Surprise theme emerges from New York World Congress: culture trumps strategy


The transformative theme that emerged from last week's INMA World Congress in New York is that culture change trumps strategy for news publishers trying to turn the corner in their transition to becoming multi-media companies.

Confront the culture, and good things happen. Ignore the cultural element, and the most innovative strategy has no chance to succeed.

There were amazingly candid discussions sprinkled throughout the New York sessions about the newspaper culture. It wasn't planned that way, and it wasn't scripted. It emerged holistically from the presentations, the audience questions, and the impactful conversation among delegates and non-delegates via Twitter (#inmawc).

Nobody is doing culture change perfectly. Not the New York Times. Not Schibsted. Not the Wall Street Journal. Not the Financial Times. Not the usual list of media companies we tend to put on a pedestal.

While there were robust discussions of business models, strategies, growth opportunities, and tactical ideas, the World Congress kept returning to the theme of culture change — our industry's stumbling block to fully realising its potential as multi-media companies. This discussion involved many nuances.

Here were key points for me within this culture change theme:

Point 1: separate business model from culture in print vs. digital discussions

There was a general sense in New York that the industry discussion of print-to-digital transition has gotten off track in the past two years. We are confusing the business model part of this discussion with the culture change part of this discussion. This was seen in conference sessions as well as behind-the-scenes pre-conference committee and board meetings.

The emerging consensus from New York was that a digital business model can't replace a print business model. Instead, the digital model must be additive to the print model — if for no other reason than the inclusion of print is part of a publisher's USP vs. media competitors.

Former Philadelphia Media Holdings CEO Brian Tierney hinted at this when he encouraged publishers to “leverage your advantages while you still have them.”

If the industry strategy is to suck the life out of print and transfer energy to digital as part of a zero-sum game, executives told me candidly that model won't work. Instead, we need to have new discussions about where print fits into the lives of consumers and how advertisers can reach these audience segments on their preferred platform. Strip out the emotion: where does print fit? I suppose that's a “smart print” strategy that deserves further discussion by INMA.

The “don't forget print” theme still leaves plenty of room for a digital-first information and organisational architecture:

  • Information architecture: The digital-first philosophy is based simply on how consumers engage with news, not that a digital model will pay the bills.

  • Organisational architecture: The digital-first organisational architecture is about injecting speed and entrepreneurialism into the publisher's culture.

The critical lesson to take from this is to separate the discussion of print vs. digital business models from the discussion of print vs. digital culture. There was near unanimity in New York that the print culture is anti-growth, likely unfixable, and must be replaced with something new altogether with all due haste.

Point 2: encourage speed, place small bets, be willing to fail (fast)

Meanwhile, I was reminded in New York by how limited a CEO's ability to change culture often is. I hear this over and over in private meetings with newspaper CEOs stuck between a need to get bottom-up buy-in to ideas from employees and their management teams and a legacy culture where process perfection is constantly the enemy of the good.

For example, New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. suggested while the Times' matrix-like organisational structure produces superior results, he lamented that it often provides slower results. Said Sulzberger on the challenging partnership between print and digital: “We are in the process of testing and learning, and all of us have to be there. And if you're not occasionally failing, you're not trying hard enough.”

Speed, placing a lot of small bets, and a cultural willingness to fail (fast) was a recurring theme.

Pressed by questioners on why VG reversed course and integrated print and digital, CEO Torry Pedersen acknowledged the cost factor but pointed to something more important: cultural integration will allow media companies to take advantage of the speed of the emerging digital landscape in the coming years.

While the Wall Street Journal, as another example, has a defined system for product development, it's important that process stays rapid since digital technology requires quick development, executives told a post-conference briefing.

Point 3: transparency will change your mindset

The Financial Times' corporate culture changed with the introduction of its metered paywall four years ago, said Andrew Sollinger, managing director of U.S. commercial operations. The paywall allowed for a transparency in viewing its audience and segmenting its readers based on their engagement — in turn, driving its audience and advertising strategy in ways once thought unimaginable.

INMA is hearing this repeatedly from publishers who are implementing paywalls. While the user data is overwhelming, there are mind-bending lessons that are emerging from people willing to pay for digital content — distinctly different lessons than from people only willing to view your content if it's free. Let me put it this way: people willing to pay for digital content are not reading what you are producing. Your differentiators online are different from your differentiators in print which are different from your differentiators on the mobile.

Transparency transforms.

Point 4: relentlessly focus on differentiators

Changing the corporate culture to focus on strategic differentiators and cut away non-differentiators was another recurring conference theme. Laying out in detail a transformation strategy, Interactive Advertising Bureau CEO Randall Rothenberg encouraged INMA members to pull out of the “commodity spiral” by providing marketers brand awareness and purchase intent. He could have said the same for content and processes up and down the traditional newspaper organisation.

As INMA surveys the global landscape, the companies that appear to be breaking through to improved results in this increasingly multi-media environment are the ones confronting their legacy print cultures head-on: Journal-Register Company and digital-first; Edda Media and its 50/50 project; Deseret Media and its disruption philosophy; and the Toronto Star and its relentless focus on its USPs.

The INMA World Congress revealed these cultural speed bumps in blunt, occasionally poignant, and unexpected ways.

Culture trumps strategy.


Editor's Note: To read about the New York INMA World Congress — including session reports, interviews with speakers, video stories, photographs, and audience feedback via Twitter — click here for the conference multi-blog.

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