An animated image of a man with several arms reaching to tablet, laptop, tv.
An animated image of a man with several arms reaching to tablet, laptop, tv.
As media companies transition from “best practices” to “storylines of transformation” as the currency to communicate value to stakeholders, a wild inconsistency is emerging that makes the news industry susceptible to misreading.

From the small local U.S. newspaper consolidating its physical space by 50% to the regional daily replacing real plants with fake plants to save money to the multi-media behemoth reviewing stretch limousine usage by its army of editors to the Indian company diversifying revenue from the seed of a news brand, “transformation” has many faces.

My visits to media companies in recent months culminated in a recent visit to the Middle East, where I was confronted by the most direct of questions: How do you systematically attack transformation as a business strategy?

The question crossed a few lines for me. I’m not a consultant. I am an orchestrator and synthesiser of the global “INMA conversation,” a constant chatter among our nearly 7,000 members. My answers usually involve pointing to who is doing what best.

Yet to put a toe across that line, I would put forward the following.

Print to multi-media transformation is about three things:

  • Corporate culture: Can you establish a structured internal culture that innovates routinely?

  • Revenue diversification: Can you create a management structure consistently strong enough to add big pieces as you extend your product “limb”?

  • Print to multi-media path: What is your clear, defined path to integrate print and digital that works best for your company and your market?

In my reading of companies, the three points don’t necessarily need to start out connected. But they will inevitably connect.

On corporate culture, there are few media companies with structured programmes to encourage innovations. There are a lot of one-off contests and one-off initiatives. INMA recently booked the legendary Silicon Valley innovation guru, David Kelley, founder and chairman of IDEO, for its World Congress (May 11-13 in San Francisco).

In the interview process, we were struck by Kelley’s methodology of design thinking that unlocks the creative confidence of people to innovate routinely. We plan on highlighting the “innovate routinely” media companies in the coming months.

On revenue diversification, everyone wants to talk about smartphones, tablets, online video, real-time bidding, e-commerce, and Big Data. Yet it is a surprising number of media companies that have streamlined management in the past five years due to economic contraction and consistently add big bets on these small yet tight-knit management teams.

As we go further and further away from the core of the news business, the “limb” is starting to crack from the pressure on the far edge. Companies that are succeeding in revenue diversification are beefing up senior managements with platform-agile leaders and managers who can succeed in smaller circles.

On the print to multi-media path, there remains a surprising lack of clarity on how to structure this. Across many case studies, I would say that total integration of print and digital is where all media companies will end up. But forcing integration of newsrooms and advertising sales operations up front is usually a bad idea because of the turbulence of the transition.

There are more success stories of companies that take the longer view of boxing up the print operation and creating digital companies or teams or departments – often competitively – around that operation. Over time, they inevitably draw closer.

For markets that have time (translation: no immediate threat of digital or advertiser pressure), this is a much easier path than companies inundated by advertiser and consumer disruption.

Combined, the media company with the greatest chance of success in these transformational times has a clearly thought-out transitional path to becoming multi-media and innovates routinely in a knowledge culture with platform-agile managements focused on the details of revenue diversification.

Corporate scale will always be a challenge, yet these principles are what can make even small, family-owned newspapers and magazines capable of reinventing themselves.

This is the core of the news industry’s storyline of transformation.