Keep it simple: pucker up, newspapers, and get on with the digital change


Why is the “Keep It Simple” maxim so hard for newspaper companies? Why do we so often live up to a fourth word and act Stupid?

It was a couple of “in the cracks” conversations that occurred during the three-day INMA World Congress in New York that struck home some of the most powerful points to me.

During day two, a panel discussion between the New Yorkers — Phil Cowdell of Mindshare, David Gill of The Nielsen Company, and Ian Schafer of Deep Focus — commented about how their kids, all under the age of 5, had intuitively adapted to the iPad within minutes of being a handed a tablet.

While newspaper executives all over the globe have been turning iPads on, turning them over and wondering “hmmm, how are we going to work this thing?”, 3-year-olds have worked out how to fire up apps, play cool games and start colouring in, or downloading their favourite picture books (OK, so they do that bit with help from Mum or Dad).

What the panelists did worry about, though, was whether their same children would ever read a newspaper.

The second comment came after the New York Times briefing. As a fan of Renzo Piano's architecture, I loved the beauty of the building and found the briefing by one of the world's most respected newspapers inspiring. I loved being in the centre of the deep history of newspapers — the fact that Times Square is the vibrant pulse of New York and was named after it. Truly, a newspaper as a destination! My mind “oohed and ahhed” in admiration when they outlined their marketing team structure (and noted a few things to nag the CEO about) and listened in admiration to their recent successes with Twitter and Facebook and their iPad and e-reader strategy. In short, I fell for the whole box and dice of the deep, rich, complicated love story. It was a detailed work of art understood in the soul by us purists. And it was beautiful.

Then there was a voice in my ear. It was my 16-year-old son, Sam, who had accompanied me to New York for Mother and Son bonding time. (His school said the tour would be a good experience and it meant we could hit Macy's immediately afterwards).

“Hey Mum,” said Sam, who was also at the briefing (and playing Jelly Car on my iPhone for a lot of it before raiding the cookies — sorry about that Yasmin). “Why are we here?”

“Well, we're here to learn about how the New York Times — one of the biggest newspapers in the world — is online and how it's using Twitter and Facebook to drive traffic and how they're creating different apps to grow their readership,” I explained patiently, slapping his feet off the seat in front of him.

“Right,” he said. “Don't normal newspapers know how to do these things?”

“Well, not all of us. We're hearing about their experiences and learning what we should do.”

“Right,” he said, still puzzled. “Not that I'm dissing the trip, but did we need to come to New York to find that out? Isn't it obvious that you guys need to get on board with this stuff?”

At this point, I would like to say “out of the mouth of babes” but Sam is taller than me, looks very cool in a suit, and would probably punch me in the arm if I did.

But I had a blinding flash: 3-year-olds can work the technology, and 16-year-olds don't understand our hesitation. It's only us 40-somethings that are worried. Why? Our future market is staring us right in the face. All the special “newspapers in schools programs” and education pushes will never grow our engagement like the new marketing opportunity that is now in front of us.

The biggest challenge for newspapers right at this moment is not the iPad or e-reader or developing apps, but is the challenge of Keeping It Simple so that we can embrace these things.

The greatest challenge is changing our company structures to allow innovation and flexibility to embrace what customers want and expect from us — even if they're currently only 3 years old — and to do that from a position of leadership, not waiting for the pack.

Newspaper companies are heavy with tradition, meaning, and heritage. But these are powerful values — they don't have to be a legacy of inert bureaucracy.

Becoming light and lithe on our feet, responding to the market and adapting our companies so that they can relish the ambiguity of the future is the only way we will ensure newspapers are an integral part of the lives of today's 3-year-olds when they are 16, and the 16 year-olds when they are 40.

It's time to pucker up.

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