The future of newspapers is not in the iPad nor mobile devices. It is not in print, it's not in online and nor social media — although many of us would love it to be one of these things as we crave a simple off-the-shelf fix.
The future of newspapers is in understanding that these latest, greatest things — while extremely cool and fun — can only ever be the features of our success (I use the word “features” in the sales sense that it's part of the product, while good sales people sell benefits).
Our true future is in changing our company cultures — away from a mentality of “can't” and towards a future of answering the question of “how.”
This is my takeout from the recent PANPA conference held in Sydney, which attracted more than 450 delegates from across Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Singapore.
It is no longer OK for newspapers to claim that they shouldn't have to, that it's not fair, that their corporate sizes, or histories, or board structures or past investment strategies or the economy have prevented them from doing what their readers and advertisers — and even their staff — are insisting they must.
And what is it that the chorus want? They are insisting we re-invent ourselves as customer-focused businesses — businesses that put the needs of our readers and their choices and preferences at the forefront of our creativity; businesses that put the needs of our advertisers to stand out, to have campaigns that work and grow their businesses in turn.
Customer focused business is our future. It really is as simple as that.
John Hartigan, the chairman and chief executive of News Ltd., told the conference that the industry has gone beyond the tipping point, and we are now in “the most exciting era of journalism ever.” We're attracting more readers and listeners than ever before, and we have the potential to own the news agenda — not just in the morning, but all day every day.
“The editorial stars of this new age are those who are innovative, creative and entrepreneurial,” he said.
This new breed of media entrepreneurs knows what audiences want and can exploit the new technology. They know how to put together content that people will pay for and far from being threatened by technology, see that they have a unique opportunity.
As newspaper managers, perhaps the best service we can offer these new entrepreneurs is to show some belief in their ability and simply get out of the way.
But still too often we have boundaries and limits, closed minds, inflexible budgets, opaque hierarchies and personal fiefdoms. Such environments quash entrepreneurialism as all the creativity is focused solely on trying to line up the ducks internally. The most incremental of changes are expected to achieve monumental results, and there is genuine confusion when it does not. In such an environment, the internal machinations of the company become more important than its customers, and innovation is stultified.
Overcoming these self-imposed obstacles are the greatest challenges that prevent us from embracing our future.
Hartigan continued: “Instead of assuming our market power is unassailable we have to think as a entrepreneurial startup.”
That means embracing flexibility, being the first to market with the best continuously, understanding the latest technology, being prepared to try and fail and stoic enough not to freak out when we do.
“User experience is everything,” Hartigan said. “We need to get over ourselves and recognise this is a great opportunity, not a threat.”
Customer-focused news businesses based around dynamic content that is created by entrepreneurial journalists and supported by fearless, transparent, gutsy management — this is the future of newspapers. It's no longer a question of “can we do it” but more “how soon can we start?”, or even “how can we get back ahead of the curve?”.
Exciting times indeed.