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4 Things Publishers Need To Know To Compete In The Digital Age

2016 July 13
by Greg Satell

I recently wrote an article about Tribune Publishing’s reincarnation as Tronc and the poorly thought out video that the company put out describing its efforts. It seemed to be well received and many people, even those who work at Tronc, seemed to think I had gotten it right.

My basic point was that the notion that you can transform a failing media company — or any company in any industry for that matter — by infusing it with data and algorithms is terribly misguided. I stand by that analysis, but I also realize that rather than tell publishers what they should do, I merely spelled out what won’t work.

I also think my article gave Tronc’s management short shrift. The fact is that they are trying to revive a storied icon of American journalism and should be given some credit. As a former publishing CEO who managed a number of digital and print brands, I know how difficult that can be. So here are four things that publishers need to know to compete in the digital age.

1. The Product Drives The Business
In a sense, publishing is like any other business. Your success is driven by customer demand for your product. Everything else is optimization.

A quality of a publishing product comes down to two things: user experience and reporting. Digital user experience includes traditional areas such as design, layout, structure and pacing, but also incorporates new skills such as navigation, visual communication and video production. Poor user experience can diminish a product to the point that people will simply walk away.

Yet it is really reporting that sets a publication apart, even in seemingly trivial areas like fashion and entertainment. Good reporting takes time and relationships, so can’t be effectively automated, but can be empowered by digital technology. This is especially true of investigative journalism, which in my experience is the only thing can reliably increase news readership.

New data journalism techniques show great promise, although as I’ve noted before, problems can arise when data is divorced from context. The great opportunity in journalism today is combining data analysis, including artificial intelligence techniques, with dedicated reporters who have mastered the nuances of their particular beat.

None of this is particularly new or exciting, but that’s the point. You don’t achieve excellence through James Bond style gadgetry, but through relentless execution of fundamental skills. Tronc, with storied brands and no shortage of talent, already has the capabilities it needs, but those skill sets need to be broadened and deepened.

2. The Audience Is Vastly More Than Eyeballs

Tronc makes a point of stressing that it is in the content business. Okay, fair enough, but as I’ve noted before, content is crap. Nobody ever says, “Gee, I just read some really enlightening content and it completely changed the way I think about things” and the business of publishing is vastly more than marrying content with distribution.

Unfortunately, most publishers rose up in their organizations through ad sales and tend to see their business from a marketer’s perspective. The audience came to be seen as merely eyeballs, to be sliced and diced into tranches, then aggregated and sold as if they were default swaps, which is how publishers lost their way.

That’s what seems to have happened at Tronc. Rather than spending time thinking about how to widen and deepen relationships with its audience and improve its product, it seems to be giving priority to producing content that it can “feed it into a funnel, and then optimize it so we reach the biggest global audience possible.”

The truth is that content optimization techniques are fairly standardized these days, which makes it unlikely to lead to a competitive advantage. You don’t build a strong publishing brand by getting it in front of more eyeballs, but through developing a distinctive voice and serving your readers. It’s the audience, not algorithms, that makes publishing worthwhile.

3 Publishing Is A Talent Driven Business

The one thing I can say with 100% certainty is that talent is the ultimate authority. I could fire editors and threaten to cut their budgets, but neither of those things will build a great product. The only thing that will produce a truly superior product is truly superior talent.

Many people would take this to mean that you should hire great people and stay out of their hair, but I’ve found that’s wrong on both counts. In fact, I was constantly in people’s hair. I made it a point to be in every department — editorial, design, technology, sales and marketing — every day.

Our business was much smaller in scale than Tronc, yet we still had 800 people across more than a dozen brands. So getting to each and every department took time, but I felt it was well spent. It helped me build trustful relationships across the organization, which helped me learn about each and every facet of the business, across all of our diverse brands.

It also meant I was always at hand when a problem arose. Often, these were small issues or requests for advice that could be handled in a few minutes out in the hallway. Other times, things were more tricky and different people with different skills and experiences needed to be brought in. I was the company’s foremost expert on where to find these skills because, after all, I was in every department, every day.

Another red herring is that you can build a great business by hiring great people. You can’t. You build a great business by developing great teams, giving them the resources to succeed and, most importantly, encouraging them to work effectively with other teams.

4. Collaboration Is The New Competitive Advantage

Two of the core principles with which we managed our company were to fire nasty people and the “always help rule. The first put a premium on nice people, which created a great work environment in which people could produce great products. The second simply said that if anyone came to you and asked for help, you couldn’t say no. It was your job to help. Always.

The reason we put such great value on these two principles is that we believed that the key to competing in the digital age is an active collaboration among people with diverse skill sets. When you get top-notch technologists, designers, marketers and salespeople all working together with editors and journalists to create a superior product, magical things happen.

Creating this type of collaborative environment is the core challenge in publishing today, especially in news publishing, in which the tradition of a “Chinese wall” has created a divided house. Marketers and salespeople relentlessly pursue eyeballs, clicks and conversion rates, while editorial people ply their craft in blissful ignorance of how the bills get paid.

As I’ve noted before, failure to collaborate has led to a failure to innovate at The New York Times. Consider David Kirkpatrick’s Benghazi story, which was indeed a masterful—and expensive—piece of investigative journalism. While no one would be served by slapping banner ads on reportage, today’s digital publishers have a variety of opportunities, such as e-books and video partnerships, which can not only monetize the work, but also deepen user experience.

Clearly, these are not problems of technology, but culture and can’t be solved through higher conversion rates or glitzy videos. Trustful relationships need to be built across the entire enterprise. It is only through widespread collaboration that a bright future can be built for publishing. As it is often said in the open source community, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”

– Greg


A previous version of this article was published on Harvard Business Review

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