I have come to view “culture change” at newspapers as equivalent to religion.

There are those who:

  • Are fervent believers.

  • Are tired of being preached to.

  • Believe the message yet feel powerless to do anything with it.

  • Don't view it as a proper subject in public settings.

So imagine my surprise last week, as I awkwardly danced around the subject among Australian publishers, to have the subject thrust at me with the emotion of another digit on a P&L.

The Australian publicly traded media sector peaked in early 2007, plummeted to new depths through 2009, went through a mild recovery through early 2010, and has since dropped to nearly penny status. By comparison, the U.S. peak was 2004.

Australian publishers shake their heads, throw up their hands, and roll their eyes at the helplessness of stock prices battered more by perception than reality. Lamented one executive: “We have become Big Tobacco.”

In the 1980s, the value of newspaper stocks was driven by fundamentals: steady, mid-level profit margins, high barriers to competition, and the like. We were safe bets. By the 1990s, the value proposition narrowed to profit margins and continual profit growth. By the time that growth disappeared in the mid-2000s, the markets were willing to trade profit margins for top-line revenue growth — yet publishers were slow to take the hint.

Today, I believe markets have bought into the newspaper-to-newsmedia argument. Yet they are seeking demonstrable proof of that transition.

Faster digital growth would be transparent proof. Demonstrating and communicating transformational change would be a strong signal.

If the Big Tobacco comment is true, then our industry's challenge is firmly at the perceptual level.

Which leads us back to culture change and a different kind of fight than many of today's industry leaders understand.

The conduit to being re-routed upward in perceived value, Australian publishers tell me privately, is creating a growth story rooted in:

  • Understanding consumer behaviour.
  • Rapid digital adoption.
  • Fast product development.
  • Smart marketing.
  • Next-generation data analytics.
  • Leveraging eyeballs into a transactional business.

Culture change is central to this growth story.

Australian publishers are all over this. They are far beyond the talking stages and are at the beginning of implementation.

“Culture change” rolls off their tongues so matter-of-factly as the central building block to this revenue model reinvention story.

That stands in sharp contrast to publishers in the United States, parts of Europe and elsewhere who still wince at the mention of culture like the sinner who finds himself sitting on the church's front row.

To keep up the momentum of culture change, we have to move beyond perceived soft values such as transformation for transformation's sake or change for change's sake. Whether right or wrong, that's what a big part of our industry hears.

Australian publishers point the way.

We can't grow value without becoming knowledge-based, employee-friendly multi-media companies where experimentation is encouraged, speed is rewarded, data and data translation are bedrocks, integration is key, and respect for the USPs of each platform is a tenet.

Today's employees will be given one chance to go with the changes that are coming; if they can't get on board, then we need new employees.

Culture change is the foundational building block to a multi-media revenue growth story.