How publishers can seize the COVID moment for digital transformation

By Brie Logsdon

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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While some in the media industry view the current COVID-19 pandemic as a hindrance to previous plans, presenters from the Reuters Institute and Stibo DX feel the crisis is creating an opportunity to accelerate transformation on cultural, organisational, and technological fronts. 

The post-COVID playbook requires media companies to think big about the future of structure and strategy, according to Lucy Küng, senior research fellow for the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, who spoke in the last of nine modules of INMA’s Virtual World Congress“News Media Outlook 2021: What to Expect Next.”

Küng quoted an executive she recently spoke to: “Shame on us if we don’t seize this opportunity.” 

Jacob Gjørtz, vice president of marketing at Stibo, said news companies are looking for a structure that allows them to adapt to changes in the market and world, having just learned a big lesson in flexibility from the pandemic: “You want your technology to help facilitate that change, not to be a barrier to it,” he said. 

Lucy Küng, senior research fellow for the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, shares core changes post-COVID.
Lucy Küng, senior research fellow for the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, shares core changes post-COVID.

Strategic goals are being reaffirmed by the pandemic, Küng said. Audience numbers are up, subscriptions are up, and there is a flight to quality. 

“I think the good news for the culture of organisations is that it’s been a kind of reassertion of the public service role we’ve always known we’ve had,” she said.

What’s not so good is what’s happening on the revenue side, she added. The pandemic’s impact on business models is causing companies to question how they will finance their work. The collapse of ad revenue is one aspect, but a significant hit comes from the events space.  

New strategic realities 

Küng shared some new strategic realities for news media companies:

  • Consumers have gone digital, big time: “What’s interesting is there’s been a massive consumer learning journey, especially for older demographic groups.”
  • Strong players have gotten stronger, built on years of hard work and good decisions.
  • Digital procrastinators are worse off, and now have a shorter transformation runway. 

The pandemic has created a safer space to change, as it is no one’s “fault” and it is clear everyone has to change. There is also precedent, and companies have already digitised more in the past 10 weeks than they have in the past two years. 

“My message to you, as you rebuild your businesses, is really take the chance to remodel your inner organisations too,” Küng said. 

Culture change

A majority of organisations feel culture is not where it needs to be. The good news is that it’s not rocket science, though it can be tricky to get right. She shared four key stages of culture change:

  1. Leadership signaling. This must happen first, and if it’s not there, there is no point trying. Küng added burnout in top teams happens when a person has been trying to do this alone.
  2. Diagnoses work. Companies must understand the culture they have before they can create the culture they want, and they need to be specific here. The process is really like productising culture change, she said.
  3. Unfreeze organisation. COVID-19 has already done this work for the industry, Küng said.
  4. Take measures to implant new and edit out old values. Companies don’t need to launch a culture change initiative but can instead layer culture change objectives into what they are doing.  
Jacob Gjørtz, vice president of marketing at Stibo DX, illustrates the overnight changes in newsrooms at the beginning of the pandemic.
Jacob Gjørtz, vice president of marketing at Stibo DX, illustrates the overnight changes in newsrooms at the beginning of the pandemic.

Newsroom transformation 

Though the newsroom of El Sol de México looked empty in a photo shared Gjørtz, the editorial staff is still hard at work safe in their homes during the current global pandemic. 

The photo reflects one of three key trends driving digital transformation of newsrooms that Gjørtz shared during Thursday’s Virtual World Congress. 

  1. Story-first: Taking a story-first approach, focused on creating engagement across every channel, will change the way the industry works with content, and break the traditional structure. “News stories shouldn't be a fixed structure,” Gjørtz said. Creating elastic stories, broken up into smaller units, ensures each experience is custom built for different channels.
  2. The integrated toolbox: Stibo DX has done research on tools and systems newsrooms work with, finding editorial staff depends on more than 25 tools to work. Many of these tools are disconnected, so workflows can be difficult to automate. Integrating a tech platform that helps editors gather the most important tools in one place makes it easier for them to work story-first and serve content across channels. “The basic point is that you shouldn’t look for systems that lock you in,” Gjørtz said.
  3. Virtual newsroom: Referencing the photo of El Sol de México, Gjørtz said companies don’t want to be tied down to require work from one location, especially in today’s environment. They want to be able to adapt quickly and offer staff full mobility without reducing capabilities. 

The media culture needed to make changes pre-COVID. The coronavirus has sped up that need.
The media culture needed to make changes pre-COVID. The coronavirus has sped up that need.

Post-COVID playbook

COVID-19 has provided a once-in-a-career opportunity for organisations and cultures to change. Küng outlined the guiding principles for these big moves: 

  • Seize the moment to do the clean-up work that’s overdue.
  • There will never be a better time to stop things with short shelf life or combine elements that need it.
  • Cost structure: Interesting research on after the 2008 crisis showed companies that came out better had increased long-term efficiency with any change they made. This is especially relevant for companies in smaller markets.
  • Acquisitions: If you’re liquid, this is the time to do so.
  • Keep an eye on the digital vs legacy ratio.
  • Cut for the future, not the past. These cuts must be surgical, not salami.

Küng shared five priorities to help publishers come out stronger post-COVID, including not missing this opportunity to change your culture: “Remember, the good thing about culture is you can do it by stealth. You just need to make sure to be congruent with all the other changes you’re making.”

About Brie Logsdon

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