The News of the World scandal is an opportunity for newsmedia companies to reflect on the meaning of their brands. When everyone in the company is connected by shared values, working in their own space to exemplify what the newspaper stands for, new business can be created at the speed of Google.
It’s a rare — and astonishing — day when a profitable newspaper is closed down. But the decision by Rupert Murdoch to shut the News of the World is a telling example of the importance of values in the newsroom, and how our day-to-day behaviour as journalists and editors usurps any cleverly spun marketing line about what our “brand strengths” are.
Newspapers have been tossing around the idea that we have “brand values” for awhile now. We like to trot out the line to reassure ourselves that our activities in online and mobile have some semblance of what appears in print. But most of us are pretty misguided as to what that really means, or how it plays out commercially.
Most editors believe their mastheads have brand values that are made up of proud histories of journalism, and the heritage of their papers to report and disseminate the news and capture interest. In these cases, we are confusing history with brand values and the rusted-on behaviours of our customers as brand strength.
The missing link that the News of the World has so deplorably illustrated is that the brand values of our newspapers are the sum of our behaviours as journalists, editors and photographers — and also as advertising teams, classifieds telemarketers, subscription teams, online newsdesks, and marketing and commercial personnel.
The News of the World will not go down in history as a newspaper that had an extremely profitable and viable product that entertained and informed millions of people every Sunday and delivered a result to advertisers because of it.
Rather it will be remembered as the paper that valued “getting the story” above everything else, even to lengths that were illegal, corrupt, irresponsible and morally reprehensible.
The brand values of the News of the World were rotten to the core. To have left the paper open would have signalled that News International in some way condoned or understood the behaviour. As it stands, journalists and editors everywhere still risk being tainted with the implication that if one newspaper thought it was okay to behave like that, we probably all do.
The lesson of News of the World to newspapers everywhere has been the reminder that how we conduct ourselves on a day-to-day basis reveals our long-term values. This more than anything else plays the most important role in how our brands are perceived by the market. Now, we must run twice as fast in the space just to stand still.
So what do we need to do?
We need to recognise that the “Command and Control” model of the editor in the newsroom is well and truly dead, and acknowledge its role in the rot outlined above. Newsrooms these days are such enormous concerns with so many moving parts. Putting one person in charge of the entire caboodle is a recipe for disaster. Where editors once used to last 10 years to 25 years to life, too many editors nowadays are only top of the heap for three to five. Being an editor under these circumstances is so gruelling, the time is measured in dog years.
Most newspapers have attempted to devolve and share the decision-making power, but we’ve done this badly. In many instances, we’ve promoted experienced yes-men (and women) whose strength is not in understanding their responsibility to interpret the values of the paper through good decisions, but to decide that good decisions are things that get “what the boss wants.”
This was the culture at News of the World. It is also a culture that ensures the editor becomes a bottleneck for every decision — a disaster in a time of fast-paced change.
Strong senior editorial teams are made up of men and women who share common values, a common belief in what their masthead stands for, an agreed understanding of the day-to-day behaviours that support it, and accountability for the decisions that strengthen it. Strong senior editorial teams may be led by an inspirational individual, but they are not controlled by a single ego.
Strong senior newspaper managers are those who create key performance indicators and will actively manage performance around these values, moving people out when the fit is not right rather than moving them somewhere else, and hiring people who are a good fit in both value and skill. Strong senior editorial and management teams walk the talk of being approachable, hands-on, consultative, proactive, decisive, responsible and accountable.
The best thing about this model is that when values are articulated and shared, additional businesses that also share the values can be easily bolted on. Promoting online, mobile, app editors is no longer a battle of who is in charge, but a discussion of what works for the brand in each space which makes a greater whole.
Newspaper managements frequently look at matrix management structures and claim “you could never control that.” But that’s the point: you don’t control a matrix structure. In a matrix, everyone is connected by shared values. The combination of everyone working in their own space to exemplify what the newspaper stands for creates business at the speed of Google, where once there was inertia.
The lesson of News of the World to newspapers everywhere has been to ensure we do not say we stand for one thing, and then behave in a contradictory way.
To this end, newspapers everywhere must desist from claiming we are innovative when our management structures are defined by the past century. We must stop claiming our subscribers are the most valuable customers we have, and then actively reward casual buyers with gifts. We must stop claiming connection with high-tech multi-media companies when our software is 10 years old and we deny staff access to iPads. We must stop telling the market we stand for quality journalism, when we are making decisions based on cost-cutting alone.
There is a saying in change management that if you want to change others, you must first change yourself. This is the stage that we are at — and have been at for a long time — although in denial. We need to change ourselves to support the companies we want and claim to be. The future of our brand values retaining any kind of integrity absolutely depends upon it.
Kylie Davis is the head of real estate solutions, Australia and New Zealand, at CoreLogic, the world’s largest provider of property data. She was previously the network editor of real estate at News Corp Australia, managing editor of business development at Fairfax, and founder of The Village Voice group of newspapers. Follow her @kyliecdavis.