Postmedia’s strategic plan necessitated it take 750 sales professionals operating across Canada, reporting into eight publishers, and persuade them to stop selling squares and rectangles in print and impressions online and start selling audience. It also required convincing journalists to write for mobile audiences. Almost one year in, here’s how it’s going.
Occasionally, in the course of navigating the uneven terrain
of the past 11 months, I find myself reaching back for a wispy memory from my deeply
impressionable, pre-Watergate newspapering youth.
The image I conjure is of a tall, ruddy, handsome man, clad
in a rich, lightly striped gray suit, crisply starched white shirt and elegant
black and white bow-tie.
He flashed gold cufflinks big as saucers, addressing
the balding night city editor a few feet away in soft, Churchillian cadences,
before rushing off to some terribly important political or social engagement,
the weightiness or grandeur of which I and the other callow, reporting rabble
on the Vancouver Sun could scarcely imagine.
The fellow’s name was Stuart Keate. But that first time I laid
eyes upon him — moments after the hushed warning of his impending arrival had ricocheted
down the hall from the composing room — it was as if God himself had
descended from on high.
Each time I’ve told that story in recent months, my mind’s
eye wobbles a bit as to certainty around the details of his clothes and speech,
but is unswerving in its conviction as to the sheer, room-filling presence of
Such, once upon a time, was the stature, respect, and power attached
to the big city newspaper publisher.
Summoning another memory, I reach back only a year, to a
reception for the National Newspaper Awards (our Canadian equivalent of the
Pulitzers), and the approach of the man who succeeded Stuart Keate as publisher
of the Sun. “Soooo...,” intoned Clark Davey, deep-voiced and himself as commanding
a presence as ever at 84, “here’s the guy who’s killing off all we publishers....”
Well, it wasn’t really my decision.
For months, the senior management group and board of
Postmedia Network Inc., Canada’s largest newspaper-based media company (and today’s
owner of the Vancouver Sun), had wrestled with the challenge of trying to
transform the company in the face of grinding quarter upon grinding quarter of
double-digit print ad revenue declines.
We knew we
had no choice but to continue to drive costs out of the business. But we also
knew that would not be enough — that, ultimately, we must re-invent that same business
from the ground up, to build new, superior products and sell them in a fundamentally
We had developed a strategic plan we believed could
accomplish that. But at the same time, we were deeply concerned that under the
status quo, implementing and then following through on that plan — down to
each last painstaking detail of execution — would place the company’s fate not
in senior management’s hands.
Rather, Postmedia’s fate would be in the hands of
our eight publishers, who oversaw the daily operations of our 10 newspaper
titles and related digital businesses.
At that moment, each publisher (those in Vancouver and
Saskatchewan had carriage of two newspaper titles) essentially ran his own, independent
business operation, his own sales team, and his own newsroom.
But the strategic plan necessitated that we take a total of 750
sales professionals operating across the country, reporting into those eight
publishers, and persuade them to stop selling squares and rectangles in print
and impressions online and start selling audience — to stop waiting for the
phone to ring and to get out there and pound on doors.
Even more daunting, we also realised the plan would die
stillborn unless we could inspire almost 1,000 journalists across 13 far-flung
news operations, also overseen mostly by those eight publishers, to stop
writing 600-word, commodity news tomes.
We needed to convince them to start
crafting brilliant new story forms that would speak in perfect pitch to the emerging — and distinct — smartphone and tablet audiences, at the same time they were
re-tooling to meet the upgraded demands of our evolving Web and print readership.
2012, the sense of our senior group changed as we reached the conclusion that
we — and maybe our entire industry — were running out of time. We
determined our only chance for survival lie in being able to begin implementing
the company’s strategic plan immediately.
But how to accomplish that when doing so would mean having it
filtered through those eight individual lenses — the distinct business experiences,
senses, and values of each of our eight newspaper publishers?
With the pall deepening with each successive quarterly
report, we concluded that to not act — to not take those eight distinct businesses
strung across the land and at least try to turn them into a single, cohesive
business entity — would doom Postmedia.
