In thumbing through the evaluations from the recent INMA World Congress in New York, a comment from a U.S. attendee popped off the page that I, no doubt, took far too seriously: stop talking to us about culture change if it can’t affect my position back home.
The comment has gnawed at me for a month, and I need to stop biting my tongue and put in writing what’s on my mind.
Consider the facts in the national market the world thinks is either a leading indicator or an outlier to avoid, the United States:
- Newspaper advertising sales have declined for 18 consecutive quarters dating to 2005. Print advertising expenditures are at their lowest level since 1983.
- Paid circulation for daily newspapers has decreased every year since 1986. Circulation as a percentage of the population has decreased every year since the 1950s.
- Our industry’s response has been to cut people and newsprint, often without regard for priorities or the customer.
- The top publishers refuse to collaborate on anything meaningful such as industry innovation, incubation, or experimentation.
- When the analyst community five years ago gave publicly traded newspapers a green light to lower profit margins to heavily invest in digital, sales, marketing and research, publishers dabbled but mostly passed.
- The old beacons to whom we have turned in the past for inspiration and guidance — Editor & Publisher, Presstime, Deutsche Bank and other fantastic analysts who covered the industry — are all dead, dying, or irrelevant.
About 15 months ago, I was on the phone with the CEO of a newspaper company who told me the quarterly numbers about to come out would show only single-digit decreases in advertising sales — projecting increases by the next quarter. More than a year later, newspapers are still shedding 7%-10% in advertising revenue each quarter off of a lower and lower base.
The reason INMA chooses to relentlessly pursue the encouragement of culture change at news companies is that our industry’s challenges remain at the foundational, strategic, organisational levels. When we look around, INMA is the only organisation still standing and fighting for transformational change in our industry.
And in moments of doubt, the funny thing is publishers whisper to us: “Keep pushing!”
Because as easy as it is to blame CEOs and shareholders for the mess our industry is in, the dirty truth is many of them are fighting daily for change — but their companies are populated by newsrooms, pressrooms, unions, and fiefdoms that are finding new and innovative ways to stop or slow the change.
There are too many people in our industry marking time to retirement, fighting the small changes that prevent us from ever considering the big changes.
I love the idea that CEOs can snap their fingers and things happen; the truth is they run big companies populated with complicated eddies that require constant finessing. Sometimes leadership can be top-down. Mostly, leadership is the clever facilitation of bottom-up.
Hamstrung by crap deals that saddled their companies with debt, more people and bigger products is not a path to success.
So what are publishers left with if they are to break these structural shifts in consumption and marketing habits?
No, wait. We shouldn’t be talking about such things. It won’t do any good. Right?
Culture change in the news industry involves a collection of practices that break from the past, some obvious and some not-so-obvious — yet all not generally practiced in our industry even today:
- Listen to the market.
- Prioritise expenditures to your USPs.
- Outsource, link or cut what isn’t your USP.
- More sales feet on the street.
- Invest in research.
- Digital first.
- Focus relentlessly on your differentiators.
- Sell market solutions, not space.
- Dialogue, not monologue.
- Embrace the crowd.
- Be willing to fail, but fail fast.
- Go on the offense for readers and advertisers.
- Speed over perfection.
- You can’t be all things to all people.
- Respect the platform for its unique value.
- Go where the growth is.
- Be relevant.
- Place many small bets.
- Low-cost innovation.
If INMA can help nudge our industry 1% on any of these issues by stubbornly refusing to give up hope that transformational change is possible, then we have fulfilled our mission.
Our industry’s challenges are not across the board, they are not at the best-practice level, and they are not about honing our skills at following the pack from the format change flavour of the month to the Groupon flavour of the month.
Our industry’s challenges are at the foundational level. It will require hard work, strategic change, and persistence.
Are you in?