Newspaper covers for The Independent and The Times.
Newspaper covers for The Independent and The Times.

A decade ago, newspapers jumped on the print format change bandwagon with reckless abandon.

With an infusion of gutsy moves by The Independent and The Times in the United Kingdom to publish tabloid-sized editions of their famous broadsheets, a momentary rift in an otherwise conservative hide-bound industry opened up.

For a brief moment in 2004, newspaper publishers were open to new possibilities of packaging and connecting with readers because the tectonic plates of the competitive United Kingdom print industry unexpectedly shifted.

London became Mecca for newspaper executives from Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, and the South Pacific. I recall former U.S. newspaper chain Knight Ridder setting up an anthropological outpost near a London newsstand as it watched British consumers choose between broadsheet and tabloid Independents and the Times.

After weeks of study, Knight Ridder did little, even as consumers chose tabloids by two-thirds, and The Independent and The Times switched to tabloid format.

With the hindsight of 10 years, what did we learn?

The big lessons were these:

  • Consumers prefer more compact formats: functionality, modernity, and the like.

  • A change in format can provide a temporary lift (often at the expense of a flat-footed competitor), but circulation trends tend to return to former patterns after a year or so.

  • There are few, if any, new readers gained in a market as a result of one publication changing format.

  • To preserve revenue, advertising formats must be shifted from the inch/centimeter/millimeter to proportional page measures before the format change. Otherwise, marketers will argue an advertisement half the size should be half the price.

  • All of this change masks, after many case studies, the best excuse for broadsheet to tabloid or Berliner format change: It’s an attention-getting move with consumers that galvanises the publishing house. Format change succeeded best when it was the face of broader changes.

Yet there was another lesson from that era that has resonance today. It is a cultural observation that likely has little to do with media companies and much to do with peoples and societies.

Picture of a man and small boy in surprise.
Picture of a man and small boy in surprise.

My experience with many Europeans – notably Scandinavians, Belgians, and the Dutch – is there is a tendency to leap to a bold answer and work backward. By contrast, Americans tend to be incremental by nature, even as they inch toward solving problems (Silicon Valley is enriching this with new ideas based on constant experimentation).

Other cultures instinctively delay, blur the edges, find reasons not to change – worse than the inch-by-inch approach.

So, what do you want to be: a leader or fast follower?

Before you instinctively choose “leader,” know that The Economist proudly proclaims that it is a slow follower. The danger in being a “leader” is there are often no best practices to fall back on.

In the format change discussion, all of these cultural issues manifested themselves perfectly into this storyline.

Cover a foreign newspaper.
Cover a foreign newspaper.
Publishers in Sweden, Norway, Belgium, and The Netherlands used the excuse of format change to accelerate change in their corporate strategies. They leaped fast and far. They went directly from broadsheets to tabloids and used the physical change to rally their teams around other bigger strategic changes.

While the format change produced little new in the market in the long run, the internal changes were massive.

By contrast, the American publishers shrank their print formats one inch at a time and ended up with logic-defying skinny broadsheets. Ten years later, U.S. publishers are still shrinking their print newspapers one inch at a time. They never had The Management Moment as a result.

This is a long lead-up to something I’m seeing today watching print companies evolve into multi-media companies. And it’s a big management observation.

At smaller regional publishers without benefit of a bigger parent company and lacking scale, there is a often a hopeless “last man standing” feeling today that I’ve never seen before. In the United States especially, that inch-by-inch approach to change has produced an inevitable feeling of losing.

Group photo of MittMedia employees.
Group photo of MittMedia employees.

It doesn’t have to be that way:

  • Look at the fantastic approaches to change and transformation that exist at MittMedia and Västerbottens-Kuriren in Sweden (above): deep-rooted, well thought-out, creative, systemic processes to make innovation routine. These are small-circulation, local, and regional dailies.

  • Look at the 23,000-circulation Fredrikstad Blad in southern Norway (above), whose staff saw that print circulation and advertising were in permanent decline, chose not to go through years of ice-melting, did not want to go through the culture transition necessary to become a multi-media company, and asked its staff to resign and re-apply for platform-agile positions.

  • Look at the Stampen Group (below) and Bonnier Group in Sweden and their cutting-edge approaches to continuous, experimental mobile product development, constantly aiming for new paid-for communities that defy conventional wisdom about the enormous scale needed for transformation.

Image of a white iPhone, iPad and a newspaper.
Image of a white iPhone, iPad and a newspaper.

  • Look at the bold strokes by Aftenposten in Norway (below) recently as it aims to reinvent its print newspaper in vivacious new ways of storytelling and design – leaping for an idea and working back.

Tired of hearing about Norway and Sweden?

In the United States, I suggest you take another look at the moves by Advance Publications. More like European peers, Advance leaped to a solution its ownership believed would pull the company out of inevitable decline with a move – much like format change a decade earlier – that has a face of change (moving from seven-day to three-day home delivery) yet that is galvanising a bigger body of change.

While the market and industry are obsessed with the home delivery move, observers are missing Advance’s management opportunity of reinventing its workforce as platform-agile, creating collaborative and attractive work environments to attract young employees, and focusing on becoming more digitally focused (especially mobile).

Cover a foreign newspaper.
Cover a foreign newspaper.

The wrapper in today’s story is that this isn’t 1994. The best-practice, inch-by-inch approach isn’t working because technology is re-writing the market laws faster than we can keep up.

If you are incremental today, you are most likely a harvester and the future is dark.

I tend to look at companies that stake out a bold position and work their way backward. My experiences suggest most of these case studies are in Scandinavia, but they exist elsewhere on a company-by-company basis.

Yet this requires boldness in leadership. Sustainable companies have rich bottom-up processes, but the bold moves are usually top-down:

  • Where do we see print in the context of a multi-media company? Stake out a position and work backward.

  • Where do we see financial growth in the future? Stake out a position and work backward.

  • How do we want the consuming public to see our increasingly platform-less multi-media brands? Stake out a position and work backward.

  • How can we realise the full potential of our workforces beyond getting out this week’s product? Stake out a position and work backward.

I believe fervently in the future of locally focused news media companies – with or without scale. Yet their survival requires breaking out of an inch-by-inch mentality that is out of sync with today’s exponential times.

We can do this.