Donald Trump attended the INMA 2017 World Congress in New York City this week. Not in person, of course (fake news alert). But he was certainly here in spirit, or perhaps in effigy.

At the opening on Monday, the embattled American president inspired laughter when emcee Juan Señor suggested someone from the White House might handle Russian translation of presentations if required.

After that, Trump repeatedly resurfaced throughout the two-day gathering of news industry leaders, in comic or worried references to how he has upended the news industry’s fortunes and changed the media’s public image over the past year.

Then more soberly, at the conference’s closing session Tuesday afternoon, INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl Wilkinson invoked Trump one last time  — as motivation in part for a timely industry introspection and reboot. 

“Of all the things that I never dreamed I would say is ‘Donald J. Trump: journalism’s savior.’ Didn’t see that one coming,” Wilkinson said. “Could this guy have allowed us to get our mojo back?

INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl J. Wilkinson offers his new perspective on the U.S. president.
INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl J. Wilkinson offers his new perspective on the U.S. president.

“In November of last year we thought it might be, not the end, but certainly a major disruption. But now you see it was a great opportunity in chaos. It gave us an excuse to ask questions of ourselves. It gave us an excuse to talk about ourselves.”

Kicking off that introspection, Wilkinson listed what he thinks has been going right recently for beleaguered publishers:

“I think there’s a lot of great news to talk about in terms of transformation,” he said, “things that we were not good at that we’ve become better at: We have established platform agnostic brands. We are investing in branding. We are investing in personality development. We’re investing in data. We’re smarter than ever in our audiences. ... We’re talking about segmentation. Platform specialists. The talent gap is closing, especially on the young, digital side.”

At the same time, Wilkinson said he sees some warning signs, and even a "great stall" in some areas.

“I’m glad that we’re getting more more savvy with digital, but I fear that our relationship with readers has become a little less emotional, a little more click transactional.” 

He called “print cultures and print workflows” anchors that continue to hold media companies back from essential digital conversions.

And then, addressing some publishers’ ambivalence and even hostility toward new digital platforms including Facebook and Google, he called for detent and respect: “I get that there are moments where they are our enemy and they have to be defeated, but they’re our friends as well and we have to embrace that.”

In closing his conference summary, Wilkinson offered three priorities for the 400-plus attendees now heading back to more than 40 countries: 

1. “Have an honest conversation at your next strategic retreat about what business you’re really in. That’s not an academic exercise. And maybe the CEO and the editor have to leave the room to get an honest answer. But are you in the journalism business? Are you in the advertising business? The audience business? The tech business? ... Have an honest conversation. I suspect and I hope that we’re in the audience business these days.”

2. “Establish your foundations. … And I identify those foundations as: Know who you are, what is your brand. Invest in your culture. Invest in data. And yes, understand audience and audience fragmentation.”

3. “Know your platforms. … I challenge you to have someone at your company — either in title or in spirit — who is the chief audience officer, who knows your print audience, who knows your Google audience, who knows your smartphone audience. Yes, you need an overarching platform and audience storyline. But you’ve got to be able to tell those individual stories.”