great at them.” Mark Cuban

If your dream is to change the world through jour­nal­ism, then fo­cus on mak­ing that hap­pen by in­vest­ing in your core com­pe­tency. Be­cause, as I’ve said it be­fore, and it’s worth re­peat­ing, you must de­liver the right con­tent to the right au­di­ence at the right time through the right chan­nels at the right price.

So, hire, not fire, tal­ented re­porters, writ­ers and ed­i­tors who pro­duce the high­est qual­ity con­tent for your au­di­ence (know thy au­di­ence). And then, take a hard ob­jec­tive look at to­day’s new re­al­ity and rec­og­nize that you can’t do it alone. If you do that, you’ll start to see a much brighter fu­ture.

Be­cause, al­though the winds of change can­not be re­versed, you can ad­just your sails to reach your dream des­ti­na­tion with the help of oth­ers.

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