Three “whoa” moments from INMA World Congress 2012


No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.” — Albert Einstein.

Good old Albert Einstein! His quote totally nails the zeitgeist that appeared at the INMA World Congress in LA. Culture change, the power of the product of journalism, and new monetisation models were three key topics that commanded the discussion — and attendees who thought they understood the problem came home with fresh eyes.

After three days of listening, writing copious notes, and tweeting myself silly, these are the key questions and debate points that gave me my “whoa!” moments.

Culture Change
Can we change legacy companies? Should we even bother trying? Or do we have to start again from scratch and throw out all of the old?

Clark Gilbert, CEO of Deseret News Publishing Co., told how he was “uncoupling” his legacy and new digital businesses. But if you pull your organisation apart, have you actually transformed anything or just started from scratch with a new type of company? Is the only way to transform the DNA of media companies to breed out the old blood? It seems extremely harsh, but Gilbert argues the data is on his side.

John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, told the audience that “transition is not transformation,” but too many media companies are constantly lying to themselves about their progress.

Will our staff survive and how many of them should we bring with us?

Kirk MacDonald of Digital First Media admitted their transformation project had been “brutal” for everyone. But necessary. His boss, John Paton, argued it wasn’t just the worker bees that needed persuading; the behaviour of many editors was a bigger liability and threat to the future of journalism than the Internet.

Walter Levitt, vice president of marketing at Comedy Central, meanwhile, sparked a rush of new Twitter accounts when he argued you could not be a media executive if you did not do social media.

How much time do we really have? An INMA survey before the conference found more than 38% of the room felt change must happen now, 16% felt we had a year or two, while 28% thought we had three to five years. 

Paton and Kathy Thomson, CEO of the Los Angeles Times, talked about transformation from the perspective of companies that are coming out of administration — and were examples of the need to act before it is too late. Paton admitted the key to change was letting go of fear.

So the conclusions are “don’t wait ‘til too late,” “don’t act too soft,” and “prepare yourself because it won’t be pretty.”

There was agreement across the board on the role of branding our journalism as the way to save our future.

Quality journalism, it was broadly agreed, is the solution — not technology. Mobile, iPads, newsprint — they are all great media, but it’s the content we put through them that will show us the way forward. And to do that we really need to step it up.

Too many journalists are focused on production in our current newsrooms; this is where the transformation has to happen. We need to get our journalists back to being creative and creating exclusive content. But still there is too much of an obsession with editing and rewriting, when the monetisation and brand-building comes from creating something unique.

While print still commands good yields, it needs to be invested into not just moving away from old methods of doing things, but re-envisioning them altogether.

Conclusion: It is not a good time to be a sub or copy editor. But what would the world look like for newspaper companies if two-thirds of current production staff suddenly started breaking exclusives?

The raging debate is whether the future of newspaper companies will be digital first, digital only or, as INMA President Ravi Dhariwal stated: “Digital also.”

Can digital-only salespeople sell digital? Or if we go down this path, are we failing to transform anything at all? What role do legacy salespeople play?

Kirk MacDonald told me he uses his print sales teams as lead generators. They’re the guys who know everyone in local business, and 20 years of having coffees with clients can’t be replaced with new-kid-on-the-block, digital sales guys. As such, they do two-man pitches when a client expresses interest in digital.

But is that OK in these days of lean staffing? Is introducing the digital guy to your best clients a justifiable ongoing expense? Surely if we’re selecting our salespeople based on results, where they come from is not as relevant as how effective they are in the new space. Or does it all end in (more) tears?

The agreement was, however, that monetisation of digital will come from a lot of drips into a lot of buckets — not from a single, big, whammy, save-the-farm solution. Print revenues, meanwhile, need to be increasingly invested into the digitalisation of both sales and editorial.

This isn’t such a radical idea for newspaper companies; at the end of the day, it’s just a revision of the classified advertising model. The difference now is that while classifieds were always about lots of small amounts from large numbers of advertisers sitting in a single or select marketplace spaces in print, the new model is lots of small amounts from a smaller pool of advertisers sitting in lots of content environments across multiple platforms.

The question in the monetisation debate, therefore, really is, “Are we creative enough to create all of these unique content environments?”

Currently, the answer is no. We’re still waiting to inspire all those sub and copy editors to change their careers and become investigative journalists. Transition is not transformation. And the industry is still only in a state of transition. To quote John Paton, “Don’t kid yourself.” We’re not there yet, but it is good to finally know where it is we need to get to.

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