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McClatchy CEO shares 5 characteristics of adaptive media companies

By Brie Logsdon

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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In the face of disruption, McClatchy has doubled-down on its iconic brand, legacy journalism, talented teams, and the role it plays as an essential source of news and information. For the second-largest newspaper company in the United States, these foundational assets are key when navigating transformation, Chairman and CEO Tony Hunter told INMA members at a Webinar on Wednesday.

Transformation happens when companies capitalise on what they have to take advantage of opportunities provided during periods of disruption, he said.

McClatchy’s high-level strategic plan positions the company to do just that. The plan is intentionally simple and easy to understand by design, Hunter said, because the real challenges come from decision-making and risk-taking.

“I believe in simple plans,” he said. “I believe every employee should know how they fit into the plan and if it isn’t simple and straightforward, I think that’s difficult.”

McClatchy CEO Tony Hunter said a company's strategic plan should be simple.
McClatchy CEO Tony Hunter said a company's strategic plan should be simple.

Pointing to the mission, Hunter stressed the importance of creating a sustainable business model and highlighted the role local markets play in creating value for McClatchy. The differentiated competencies around great content and engaged, valuable audiences — coupled with the right team — means the company can win in the market.

What does winning mean? Hunter said it means not running from profitable revenue, such as print, while chasing new, high-value digital revenue.

Sharing six high-level strategies from McClatchy’s business plan, Hunter said the company is turning talk into action.

  • Create a North Star, aligning all divisions with a single set of goals and strategies.
  • Lean in aggressively to local and digital products.
  • Improve revenue performance.
  • Create value for our consumers.
  • Leaverge tech to drive transformation.
  • Create a culture that initiatives and supports change and embraces diversity and inclusion.

Innovation can help McClatchy power these strategies. Media leaders must build an organisation with the characteristics needed to drive innovation embedded into its core, Hunter said.

“To me, innovation is injecting continuous improvement into everything you do, everyday,” he said.

Hunter also shared five characteristics required for an organisation to embody what he calls “orgagility,” or the ability to drive new ideas to implementation rapidly and to pivot frequently.

  1. A shared mission and vision.
  2. A culture of speed and action.
  3. A leadership team that inspires everyone to do their best work.
  4. Alignment and accountability.
  5. Competitive and innovative.

To stay current and relevant, organisations need to adapt, evolve, and reinvent. McClatchy is in a reinvention, Hunter said.

“Our problem is the business model,” he said. “That is the problem we need to solve for. Transformation in any other way, in my opinion, is on the margin.”

Local news is essential to McClatchy's business model transformation.
Local news is essential to McClatchy's business model transformation.


Investing in local, essential news and information is a goal McClatchy owns, Hunter said. No one has the brand equity, will invest more into it, to do it better than McClatchy. Growing consumer revenue will be the underpinnings of success for the company, he added.

All of these efforts must be executed at the lowest cost. The company plans to invest only where it has an advantage and a high ROI, and has reduced the labor force and outsourced when necessary. This careful cost restructuring is a priority until revenues start growing.

After this overview, Hunter answered questions from INMA’s Executive Producer Mark Challinor and the audience.

Challinor asked Hunter about his experience leading the company remotely, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, six months after being hired as CEO. Hunter said he has not met the staff in-person due to safety precautions, adding that the only sticky point seems to be brainstorming via Zoom. The pandemic has broken paradigms, which has actually helped facilitate some of the higher-level conversations about changes at the company.

Employees have stepped up in a new way due to the pandemic, he said, and digital news consumers have flocked to the brand.

“Our commitment to the mission is so apparent during a crisis,” Hunter said, adding that it would be a mistake to return to the old way of operating post-pandemic.

The focus now is keeping employees safe and healthy, and providing boundaries so they can create a clear balance between work and life while working from home, he said. Trust is also important to leading staff as they work from home. Heavy-handed rules are not needed because most employees are striving to meet goals, Hunter said: “I don’t like to put in policies to address the exceptions.”

Following up on this, Challinor asked about skills and focus needed to be a media leader today. Decisiveness, especially right now, is critical, Hunter said. Listening is also key, because the answers are out there with employees, customers, and non-customers.

Finally, Hunter said identifying emerging trends and being proactive will help leaders guide transformation. McClatchy has been testing community advisory boards in some markets and hopes to work out any issues before rolling them out across all markets.

“Ideas are there. We just have to give people the opportunity to lean in, make some change, and take some risks.”

Identifying emerging trends is a critical leadership skill today, McClatchy CEO Tony Hunter told INMA.
Identifying emerging trends is a critical leadership skill today, McClatchy CEO Tony Hunter told INMA.

Tapping into local insights will also help power sustainability in local news reporting, which Hunter said is back in vogue and more important than ever. Making local news brands essential to people’s daily lives is a must because this is a differentiation that drives value for subscribers.

“We need to cover the community better than anyone else,” he said.

Local is key to the company’s ad strategy as well. Asked about McClatchy’s response to the COVID-19 impact on ads, Hunter said the company has implemented a few programmes to ignite local businesses.

Sales teams are using this time to connect with local clients and offer compelling packages so they can be ready to meet any pent-up demand post-COVID, but they are being realistic with their own predictions of what that demand may look like. McClatchy has also recently partnered with Gannett to provide clients with even greater local reach and penetration across 300 markets.

As to operations, McClatchy aims to use data, tech, digitalisation, AI, and machine learning to help journalists better serve their communities. When asked if he believes in centralisation or local autonomy, Hunter always answers “yes,” because he believes in leveraging the strengths of centralisation and nuancing them at a local level: “I think as leaders we swing the pendulum far too often, but to me it’s a dimmer switch, not an on/off.”

Hunter lauded another strategic, calculated move: McClatchy’s decision to stop its Saturday print edition. The company has been able to capture most revenue revenue from Saturday on other days and has learned a lot about print reader habits. Marketing the e-edition has been key in this transition. McClatchy does not have plans to further reduce print days, Hunter said, but does plan on using the e-edition to capture transition older, print audiences to the full digital product.

Challinor shared the joint admiration he and Hunter have for superstar musical performers David Bowie and Prince before asking Hunter to share what the news industry can learn from the entertainment industry.

Hunter said he has always marvelled at the artists’ sustainability of greatness, their ability to change and evolve, and maintain their value in a tough industry.

“Big lesson: If you stand still, you will fall behind,” he said.

Beating Challinor to a question he expected — what concerns keep him up at night — Hunter said he has never slept better. Actually, he added, he struggles to stay asleep because he is eager to keep developing a sustainable model at a news company at a pivotal time: “If we’ve learned anything lately, the importance of what we do has never been greater or more important.”

About Brie Logsdon

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