Suggesting culture change at newspapers is like questioning religious tenets in church. It may be sacrilegious, but it also may be necessary. You will be bashed by the high priests and bolstered by those in the shadows.
In the past few weeks, I’ve taken my theme of culture change from Australia to Sweden to Portugal to the United States to India. Every speech I make, I swear it will be the last time I touch the subject. Yet I get the same voracious reaction — good and bad.
- Bangalore: In India, I was shocked in recent weeks at the year-to-year change in attitude about digital’s role in this historically print-dominated market. As the tectonic plates shift, publishers are talking culture as a foundation for multi-media. Young executives came up to me after a speech in Bangalore with such great enthusiasm for speaking on a taboo subject.
- Williamsburg: In Williamsburg, Virginia, CEOs desperate for new wind behind the sails of tired newspapers asked me to push harder on the culture change subject and if INMA would be willing to do day programmes on the subject.
- Lisbon: In Lisbon, an editor moderating a panel lambasted what he perceived to be my cultural assault on journalism, saying we have to be more serious about promoting the virtues of journalists and the hard work that they do to the exclusion of what readers need, want, or perceive. In a separate speech that I thought aspirational to newsmedia companies, trade press journalists heard a similar assault on journalism.
- Las Vegas: In Las Vegas at a conference of print circulation and digital audience managers, I suggested that merging their functions into a cross-platform audience role resulted in an uncomfortable tension. Maybe the guys running the delivery trucks aren’t automatically the best people to plot audience growth strategies, I suggested. The audience liked culture change, but wasn’t quite sure about this specific suggestion.
Culture change isn’t an assault on newsrooms or circulation departments or whoever I’m standing in front of today. It’s an assault on a corporate culture that permeates every part of a newspaper company trying to cross the threshold to a newsmedia company.
Have you ever wondered how a sports team can consistently lose over time despite different players, coaches, cities, and stadiums? There’s always an underlying culture that perpetuates the losing.
Everything about the newspaper cultural template must be questioned as we switch to digital, integration, and cross-platform.
After 200+ years of history and a publishing template that has crossed national borders, the newspaper macro-culture is very consistent worldwide:
- Perfection over speed.
- Punishing failure.
- Placing a few big bets.
- Top-down hierarchy.
To play on the new hyper-competitive multi-media canvass that is before us, we have to correct these cultures. That our newsrooms are more exposed to these cultural flaws is without dispute. That other departments are also exposed yet smaller in scale is without dispute.
We have to be fast, place a lot of small bets, be accepting of a feedback environment, create bottom-up innovation frameworks, and if we fail then fail fast and move on.
INMA is going to turn the subject of culture change into a “best practice” — just like cool ideas to grow audience or grow advertising or grow brand. We want to become the repository for culture change best practices.
To get there, we have to have a thick skin and be willing to touch some nerves. Culture change is tough stuff.