Occasionally, in the course of navigating the uneven terrain of the past 11 months, I find myself reaching back for a wispy memory from my deeply impressionable, pre-Watergate newspapering youth.
The image I conjure is of a tall, ruddy, handsome man, clad in a rich, lightly striped gray suit, crisply starched white shirt and elegant black and white bow-tie.
He flashed gold cufflinks big as saucers, addressing the balding night city editor a few feet away in soft, Churchillian cadences, before rushing off to some terribly important political or social engagement, the weightiness or grandeur of which I and the other callow, reporting rabble on the Vancouver Sun could scarcely imagine.
The fellow’s name was Stuart Keate. But that first time I laid eyes upon him — moments after the hushed warning of his impending arrival had ricocheted down the hall from the composing room — it was as if God himself had descended from on high.
Each time I’ve told that story in recent months, my mind’s eye wobbles a bit as to certainty around the details of his clothes and speech, but is unswerving in its conviction as to the sheer, room-filling presence of the man.
Such, once upon a time, was the stature, respect, and power attached to the big city newspaper publisher.
Summoning another memory, I reach back only a year, to a reception for the National Newspaper Awards (our Canadian equivalent of the Pulitzers), and the approach of the man who succeeded Stuart Keate as publisher of the Sun. “Soooo...,” intoned Clark Davey, deep-voiced and himself as commanding a presence as ever at 84, “here’s the guy who’s killing off all we publishers....”
Well, it wasn’t really my decision.
For months, the senior management group and board of Postmedia Network Inc., Canada’s largest newspaper-based media company (and today’s owner of the Vancouver Sun), had wrestled with the challenge of trying to transform the company in the face of grinding quarter upon grinding quarter of double-digit print ad revenue declines.
We knew we had no choice but to continue to drive costs out of the business. But we also knew that would not be enough — that, ultimately, we must re-invent that same business from the ground up, to build new, superior products and sell them in a fundamentally different way.
We had developed a strategic plan we believed could accomplish that. But at the same time, we were deeply concerned that under the status quo, implementing and then following through on that plan — down to each last painstaking detail of execution — would place the company’s fate not in senior management’s hands.
Rather, Postmedia’s fate would be in the hands of our eight publishers, who oversaw the daily operations of our 10 newspaper titles and related digital businesses.
At that moment, each publisher (those in Vancouver and Saskatchewan had carriage of two newspaper titles) essentially ran his own, independent business operation, his own sales team, and his own newsroom.
But the strategic plan necessitated that we take a total of 750 sales professionals operating across the country, reporting into those eight publishers, and persuade them to stop selling squares and rectangles in print and impressions online and start selling audience — to stop waiting for the phone to ring and to get out there and pound on doors.
Even more daunting, we also realised the plan would die stillborn unless we could inspire almost 1,000 journalists across 13 far-flung news operations, also overseen mostly by those eight publishers, to stop writing 600-word, commodity news tomes.
We needed to convince them to start crafting brilliant new story forms that would speak in perfect pitch to the emerging — and distinct — smartphone and tablet audiences, at the same time they were re-tooling to meet the upgraded demands of our evolving Web and print readership.
By late 2012, the sense of our senior group changed as we reached the conclusion that we — and maybe our entire industry — were running out of time. We determined our only chance for survival lie in being able to begin implementing the company’s strategic plan immediately.
But how to accomplish that when doing so would mean having it filtered through those eight individual lenses — the distinct business experiences, senses, and values of each of our eight newspaper publishers?
With the pall deepening with each successive quarterly report, we concluded that to not act — to not take those eight distinct businesses strung across the land and at least try to turn them into a single, cohesive business entity — would doom Postmedia.
Such inaction would constitute a fundamental sin of omission, and turn us into suited Nero’s, fiddling as Canada’s most venerable newspaper company burned.
The first step had come over the previous year, as key individuals began to emerge in several functional areas (Postmedia counts nine such areas in total — content, sales, marketing, production, distribution, technology, digital, finance, and human resources).
Others within the company began to look to these folks as leaders. In some cases, we recognised their emergence with formal appointments. In others, there was no title change, just a growing influence, as people in their own and other functional areas would more and more often reach out to them for help in addressing each day’s new litany of issues and challenges.
Our eight publishers had been with us every step of the battle over the previous few years. But now, in early 2013, we had to sit down to tell them of where we might be headed — and to explore if and how they could be part of it.
In March, we formally appointed Postmedia’s functional leaders in marketing, reader sales and service, and production. We transferred the marketing, RSS, and production staffs of all 10 newspapers to their jurisdiction.
In May, we expanded the process, formally combining the 10 newspaper newsrooms and three Postmedia news operations into One Newsroom, the 10 sales operations into One Sales Force and cobbling together a single national digital team, combining resources from each newspaper.
In each case, we transferred reporting out of the individual newspapers and into the new national organisation structure under the new functional leader. Simultaneously, the publisher’s role was eliminated in each of our markets while finance, technology, and human resource staff shifted beneath their national functional leader as well.
Eleven months in, our strong sense is that the transition to what we internally call our “functional structure” has been successful. We’ve made dramatic strides in implementing our strategic plan.
We will begin rolling out our new product set in Ottawa this spring. Rather than killing innovation at the local level, the Citizen newsroom has been at the forefront of developing those products.
But with our functional structure, we can be sure that as those products launch in other markets over the next year, they will retain the best elements designed at the Citizen.
In aggregating up to a dozen previously separate expense budgets, each of our nine functional leaders has been able to eliminate duplication, implement best practices, and find efficiencies and savings we frankly never dreamed existed yet alone could be achieved.
As with any significant change in organisational culture or structure, the transformation has not been flawless. Not surprisingly, the hiccups can mostly be traced to communication breakdowns.
Placing two of our former publishers in near-term, oversight roles — one in the east, one in the west — has helped (a total of four former publishers have remained with the company, in new roles).
Undeniably, however, the single most important success factor to date has been the fundamentally collaborative nature that has become a hallmark of each of our functional leaders. Perhaps it helps that three of them came directly from individual newspapers, and each of those is still based at those newspapers’ offices, in Montreal, Calgary, and Ottawa.
The camaraderie among the group is authentic. They work hard to keep each other informed, to consult one another, to make critical decisions jointly, and — when I recently wondered aloud if I shouldn’t reschedule a critical meeting at which one would be unavailable but a major decision impacting his area might be made — he replied no, because he knew that “everyone (the other functional leaders) has my back.”
There is still work to be done.
In the year ahead, we must address the remaining communication gaps. There’s also some heavy lifting to better integrate our sales team into the implementation of the strategic plan, to give them better tools to execute the audience sales strategy at street level, to make training a real instead of imaginary priority, and to do a better job of driving genuine understanding of the company’s strategy deeper in the organisation.
Postmedia’s transformation to a fully functional structure is not the ultimate answer, for us or for any other company in our industry. But it is — for us at least — a critical component of that answer.
It’s the foundation of our ongoing cost reduction plan. And it lies at the heart of the deep collaboration we’ve been able to achieve between and among the functional units within our business.
This is something our industry is not historically noted for — even when each big-city newspaper was its own autonomous, self-contained business ... back in the days when gold-cuff linked gods dropped in on balding night city editors and young reporters looked on in ill-concealed awe and wondered if this might not be a pretty cool place to build a career.