The discussion following Lucy Küng’s research keynote about what legacy publishers are doing — and getting wrong — in trying to transform their media organisations in today’s digital environment kind of proved her point.

Immediately after telling the roughly 500 assembled high-level news media executives at the  INMA World Congress in Washington, D.C., that this is an extremely difficult task, needing to be approached with much more rigour and depth than they are currently applying, she was asked for a simple set of steps to achieve culture change.

Lucy Küng emphasised that transformation needs to focus on people and leadership.
Lucy Küng emphasised that transformation needs to focus on people and leadership.

“I think one of my concerns actually in writing this was it’s not recommended as a recipe — do these 10 things and it’s going to work,” the Oxford professor and author said after having offered her road map of strategic considerations, best practises, and recommended resource allocations.

“Well, we are looking for a recipe,” she was told.

The bottom line, Küng said in summarising her 10,000-word findings from 82 interviews over seven months, is that publishers are focused too much on their content and technology, and not enough on their people and leadership.

“We’re over-indexing on the content transformation,” Küng said.

“In fact, there are two transformations that need to be taking place,” she said. “The first is the content transformation. I have no doubt that journalism organisations with their deep, kind of ethical commitment to making great journalism, are going to master the content transformation. It’s tough but they’ll get there. They want their voices to be heard.

“But underlying that there’s a second transformation, an organisational transformation, which is really, really hard. And I think that’s being under-indexed. Organisations are transforming themselves, but they’re doing it in a bit of a piecemeal way. It’s a second priority and it needs to be really strategic. It needs to be really smart. Otherwise there’s a risk that the fruits of this content transformation don’t bring the benefits they should,” she said.

Küng blames the current situation primarily on two things.

There is the natural, organic, decades-long evolution of publishing houses into the extremely complex structures they tend to be today. They are businesses that keep adding to their remits as markets change but rarely stop doing anything at which they’ve previously been successful. 

And then there’s what Küng repeatedly termed “all the shiny new things” that grab media’s attention, both in tech and in thinking.

“We have been very seduced by a lot of concepts from Silicon Valley in recent years,” she said. “We’ve been seduced by ‘agile.’ We’ve been seduced by ‘failing fast,’ ‘failing forward.’ We’ve been seduced by ‘Design Thinking.’ All of those things are really relevant, really beneficial.”

However, these concepts are coming from different environments, she said: “They’re coming from Silicon Valley. They’re coming from software-based organisations with very substantial capital, entirely different context to the context of legacy media. And if we want to get this transformation right, we need to start with the organisations.

“We have been on this transformation journey now for over two decades. It’s a long, long exhausting process and it’s far from finished. It’s very important that we fight against this stream of shiny new things and try to get some kind of deep strategic thinking going.”

From among the almost exclusively large, national media houses used in her study, she said many of the more successful ones tend to have a very solid understanding of their reason for existing coupled with a strong focus on revenue justification.

“Where this gets clever with the stronger players is these two elements act as a kind of reference point, almost a cage, in which they screen the shiny new things,” Küng said. “What was very interesting is the rigour with which the stronger players look at this constant flow of AI, VR, robots, notifications, instant messages, pivots to video — screen it really rigorously in terms of what the hell are we trying to do with the market (and) how are we going to try to finance it.”

Leveraging overlaps such as that also plays into how to deal with the common tension she finds in newsrooms between journalists and tech professionals.

“Both groups prise clarity of thought, clarity of language,” she said. “They’re both pretty intellectual disciplines. For journalists, it’s a beautifully turned phrase. For engineers, it’s a beautifully executed line of code. But there is a real similarity in there.”

She also noted they’re both craft professions: “They’re both trying to produce a fantastic product for their audiences. And finally, they’re both intrinsically motivated groups. So the way to motivate this group is by all of those factors that increase intrinsic motivation in teams.”

If pushed for a step-by-step, Küng offers four primary insights in her report, which is available for download for free.

“Firstly, innovation is absolutely critical,” she said. “We’ve been so wrapped up with the need to innovate. But innovation is not a strategy. And it’s really important we engage in deep, difficult strategic thinking of how to evolve the future.”

Küng suggested adopting the venture capital timeframe of looking seven years out.

“Secondly, digital storytelling is really fun. Data is very seductive once you get into it. But transforming organisations is a grind. It is wearing people out. And a lot of very valuable people are being worn out by this process right now.”

Küng got a laugh of agreement from the audience when she said one of the surprises she got comparing her previous book with this new research is how many really talented people have just exited. When she asks them what they are going to do now, they often respond with, “I don’t care. I just don’t want to be in any organisation that’s transforming itself, again.”

Her third point emphasised the importance of human resource management.

“I never thought I’d end up writing a book that had so much in it about HR,” she said. In contrast to publishers, Küng said Silicon Valley emphasises human resources more than legacy. “I think that’s where actually the biggest uptake could happen quickest, by taking the people stuff really, really seriously and putting the best brains in the organisation on that.”

She noted that transfromation is really in the details. “It’s the deepness. It’s the quality of the thinking. It’s the extent to which, in this kind of robust way, you question your assumptions before you move. It’s the calibre of execution,” Küng said. “Not just launching the project, but pushing it through to completion and then realising there’s a second phase that’s even harder and delivering on that.”