5 keys to success in news media’s digital transformation

By Dietmar Schantin

Institute for Media Strategies

London, United Kingdom


Earlier this year, the Institute for Media Strategies conducted workshops at The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, NYC Media Lab, Quartz, and Calkins Media, among others. In September, I shared five key takeaways from that experience. Here are five additional things we learned from 20 CEOs, editors-in-chief, and commercial directors. 

Even in the age of digital publication, high-quality journalism is still important.
Even in the age of digital publication, high-quality journalism is still important.

1. Platforms are a reality.

The visits in New York proved to be a voyage into the world of frenemies.

In the United States, Google, Facebook, and Amazon are the giants who “are eating off our plates.” Yet, almost everyone we met thinks like Justin Hendrix from the NYC Media Lab, who says: “They are simply a reality.” These companies command the digital ecosystem. You cannot get around them, and so the only realistic response is to look for smart ways to collaborate. 

While the future of Instant Articles remains unclear, the WSJ has shown how it can better use Facebook, Apple News, and Google AMP to reach readers and ultimately increase digital subscription revenues. Elsewhere, Mic relies exclusively on the Facebook Video and Instagram platforms for its customer reach.

It can be perversely reassuring to know that even the seemingly unassailable giants have their problems and are vying for collaboration with the media. Campbell Brown, responsible for the new worldwide Facebook partner programme for the media, promises ever more “joint product development.” 

On the joint list of issues to tackle are the battle against fake news, building better revenue-generating opportunities for media partners with Instant Articles and Facebook Video, and concepts that improve the distribution of local news within the target radius.

2. It’s the journalism, stupid!

Following Trump’s win and the subsequent extreme polarisation of public opinion, the talk now is of the self-image and social value of journalism and the media. Big, established media brands as well as  newer digital competitors  are pledging themselves to pursue quality journalism — and registering a record reach in the process.

The WSJ now counts two million subscribers — more for digital than for print. And even start-up news media such as Quartz, which are canvassing for young decision-makers, have been in the black since the beginning of the year.

The question of recovering the credibility seemingly lost in the age of bots, robot journalism, and fake news is top priority not only for old and new newsrooms, but also for the large platform companies. 

Truth and credibility define the brand essence and thus form the basis of successful business models. What remains unclear, however, is how to square that with the automation and technology that, at least according to AP, are the only solution to the pressure newsrooms face. 

3. The fine art of collaboration.

The ability to collaborate, along with the courage to experiment, is one of the key virtues of digital transformation. The newer and less-developed the idea, technology, or prototype, the higher the risks on implementation. Collaboration manages and mitigates those risks and their associated costs. 

The NYC Media Lab sets out to connect the media with universities. It is not rare for a small research project to end up being a start-up. 

AP makes its content available to start-ups so they can use it to practise their algorithms. They return the favour by making those algorithms available to AP for use in the newsroom. The start-up NewsWhip, in which AP holds a stake, helps the agency measure the spread and use of its content. In turn, AP serves as a reference for NewsWhip, recommending the service to its media clients and associates. 

Even at venerable Columbia University, the elite breeding ground of Pulitzer Prize winners, Emily Bell requires her students not only to demonstrate great writing, but also have a deep understanding of digital technology and competence in business models and monetising journalism. 

4. The new spirit: Fighting fear with freedom and risk-taking.

The differences between traditional and new media were immediately striking in terms of atmosphere, but also working space. 

A start-up atmosphere exists in the lofts of Quartz, Gawker, and the NYC Media Lab. Interdisciplinary teams work at long tables. Everything seems, at least to the outsider, to be relaxed and open to communication. 

By contrast, the newsrooms of The Wall Street Journal and AP appear to be significantly more business-like and serious.

The coffee bars, lounges, and relaxation — those oases of the new media companies — are not an end in themselves: Teams are supposed to feel at home, yes, but the real benefit is ongoing motivation. The underlying goal, however, is creating an environment that is as free of fear and hierarchy as possible. That is essential to creating a mindset in which work is not merely churned out, but where there is open communication and a willingness to try things out despite the great pressure to succeed.  

5. The people factor.

Last, but not least, the biggest challenge to digital transformation remains the people.

New technological opportunities are available, new digital business models are already being tried out in many places, and competent partners are waiting impatiently for an invitation to dance. Yet change is slow to come.

Joanna Mayer-Jones, global sales director at the WSJ, remembers the days when the advertising department put all its energy into “defending print.” The conversion to the agency model that advises customers individually instead of selling them off-the-shelf products proved revolutionary. 

It’s a revolution fuelled by changing faces. New people with significantly different qualifications come in; in New York, they are often from young, digital competitors. 

They bring with them the unbridled joy of experimentation and the agile mover-and-shaker methods of a start-up. Many are familiar with design thinking and know how crucial it is when it comes to product development to start with the customer and his/her problems that need solutions.  

That’s not to say there are no “old dogs” able to learn new tricks, but it has mainly to do with attitude as aptitude. Media transformation can only succeed with people who are open to new opportunities and keen to give it a go despite the risks. The industry needs people who are capable of integrating themselves in interdisciplinary teams and able to rise above skeptical reservations.

About Dietmar Schantin

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