Such inaction would constitute a
fundamental sin of omission, and turn us into suited Nero’s, fiddling as
Canada’s most venerable newspaper company burned.
The first step had come over the previous year, as key
individuals began to emerge in several functional areas (Postmedia counts nine
such areas in total — content, sales, marketing, production, distribution,
technology, digital, finance, and human resources).
Others within the company began to look to these folks as leaders.
In some cases, we recognised their emergence with formal appointments. In
others, there was no title change, just a growing influence, as people in their
own and other functional areas would more and more often reach out to them for
help in addressing each day’s new litany of issues and challenges.
Our eight publishers had been with us every step of the
battle over the previous few years. But now, in early 2013, we had to sit down
to tell them of where we might be headed — and to explore if and how they could
be part of it.
In March, we formally appointed Postmedia’s functional
leaders in marketing, reader sales and service, and production. We transferred
the marketing, RSS, and production staffs of all 10 newspapers to their
In May, we expanded the process, formally combining the 10
newspaper newsrooms and three Postmedia news operations into One Newsroom, the
10 sales operations into One Sales Force and cobbling together a single
national digital team, combining resources from each newspaper.
In each case, we transferred reporting out of the individual
newspapers and into the new national organisation structure under the new
functional leader. Simultaneously, the publisher’s role was eliminated in each
of our markets while finance, technology, and human resource staff shifted
beneath their national functional leader as well.
months in, our strong sense is that the transition to what we internally call
our “functional structure” has been successful. We’ve made
dramatic strides in implementing our strategic plan.
We will begin rolling out our new product set in Ottawa this
spring. Rather than killing innovation at the local level, the Citizen newsroom
has been at the forefront of developing those products.
But with our functional
structure, we can be sure that as those products launch in other markets over
the next year, they will retain the best elements designed at the Citizen.
In aggregating up to a dozen previously separate expense budgets,
each of our nine functional leaders has been able to eliminate duplication,
implement best practices, and find efficiencies and savings we frankly never
dreamed existed yet alone could be achieved.
As with any significant change in organisational culture or
structure, the transformation has not been flawless. Not surprisingly, the hiccups
can mostly be traced to communication breakdowns.
Placing two of our former
publishers in near-term, oversight roles — one in the east, one in the west — has helped (a total of four former publishers have remained with the company,
in new roles).
however, the single most important success factor to date has been the fundamentally
collaborative nature that has become a hallmark of each of our functional
leaders. Perhaps it helps that three of them came directly from
individual newspapers, and each of those is still based at those newspapers’ offices, in Montreal, Calgary, and Ottawa.
The camaraderie among the group is authentic. They work hard
to keep each other informed, to consult one another, to make critical decisions
jointly, and — when I recently wondered aloud if I shouldn’t reschedule a
critical meeting at which one would be unavailable but a major decision
impacting his area might be made — he replied no, because he knew that “everyone
(the other functional leaders) has my back.”
There is still work to be done.
In the year ahead, we must address the remaining communication
gaps. There’s also some heavy lifting to better integrate
our sales team into the implementation of the strategic plan, to give them
better tools to execute the audience sales strategy at street level, to make
training a real instead of imaginary priority, and to do a better job of driving
genuine understanding of the company’s strategy deeper in the organisation.
transformation to a fully functional structure is not the ultimate answer, for
us or for any other company in our industry. But it is — for us at least — a critical component of that answer.
It’s the foundation of our ongoing cost reduction plan. And
it lies at the heart of the deep collaboration we’ve been able to achieve
between and among the functional units within our business.
This is something our
industry is not historically noted for — even when each big-city newspaper was
its own autonomous, self-contained business ... back in the days when gold-cuff
linked gods dropped in on balding night city editors and young reporters looked
on in ill-concealed awe and wondered if this might not be a pretty cool place
to build a career.
Wayne Parrish is chief operating officer at Postmedia, based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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