An Encyclopedia Britannica salesperson came to Earl Wilkinson’s home nearly 40 years ago, wanting to sell the family of the future executive director and CEO of INMA books for an “astronomical rate.”

That set and all the others Encyclopedia Britannica has published since 1768 are now collectors’ items. The company announced in April it will stop printing hard copies of the world’s longest-running encyclopedia.

“For some reason, as I close this conference, this story rings very vivid,” Wilkinson said.

After 25 presentations over three days, Wilkinson finished off the 82nd INMA World Congress — themed “New Oxygen, New Growth” — on Tuesday afternoon.

“I don’t just want to close this conference,” Wilkinson said. “I’d like to close an era.”

Like Encyclopedia Britannica had to do, Wilkinson spent his 40-minute presentation asking “What’s next?” from INMA delegates in attendance at the J.W. Marriott/L.A. Live in Los Angeles.

Media outlets around the world have come to similar points over the last year and a half, Wilkinson said, knowing they have to go digital but unsure how to monetise online publishing.

He urged newspapers to move away from an “organising model” — aggregation, one deadline a day, and light expertise on a large number of subjects — in favour of a more niche operation.

“At the end of the day — today — Encyclopedia Britannica is more profitable but an infinitely smaller business,” Wilkinson said. “That’s not a bad landing, but I’d suggest we could do better.”

Wilkinson’s message wasn’t necessarily aimed at The New York Times and Los Angeles Times companies of the media world, but rather the publications that can be unique to a market. Other metro dailies need a new brand — a brand that revolves around convenience, relevance, consumption choice, and empowerment, he said.

“I don’t believe we can be great at dozens of stories … most of us are not in that league,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve got to pick and prioritise in the digital age with what we want to do.”

Media companies also need to buy some time; 86% of people have mobile phones, and 33% have access to the Internet on those phones. The gap is closing, though, as more consumers invest in smartphones.

It should only become easier for media companies to profit from digital advertising, Wilkinson said.

“That 33% will affect your industry more than anything,” he told delegates.

Well, that and the people who will work for media companies in the future.

Because companies aren’t investing enough time in training and developing their employees, Wilkinson said, the current batch of executives don’t know how lead media into the future.

“Folks, we’re not attracting the best and brightest,” he said. “The creative class just can’t overcome our image, and they can’t climb over the mountains we’ve created for them.”

Wilkinson urged his peers to get employees outside office walls — to network with other journalists and teach them about the industry rather than an individual profession such as reporting or photography.

Wilkinson offered other suggestions about the future:

  • Could there be a day when it’s cheaper to give away a US$50 tablet to subscribers rather than print and deliver a newspaper?

  • Could people buy newspapers for reasons other than to run a business — for political or business influence?

Then, after a World Congress that featured buzzwords like “disruption” and “disturbance” in journalism, Wilkinson offered some motivation: “Don’t strive for quality in what you do. Strive for measurable relevance. If we can just do that as an industry, I think we will have crossed our cultural rubicon.”