A new decade is a time for looking ahead, but also for looking back. When it comes to the news business, it is easy to long for less complicated times, when the competition was clear, when we knew who we were fighting against and what was at stake.
Today, the competition comes from faceless Facebook or gigantic Google. There is no longer a level playing field. It is difficult — if not impossible — to compete with an entity that sucks up all of the advertising revenue on the back of content created by others, often for free. It changes the game.
And now out of nowhere an additional threat has arrived. COVID-19 has more or less rendered the entire world to a stand-still. There is the great danger that the world will run into a recession, which will affect all businesses and particularly the news business.
New times and these new (unexpected) challenges call for a new attitude and new approaches to do business. But for this change to occur, the culture of traditional news organisations also has to change. While competition is a defining characteristic of the news industry, the new era requires cooperation where competition once ruled.
There is a wealth of information available to guide news organisations on how to restructure for the digital era by becoming audience-centric and digital-first, building new business models based on digital subscription income rather than advertising revenue, and learning to leverage data in new ways to drive editorial strategies.
But not all of this material is appropriate to all news organisations, and much of it relates only to the big players in big markets. Perhaps the best way to proceed is to learn from those who face the same digital challenges that you do: news organisations with similar market conditions and cultures who are reaching the same kind of audiences as you, and who serve similar communities.
Take, for example, the mission:local think tank of regional and local news companies in Germany and Austria. This programme was established more than a decade ago. It gives local and regional publishers the opportunity to share strategic information and advice, benchmark their practices, and visit media companies in Europe and the United States on a regular basis to learn from other markets and measure their performance.
It has been a privilege for the Institute for Media Strategies to run this group for many years, and I believe it can serve as a model for news media around the world.
Such ad-hoc groups don’t have to be complicated, but they do require a time, money, and commitment investment. The mission:local group, for example, is comprised of the top strategic thinkers and decision makers from 11 companies. They generally meet three or four times a year for two days, with each of the companies rotating as host.
The meetings are usually dedicated to a particular topic. Industry specialists and guest speakers share their insights or run workshops in a safe environment, and members prepare presentations about their own work and discuss their experiences in these areas. Though the group is informal, the work is serious and takes both preparation and follow-up. A record of their discussions is necessary so their work can be shared with others in their companies.
Benchmarking is also part of the programme. Most recently, for example, the participants conducted an extensive survey and shared their digital subscription revenue strategies and ambitions to help them develop this essential component of today’s news media business plans. A small group allows flexibility in choosing subjects for benchmarking, depending on current market conditions.
The group travels as well: Study tours to North America or the Nordics are part of the programme to learn how media companies in other markets are responding to common challenges. This also widens their networks of expertise.
These small groups don’t replace the larger international media associations. On the contrary, they continue the global exchange and learning on a local level. Sharing and collaboration is the only way forward. You can’t go it alone, and every little bit helps.