Legacy, digital-only media: Best practices now going both ways

By Earl J. Wilkinson


Dallas, Texas, USA


The first time I used the metaphor of “two ends of a rope burning toward each other” to describe legacy and digital media, what I really had in mind was the obsession of New York-based publishers for all things digital.

It was 2015. Coincidence or not, the world’s media capital collectively and simultaneously began forcing out older executives rich in the skill sets of print and replacing them with younger digital executives bathed in the new lingua franca of data analytics. The Math Men (and women) were replacing the Mad Men (and women) at an accelerated pace. 

Yes, legacy media companies continue to learn from digital pure-plays. But the reverse is also happening.
Yes, legacy media companies continue to learn from digital pure-plays. But the reverse is also happening.

A visitor to any New York media company 18 months ago came away convinced the legacy elite had stopped looking to each other for inspiration. Instead, the bright shiny object was very clearly the profit-poor, market cap-rich digital companies. P&Ls aside, these digital companies could do no wrong in the eyes of their legacy brethren. A New York Times or Wall Street Journal executive could be breathless talking about Vice, Vox, Business Insider, or Refinery 29. 

The love was mostly one-way. The digital media companies seemed light years away from legacy companies in Big Data applications, audience development, and connecting with Millennials. 

An INMA study tour of Manhattan digital leaders was populated by 40- and 50-somethings in smart jackets and the occasional tie — staring at the 20-something digital zoo animals in T-shirts, jeans, and the more than occasional tattoo and piercing. 

What were the digital kids doing so right that we Boomers and Gen Xers were doing so wrong? Was it the total immersion — to the exclusion of everything else — in high-volume content or audience growth or clever advertising campaigns or the smart best practices to draw people to their brands? Or was it the catch-as-catch-can hipster offices and the inevitable ping pong table? 

Nearly two years into the Math Men Movement, the workforces in Manhattan have turned upside down (sometimes twice). The movement has spread to nearly all world capitals. Print has become the proverbial office in the corner as the digital culture consumes legacy publishers. 

Yet here is where the story gets interesting. 

Recent INMA conferences in Monaco and São Paulo, punctuated by my visits to media companies worldwide, reveal a new confidence by legacy companies in the digital frontier. We can play in this pond — with gusto. 

Whether a panel of editors from Brazil’s leading newspapers or European leading lights like Svenska Dagbladet, Libération, or Russmedia, I couldn’t help think that if these were digital pure-plays you could scarcely tell the difference. Digital proficiency is getting deeper and deeper at legacy companies. 

The Facebook algorithm wiggle? We have something to say about that. And, collectively, legacy publishers are banding together at the national level to make our voices heard — and in some cases, the digital companies are following our lead. 

The knowledge and intimacy legacy editors know about their audiences is dramatically greater than even two years ago. It’s not clear to me whether it is deeper knowledge or whether it’s the democratisation of digital knowledge. But it shows. 

In fact, the data shows legacy brands are growing audience and deepening engagement at the same moment that the young digital brands are hitting a wall. Growing from 1 to 3 may be 300% growth, but it is from a tiny base. Venture capital funding based on triple-digit audience growth was never going to be sustainable — prompting a push for monetisation, alternative audience storylines, and frantic searches for buyers. 

As the fevered pitch for audience growth at all costs shifts to more qualitative measures like journalism, scalable advertising, subscriptions, and geo-fencing, suddenly the burn at the digital side of the rope is accelerating. 

This hardly means it’s a one-way burn. 

Another observation this year is that while Big Data is becoming more and more commonplace among legacy publishers, there is an interesting stall among the leading media companies — a sort of culture war at the top for which practitioners tell me a positive outcome is not guaranteed.

It seems the “from the gut” management style of legacy companies is more deeply ingrained in our cultural DNA. This is about politics and leadership — and a flushing out of old practices. 

I expect the “burning rope” to be as good a metaphor as any other to describe the cultural changes taking place at the top of the media pyramid — and quickly spreading worldwide. It is a nice construct to tell the story of media evolving to perfect knowledge about audiences. 

By 2020, the only differences between The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider will be target audiences, style, and the choice to print. 

Yet in the belly of this conference season, I am heartened by the digital fluency of legacy media — and the slow, increasingly comfortable embrace by both ends of the burning rope for each other.

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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