No, “grow digital” is not a strategic plan to move your company forward. Neither is “digital first.”

Both “grow digital” and “digital first” are chapters in an overarching company plan to blend digital into the core fabric, or DNA, of the organisation. Without a common strategy — across all departments — the desire to go/become digital will lead to frustration among the very people attempting the evolution.

Every media company needs to take time to make sure it is still on the path laid out by the organisational strategy.
Every media company needs to take time to make sure it is still on the path laid out by the organisational strategy.

Yes, every news operation in the world is somewhere in the digital evolution. But the winning organisations have done something special: They brought the divisions of the company together; gave voice, cause, and reason to the plan; then built the evolutionary path as a single company mission.

This is a true company strategic plan.

I happen to work for an organisation that truly gets the need to build the plan together — across the traditional media “church and state” separations. Yet, I still hear from colleagues elsewhere that their particular journey is floundering. The implementers are frustrated as they, to use the cliché, see the end of the runway approaching quickly and without enough speed to transition.

Let us all take a few minutes and re-evaluate where we are.

Maybe your plan is in good shape. Maybe you think you have made the leap to digital. (Did you accidently kill print in doing so?) Maybe you have one side of the operation doing the digital dance all day while the other part of the operation is still trying to figure out how big a pixel is.

Regardless of where you are on the journey, it is time to pause for a day or two and do a quick department-by-department status check. In some cases, you may find when you look down, your organisation is not on the path you think you are on. (Where does the red brick road lead?)

Sometimes you need to let things go and start over. This is not an easy decision, but possibly worth doing to move you back to the best path.

We just moved two pieces of our technology stack from long-standing vendors to new ones — not easy decisions, but done so to synchronise technology needs across the church/state.

I have said it before, and repeat it here, that technology decisions need constant updating as new facts (software/vendors/tools) are introduced that far surpass the old. Tech, and the digital evolution, should be thought of as an iterative process where the perfect decision made five years ago (at the time) can look pretty wrong today.

I have seen in my travels and time in the industry many newspapers struggle with digital. And trust me, the news industry isn’t the only one struggling with the digital revolution. The daily buzzword marketing spin from the daily “we can double your digital revenue” phone call is doing more harm than good. How many of these have you heard this week:

  • “You need to leverage Big Data.”
  • “We have the perfect recommendation engine for you.”
  • “We can fine tune your social strategy.”
  • “We can automatically post your top stories to Facebook.”
  • You need mobile apps, and we can build them for you.”
  • “Everyone needs to have interactive games on their site.
  • “You need …”

Sure, they are interesting or have merit on their own. Where, or even do, they fit in with your long-term strategic plan? The how in doing so is also where things get tricky.

In some of the strategic plans have been privileged to read, I have seen a distinct lack of digital plans. Why? Well, digital is a separate plan! Are strategic plans, by definition, supposed to cover the entirety of the operation?

The next thing I see is they all talk a good story that recaps the need: “Younger readers don’t read print, the smartphone is where it’s at, everyone gets their news on the phone, everyone gets their news on Facebook, 30-second news cycle …”

And so on.

Some are bold enough to sneak in a statement such as: “Digital doesn’t generate the same money as print, but we have to move forward.” The statement isn’t backed with the strategy to deal with such a revenue outcome.

So, how about we all take a quick journey back to the beginning. Look at your strategic plan.

Is it a plan or a statement document? Is it inclusive of print and digital? Does it have details (or branches to a detailed implementation plan)? Does it cover the steps and action plans where cross-company cooperation is needed to move forward?

Does it assure that resources are appropriate? Are there guiding and checkpoint elements? Are goals (such as time and revenue) in place and realistic?

Is it “owned” by senior management? Is it communicated? Was it designed to be updated on a regular basis? How does the plan encourage the company to reinvent itself? Does it address how the technology changes roles and functions (think recommendation engines)?

And, now that you’ve seen this list (and done some Googling), is it really strategic or just a SWOT analysis?

Build wisely my friends.