Pop open the bubbly and kiss the person next to you! Good old New Year’s traditions always include a resolution or two. So here are some promises I hope newspaper executives internationally will keep this year.
- I will position my business around the needs of my readers and advertisers. To us they’re readers and advertisers — in any other business they’d be called customers. There is a point in the lifecycle of every business where it loses sight of its customers and starts to “improve” its service based on its own needs. Newspapers have been stuck in this rut for, oooh, about 30 years. But to reshape your business around the needs of your customers is to give yourself licence for radical reinvention.
- I will look externally for inspiration. No, not at what other newspaper companies are doing. This year, look at what other industries are doing. Examine case studies of successful reinvention from the tech sector, financial services, transport industries — and see how what they have been through can be applied to us. Change is hard, but others have been there before us and we can learn from their experience.
- I will aim for ideal solutions, not just incremental improvements. Set your goals to outline what the perfect new newspaper will look like. Or if you don’t know what it looks like, how it will feel, how it will problem-solve, how smoothly and perfectly its processes work, or how delightedly its readers and advertisers engage with it. Don’t simply seek to make what you’re doing now a bit better. This is commonly known as rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. Get brave. Imagine — and start building — a better boat.
- I will expect opposition — and even welcome it. Embrace the comments of the annoying pain in the ass from finance/your production team/the lady in the tea room. He/she is telling you where your plan will go wrong — aka the bits you haven’t thought about thoroughly enough yet. But you can fix this. You can sit quietly and work out how to solve the issues they’re raising. Or you can turn the question around and ask them how they would fix it. One of two things will occur out of that conversation — either they will offer a great idea, or they will shut up and realise your job is harder than it looks.
- I will be prepared to try multiple ideas or versions of ideas, and be OK if some of them fail. This doesn’t mean come up with harebrained ideas and get off scot-free when they lose you a bomb. This means “be scientific.” Try and test. Adjust. Try and test again. It also means to place lots of smaller bets rather than putting everything you’ve got on a single dream. In high school, my German teacher used to say that learning vocabulary was like throwing mud against a brick wall. If you threw enough, some of it would stick. With testing new business ideas, you’ve got to get down and dirty.
- I will understand the importance of good investment. Publishing is hard work. It is, at the end of the day, about building a business. And businesses take time — in fact, new businesses take, on average, three years to develop. One year to start up, during which time they will spend money faster than they make it. A year to refine and break even. And the third year to start to earn a profit. As such, launching a new product and closing it down three to six months later because it failed to “pay its way” is the sign of an extraordinary managerial immaturity. And if there were a licence for publishing, I’d take it from you and fine you for stupidity. The mastheads that are our legacies took years, in some cases decades, of investment before they became (highly) profitable businesses. They were driven by men and women with an eye for the long game, not next quarter’s bonus.
- I will understand that the best solution won’t be the easiest solution. The best solution will inevitably require a lot of people to change. It will require new processes to be implemented. It will cost money. It will need vision. Other executives and the board will need convincing. Training will be needed. People won’t like it. It will take guts and determination. Nah, you’re right. It’s much more manly to sit behind your desk and just manage what you can control right now, which let’s face it, is the decline. Hey you! Harden up!
- I will feel the fear and do it anyway. Or I will let someone younger do it. And following on from No. 7, let’s face it: New Year’s resolutions always require a moment of deep personal honesty. These are challenging times. It’s OK to feel afraid. But if the fear paralyses, rather than galvanises you, your greatest legacy as a newspaper executive in 2012 could well be to hand the reins to someone with fire in his or her belly. Please!
A happy, prosperous and change-filled new year to you all!