I have been continent hopping in my pursuit of fresh, universal ideas from the news media publishers making a difference. My latest stop was the INMA Business Strategies 2020 Conference in Chicago. Here’s a snapshot of my top picks. 

Growth-in-a box business

GateHouse Media emerged from a Chapter 11 restructure with cash in the bank and a powerful plan in its back pocket to grow digital services and live events. With profit in both divisions likely to double into eight-digits next year, its playbook is about to get a lot of attention.

Peter Newton, the chief revenue officer, also runs GateHouse’s rapidly expanding Propel Business Services division. What’s special is the sophistication and depth of their suite of marketing services.

Propel is adding to its lineup with CRM-in-a-box solutions, plug-and-play merchant services, and capital-raising-in-a-box packages.

Meanwhile, GateHouse is smashing it out of the park with its small markets’ events model. With Jason Taylor at the helm — a dynamo who sells in his sleep — it’s a model to copy.

He has just four full-time staff.  He’s delivering more than 100 events, using templated plans and supplementing with local sales staff, and he is increasingly creating live experiences for other publishers and clients. It spans everything from retail expos to reader awards and high school sports nights. Also, every event must include a digital promotion to drive deeper engagement and keep the consumer dollars piling up. 

Montreal versus Toronto, or few bets versus many 

The crowd liked the update from La Presse in Montreal on its great tablet-first experiment, and I was left pondering what happens next.

La Presse is set to finish 2016 with stable revenues, in contrast to competitors who are likely to be down between 13-17%. The French-language publisher scrapped its weekday print editions early this year and elevated its “La Presse Plus” tablet app to be its (genuinely beautiful) hero product.

With weekday time-spent-reading at 40 minutes, the publication continues to pull ad rates with CPMs of C$52. These are more than 50% higher than the previous results from print.

The results from Montreal appear much stronger than the so-far-unreported tablet results at Toronto’s Star Media Group. SMG has licensed Montreal’s tech and launched the same tablet publication. In Toronto, however, it’s another product – not the hero – in a very busy, high-energy strategy.

Toronto is asking its readers to choose their favourite platform to connect with the masthead; Montreal is directing reader behaviour towards the tablet.

By offering so much choice to readers, does The Star lack the strategic focus or are its softer results a natural consequence of Ontario’s off-the-scale usage of smartphones?

Conversely, is serious tablet success across the provincial line in Quebec due to unique factors there, including consumer behaviour and language?

La Presse’s presentation, by its COO Pierre-Elliott Levasseur was followed by intense, crowd-sourced feedback on the pros and strengths of the strategy for other markets. Main takeout for me: La Presse’s unflinching focus on its tablet tech, which it is hoping to sell to more publishers, might be holding the company back from developing a fully compatible, equally amazing smartphone iteration.

Better sales start with better sales staff

A revolution in talent acquisition wouldn’t normally rate among the most lauded cases at a confab of news media executives. Unless it’s Caryn McGarry tabling the work she’s executed with precision at Gannett as head of sales recruitment.

She’s taken the bones of material she’s done in other industries and adapted it for media sales. She knows that companies that use optimised recruitment perform about 160% better.

Gannett has ditched its previously generalised approach. The company now plans its hires way ahead of when they might be needed. It has seeded a clear communication framework of who Gannett is, where the company is going, and why you should join.

Importantly, Gannett has radically shifted the historic profile of what makes up high-performance sales talent. Managers would have defaulted for candidates out of “The Relationship Builder” profile (in the very useful CEB Sales Leadership Council framework).Caryn can prove that this target doesn’t cut it these days.

Gannett has switched to “The Challenger” profile: people who know how to drive the client to a decision. A candidate from this group does 43-54% better at attaining a goal once recruited.

This has led Gannett to adopt its new formula. Now it’s a 40% weighting for the assessment of challenger traits, 40% for competency interviews, and the remaining 20% for gut feel. This formula, she says, has substantially moved the dial. 

Shareholders make or break strategy 

Earl Wilkinson, CEO and executive director of INMA, discussed the emerging differences in strategies based on shareholder motivations. I’d like to flesh that out more here.

Your ownership is the biggest determinant of your choice of strategy, and we’ve got a bigger range of major investors in news media than ever. The simplified spectrum looks like this:

  1. New tech billionaires.
  2. Traditional owners who love power and/or journalism and they still have money,
  3. Traditional owners who face a real threat of running out of cash.
  4. Shareholders indifferent to journalism or community commitment.
  5. And finally the booming category: venture capitalist and hedge funds.

The tech barons are investing in strategies of rapid modernisation and multi-platform product expansion, with many bets being laid at once.

The second group of owners typically has already pushed hard on costs and is investing selectively in revenue diversification as a means to help subsidize journalism. There’s less courage if they are a publicly listed company though.

The third group has all but abandoned revenue stimulation. They are obsessed with their cash-burn projections and are closing printed editions — typically only doing what it takes to find a venture capitalist to buy them out.

The fourth group has shareholders who are moving on from supporting the journalistic mission. They are in search of new value in digital or e-commerce services. It’s not a means; it’s the end. News publishing may be shuttered or divested. And certainly forget print as soon as you can.

Finally, the VC and hedge funds adopt their usual short-term, text book clean-up before pulling off the great exit (or escape). Do a hard re-set of costs. Invest lightly in tech that helps cut costs or helps prioritise major revenue initiatives. Cash-in, bail-out.

The differences in approach have never been greater. So, who should we be following, aside from companies that are most similar to our own?

For cost innovation and automation it doesn’t matter. Whatever works, give it a shot. For diversification successes, though, the focus narrows.

The tech billionaires-as-owners are starting to produce a ready-reckoner of success we should try at home. Many of us, though, will prefer to track the transformation efforts of traditional but privately held companies who retain journalism and commercial courage in their DNA in equal measure.