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Among legacy industries, media is heading the disruption curve

Matthijs van de Peppel

NRC Media

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Xavier van Leeuwe

Mediahuis Nederland

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Our lives and our work are changing at an ever-increasing pace. The phones in our pockets contain more personal data than was ever collected in the whole course of our great-grandparents’ lives. Companies that have been around a mere 20 years know more about us than our family does. Yet, regardless of how essential they seem today, it is anyone’s guess if they will still be around in a decade.

Human contact is no longer a daily necessity. Keeping in touch in group apps is more efficient than one-to-one interactions. You order groceries on your screen, and they are delivered on your doorstep. You can work on your phone while you stand waiting at the gate to board a plane.

By and large, those conquering all these developments are the new companies with young and well-educated employees who grew up in a society where individualism and the availability of data are both a given and where automation is a sure path to success.

Traditional companies with their roots in the centuries before us often struggle to keep up with the speed. They are weighty with the cumbersome baggage of the past, operate on outdated systems, and often have employees who were trained for a world that has almost disappeared. Left and right, they are being overtaken. They are undergoing disruption.

The media business has been dealing with its own share of disruption, too. Classic media companies watched their prime source of income (advertising) disappear before their very eyes, thanks to a shift to online players from other business sectors. Desperate attempts to become important on the digital playing field did pay off sometimes, though they certainly fell short of making up for the losses of advertising revenue in print versions.

Ever since the invention of the book press with typesetters by Johannes Gutenberg, it has been up to publishers to make information available and disseminate it on a large scale. Later, radio and television joined in, with business models based on selling adverts to reach consumers. Not so, not now, not anymore. The Internet has increased the competition at a staggering rate. So, too, have the possible ways for advertisers to reach their audiences.

As the media market fell apart into a thousand pieces, three powerful titans in the Western world have emerged from the rubble, channelling the stream of information in exquisitely clever ways: Amazon, Facebook, and Google. Their might has become so immense that more than 70% of all ad sales ends up in the hands of these three companies. Until the 20th century, the traditional media companies were the ones who could count on those euros and dollars.

It is a brave new world for media products, too. Reading printed newspapers every day is a habit that younger generations associate with their grandparents’ behaviour. Cell phones have become the main carriers of information.

Consultancy SparkOptimus concluded that the media business is heading the disruption curve, as is the travel sector.

By now, we can carefully look back over our shoulders and see that many of the traditional media brands are still around. Though the force of disruption has injured news organisations (especially regional ones), there are also a lot of classic media brands — dating back to steam engine days — that have successfully adapted to the digital 21st-century reality and are doing better than ever before.

The New York Times has reported its highest-ever subscription figures, citing some 6.5 million paying subscribers. Several news brands are now extremely profitable and are reaching more people than they ever did by adapting to the new reality. This is a story of success that is not necessarily common knowledge.

We were working at newspaper publishers in these tumultuous and interesting times. First, we worked on the same team at NRC and later as co-workers at Mediahuis, where Matthijs works at NRC and Xavier at De Telegraaf. We were there from the turn of the millennium, when everything was rolling along smoothly, through the time of turmoil, when disruption picked up speed, to the present day, in which we think we have steadied the ship and are back on the right course.

At first, we were surprised by our experiences at NRC and De Telegraaf, though we started to see a pattern later on. We found that an intense connection to our roots, our staff, and our customers were paramount if we were to properly respond to the changing circumstances. Technological innovation did not prove to be the driving force of success, but a mere instrument instead. The people who started innovation and the customers who embraced it — they are the true winners of the future.

In the coming months, we want to share best practices and detail scientific studies that helped us along the way as we tackled the many challenges of digitising our business. We will also provide a host of practical ideas for managers and employees alike to make their organisations agile and resilient.

These organisations may be on the cusp of an upheaval, or perhaps they are keen to boost the speed of innovation and take things to the next level. Regardless if you have dozens or thousands of customers — or none at all yet — the principles we will share will apply and be scalable to all.

At the same time, we must be humble. What has worked for us will not necessarily be of use to you. We will share our experiences, our approach, and further reading that will show you how to focus on the human touch in an organisation and how it has been effective in other companies, too. Use what you can and find your own path. We certainly hope that our findings will be a valuable step on your journey through this fast-changing world.

About Xavier van Leeuwe & Matthijs van de Peppel

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