The hurricane that hit the East Coast of the United States earlier this month offers a stark reminder of the challenges facing news media in the digital era. The Raleigh News & Observer, which nearly won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the region’s last major hurricane in 1999, had seen its newsroom contract from 225 to 65 by the time Florence hit.
For the people working in besieged newsrooms, “downsizing” has become synonymous with digital transformation. But while staff reductions might seem to be inevitable in today’s media world, they should not be the goal of the digital transformation process. On the contrary, digital transformation is a considerable investment in new activities, people and their skills, and technology.
Perhaps the problem stems from a natural but misguided approach to transformation, one that sees digital transformation as being driven by cost reductions. The right place to start instead is to look deep into why you need to transform.
The question might seem self-evident, given the massive changes occurring in the news industry. But when you need to convince a newsroom full of reporters and editors who are wary of change, you might find they do not share your concerns.
The first steps have nothing to do with changing the newsroom itself, but always with changing the mindset. It starts with the decision makers, both outside and inside editorial, and then the entire editorial team. The driving mission must be well-defined and dedicated to maintaining essential reporting and service to the community and society.
In fact, the News & Observer, despite its newsroom contraction, has found ways (such as cooperation with other media, using better tools, and commiting to quality reporting) to continue carrying out its essential job, using structural and technological changes to respond to diminished resources.
It is often said news media are businesses unlike other businesses because of their essential societal role. Too much is at stake to see the transformation process as merely an economic exercise. If transformation fails, if the essential role of news media is lost to a “cut at all costs” mentality, nothing less than the future of democracy is at stake.
We see the problem already developing. Widespread cutbacks are already having a severe impact on local news coverage, leading to lower civic engagement and voter turnout. One study in the United States found only 17% of stories in local news outlets were based on local events, and more than half of their news content originated with wire services or other outlets. Citizens in many communities are simply not getting the news and information they need to make informed choices in a democratic society.
In regional and national titles, reliance on agency material can be even higher. In one case, almost 70% of the content was either based on agency material or taken from the agency feed without any major editing. So original, first-hand research and exclusive reporting is being replaced by an interchangeable “re-telling” of stories that aren’t unique and are easily found in multiple outlets.
With so much at stake, it would be wise to present a clear picture of why you need to change before undertaking the hard work of implementing a digital transformation strategy. If your staff doesn’t understand why you are changing, then your strategy is likely to fail.
Every media company is different, and defining the mission is a personal issue. But media also have much in common and are facing the same market disruptions. Here are three points to help open the discussion:
1. Face the truth that the traditional business models are dead. While transformation should be mission-driven and not based solely on a search for cost savings, the economic realities cannot be ignored.
Advertising is no longer the cash cow for traditional media, as Facebook and Google have won the digital advertising game. This puts greater reliance on digital circulation revenues, which sparks a renewed focus on the audience, and on providing content and services people are willing to pay for. That means high-quality journalism and greater service specific to our valuable audience, including new, non-traditional products such as career services, conferences, classes, and much more.
This does not mean, however, that print media are dead. Print can be an essential part of a multi-media strategy. Innovation in print should not be neglected, as offering multiple “touch points” on multiple platforms and outlets increases opportunities to see the message and drive attention. But sticking to a boring half-page ad in a newspaper is not enough anymore.
Acceptance that the old models are gone allows us to fundamentally rethink our businesses.
2. Traditional news media companies can no longer be defined as “mass media.” By definition, every traditional media brand is now a niche publisher. Today, the only companies that can define themselves as “mass media” are Facebook and other social network and giant online platforms. This is hard to accept; many publishers are still trying to appeal to everyone, which leads to an ill-defined audience and lack of focus, and dilutes the power of the brand.
So find your niche — based on geography, topic, or target audience. Who are you seeking to serve? If you clearly define your niche, you are better able to capitalise on your readers’ interests and provide them with appropriate and appealing content, services, commercial offers, and advertising.
3. News media is defined more by mission than platform. Start with a clear understanding of how your company creates value and jettison any activities that don’t lead in this direction.
This means aligning products and services to your core focus, and always prioritising quality over quantity. It starts by communicating and developing a clear understanding of the mission — the “why,” the purpose — across the organisation and the audience. It also means stopping things that distract from the core mission. Chasing Web traffic, for example, has proven to be a dead end for many news organisations; it doesn’t contribute value for the audience or customers and therefore also doesn’t make money.
Make sure everything you create has value — put a price tag on everything. What doesn’t create value should not be produced.
These are just a few suggested discussion points in the initial conversations before you begin digital transformation. They aren’t exhaustive or even right for everyone, but they are a place to begin. Better to start your strategy by clearly defining the reasons why you are changing before moving into how you’re going to do it.