The argument against integration in newsrooms

In a discussion with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen two years ago, he told me: “Newsrooms are built for resilience. They resist terror attacks. They work even if the systems drop out. Why should they change just because a business person told them so?”

The challenge of changing an organisation’s culture has filled management books; it’s brilliantly featured over at INMA’s Disruptive Innovation blog and Culture Change blog.

With INMA’s new Media Leaders blog, I’ll try to keep it as simple and as “hands-on” as possible by bringing those leadership principles to your attention that matter most to run your soon-to-be digital-only operation. Or the ones that helped me most.

Size matters: the two-pizza rule

Let’s start with the size of teams. Thinking of team size, Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos should be your next best friend.

The US$75 billion company has just turned 20 and Bezos’ “two-pizza rule” is one of the secrets of his incredible success. Basically it says if a team is too large to be fed with two large pizzas, it is too large.

You have experienced this too many times during meetings: The more people who attend a meeting, the less productive it will be. Group think will kill every great idea. Yay sayers will agree with each other – and their real opinions are never heard.

Bezos has built Amazon as a decentralised company where independent ideas can prevail over group think. The two-pizza team is a company-wide rule. And small teams of five to seven people have driven the most important innovation processes inside the company, as I could learn talking to senior Amazon employees.

You might have a team in place to change your legacy print-style business into a future-oriented mobile digital operation, like so many publishing companies have. You might want to make sure this team is lean enough. Consider thinking of it not as one team but several. And allow them to run in contrary directions (sometimes).

Disrupt yourself!

This is where Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen’s operating system comes in: disruptive innovation. For me it has turned out to be a crucial factor for success – especially in the media industry.

We see so many new brands take root at the bottom of a market (e.g. in the cat video segment, like BuzzFeed) and then relentlessly move up (e.g. building investigative desks, like BuzzFeed, or winning Pulitzers, like the Huffington Post), eventually displacing established competitors.

In times when we’ve understood that digital media disrupts the print business, most of us are aligning processes as if it has always been easy to achieve two different things with one team, with one brand. As if you could produce the best newspaper once a day and the best digital news service all day with one single team.

After Christensen’s theory, we act like incumbents, shortly before being killed by new market entrants.

Integration doesn’t work

Integration is a tempting fruit; it saves costs in the short term.

But speaking for Russmedia, we strongly believe that integration clearly blurs the focus, either to be the clear digital No. 1 (that takes 80% of the profit) or to innovate on a daily basis to make the best newspaper available. And you should want to achieve both, somehow.

In one of our regional markets, Vorarlberg, we have at least four separated news teams for our daily media outlets in place – for the digital portal VOL.AT, for VN (newspaper no. 1), for NEUE (newspaper No. 2), and the radio station Antenne Vorarlberg.

All of them have a different editor-in-chief and a dedicated editorial team. Most of them are compliant with the two-pizza-rule.

The result after nearly two decades on the market:

  1. The digital portal VOL.AT has a completely different understanding about local news than the newspaper VN.

    VOL.AT has a somewhat younger, more mid-market news mix with lots of social media-driven stories, live streams, Vine videos – a constant, real-time news stream. VN is all about curating the most relevant content, delivering investigative local reports, and telling you why things happened.

  2. VOL.AT is clear digital market leader with 67% digital market share.

  3. VN is clear newspaper market leader with 53% print market share.

Having a news team that concentrates on the best result for digital readers is one thing. Having a sales team that brings the full potential of digital to your clients is the other one.

At Russmedia, there are also separate sales teams, of course. “I’d rather have my online sales team call my print clients than have them called by someone else,” is the way we think here at Russmedia. But enough company talk.

Deseret shows the way

The guys over at Deseret Digital, with former Harvard Business school professor Clark Gilbert as CEO, will be happy to share their view. They’ve come to exactly the same conclusion: Having dedicated teams working for print and digital offers them completely new possibilities of growth that would have never been touched if it was only about the good old newspaper. A very smart approach on a strong academic foundation, and very well executed.

The Guardian believes in digital pure-play

Separation doesn’t only work at local news outlets. The Guardian’s digital strategist, Wolfgang Blau, is on the same ship. He has put it in a very understandable way: “There are only two people you make happy with newsroom integration: 1. Your print editor-in-chief, and 2. your pure-digital competitor.”

Just recently, Wolfgang has made a confession of faith at a summit of online magazine publishers in Berlin. The video of his speech has gained attraction within the German-speaking media sphere (the video is in German, obviously).

The title “Why digital and print don’t belong together” says it all about his view. Wolfgang describes how digital news teams lose speed and eagerness to experiment in integrated newsrooms.

It is a given fact, Wolfgang believes, that, with integration, you have to decide for one champion: print or digital (and in nearly all of the cases CEOs decide for the still revenue-strong print side.)

Think the unthinkable

What if you consider your digital team a separate team competing and bench-marking with pure online players like Facebook, BuzzFeed, and company?

What if your team of newspaper masterminds focuses on the printed version and innovates also within the printed product – and doesn’t give up?

Face the facts: A newspaper might in the best case scenario flat line over the next years, whereas your digital products need tremendous growth (even accelerated with the mobile explosion). On the one hand, a fast-growing digital team. On the other, the need of ongoing cost cutting.

My experience: It’s always hard to start a party on a sad day.

About Gerold Riedmann

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