Yellow roadside displaying chaos.
Yellow roadside displaying chaos.
Note: I gave the following speech in recent weeks to a dinner gathering of CEOs and editors of the Dutch and Flemish news industries in The Hague organised by the national press association NDP Nieuwsmedia.

* * *

Four hundred fifty-six years (456) years ago, the world’s first regularly produced newspaper was published in Venice to inform the merchant class of developments in Europe.

The history of print-packaged journalism since has been the story of:

    • Speaking truth to power.

 

    • Expanding access to the truth.

 

  • Monetising that access.

Words and a bundle, 1556-2012

Our history can be marked by four big occurrences:

    • The development of the print bundle in the 17th and 18th centuries.

 

    • The launch of the penny and pauper press, which unleashed a mass market in the 19th century.

 

    • The commercialisation of the mass-market bundle in the 20th century.

 

  • And the slow shedding of that bundle and unleashing of digital access in the 21st century.

At each inflection point, there was the moment of change followed by a transition period that lasted many decades.

We are living in a similar Great Transition today.

The history of the news industry is about words and a bundle — specifically, the print bundle. The two have been linked for nearly five centuries, and our challenge today is de-linking them in the consumer’s mind to preserve our value proposition in the New World.

In 2012, we are an industry:

    • Of operators who have perfected the print bundle.

 

    • That thinks in linear, incremental ways.

 

  • That prefers the safety of long-term plans.

Our reinvention

To survive, we must reinvent our corporate cultures based on new concepts:

    • Flexibility of business model.

 

    • Speed of execution and decision-making.

 

  • Malleability based on how people consume us.

We need to become an industry based on:

    • Innovation, not operations.

 

    • The idea of exponential and abundance, not linear and scarcity.

 

  • Planning two years out, yet able to change more quickly more often.

Until the past two decades, our value proposition has been about breadth, size, and scope — in essence, a bigger generic bundle pushed at bigger generic audiences.

Technology is pulling us back to a hierarchy of relevance.

And that goes against the Culture Of The Bundle that governs the newspaper industry.

The good news is that we are becoming puzzle masters: matching audience pieces with content pieces for higher intensity engagement.

Reinvention examples that define our times

There are at least three great newsmedia companies that define our times by constantly changing with the times:

    • Schibsted, which reinvented itself from regional newspaper publisher to a global online classifieds company that happens to own newspapers.

 

    • New York Times, which reinvented itself from a regional to national newspaper and is reinventing itself today as a global multi-media player.

 

What they all have in common is that they are willing to shed their skin to preserve their core competencies of journalism and audience aggregation for advertisers.

For they have realised that the containers of the past will not be the containers of the future.

Brands will come and go. The companies that produce brands will live on.

Changing context that mobile Web will bring

In the next 24 months, the context of the news industry will change again. And the change will be fast and abrupt.

The first contextual change in the next eight years will be that the final barriers to people accessing your journalism will collapse. This is a real opportunity for publishers even as the money behind the change lags behind.

By 2020, 3 billion more people worldwide will access the Internet for the first time — most likely through high-speed, high-powered mobile devices.

The penny press took us from hundreds of readers to thousands of readers. The Internet took us to hundreds of thousands of readers. What possibilities will the smartphone-enabled consumer market bring to journalism, an informed society, and your brands?

Be smart and truthful about print’s role

Meanwhile, we must be smart about print vs. digital during this Great Transition — publicly and privately.

This Great Transition is about monetising what you can monetise today in physical form — print — to fund the digital universe that is emerging.

We must keep our eye on the value of print — year to year, month to month.

We must soberly re-assess the value of the print bundle in the rapidly changing way in which people are consuming us:

    • Does print remain the end-all, be-all architectural model to convey journalism?

 

    • Does print become more of a branding vehicle?

 

    • Does print become a reverse-publishing vehicle?

 

    • Does print become a monetisation vehicle?

 

  • Or does print simply go away?

Across the INMA network worldwide, these conversations are growing louder and louder each day — among publishers who have come to the same point in the road without ever talking with one another.

I suspect the answer is somewhere between the extremes. Yet I know for certain that what works in India may not work in Australia or the United States or the Netherlands or Belgium.

Conclusion

Our strategy must not simply be about how to organise our companies to deliver multi-media products and services. That is the real world.

Our strategy must also be about maintaining and growing perceived value in the consumer’s mind outside the print bundle. That is the world of perception, and it is a world we must confront now to win in the exponential days ahead.

I know that these are nice words. They bring order to the chaos of our transformation. Yet my great worry is that these words are getting lost in the ether of:

    • Yesterday’s culture.

 

    • Today’s need to deliver a number.

 

  • Tomorrow’s deadline.

And the clock is ticking.

I ask of you — as the leaders of our industry — for a re-commitment to putting consumer behaviour at the center of your strategy and focusing more on core competencies and less on the skin that surrounds those core competencies.

We need directional leadership and if we get that, I am confident your companies will not only survive this Great Transition, but will continue to have a robust footprint of influence and profitability for many years to come.

I leave it to you to accelerate the clock.