INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl J. Wilkinson is looking ahead to when Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States. And that’s not about him making a political statement.
Well, maybe it is a little.
On Tuesday, however, in his closing remarks to the 2018 INMA World Congress of News Media, it was mostly about Wilkinson telling fellow news media executives that it’s time for them to shed their short-term reactionism to all things ailing the publishing industry — including an errant president — and to start getting the hard stuff done for the industry’s long-term future.
“I think that there is a transformation exhaustion happening out there,” Wilkinson said, citing as many as six industry upheavals over just the past decade.
- Cost cutting in print operations.
- Optimising digital products.
- Business model and revenue diversification.
- Adjusting personnel to new skill sets.
- Redesigning the workplace for new personnel.
- Lowering expectations for the new reality of 5% to 10% margins.
“What I heard at this conference was sort of the seventh-generation of this transformation,” he noted. “It’s kind of simpler stuff but, in some ways, the more difficult challenge.”
Here’s how he summarised those challenges:
“Transformation version 7.0 is more about the organisation, certainly more than the product.”
“We’ve got to plug the gap between ownership and management. Nobody wants to talk about that, but it’s the elephant in the room and we’ve got to create some stability for something to gain traction.”
“We’ve got the opportunity to do more, but we’re going to have to cut or focus ourselves to get there.”
“I believe in digital subscriptions. I think, for some of you, the sky’s the limit, but there is going to be a limit. At the end of the day, if you’re going to get to that number to replace print advertising revenue, you’re going to have to build the reader revenue stack.”
“I still believe in advertising, but let it do what it does best, and let it work and maneuver in environments that work best in the spaces we’re about to do. Let’s not shove print logic into these new bottles.”
“I believe in newsrooms. I believe in journalism. These newsroom cultures are either going to make us or break us. Let’s try to make it. Let’s try to confront those that are trying to break us.”
But Wilkinson also cited some significant roadblocks:
“I’m worried about product and tech,” he said. “I’m hearing of companies of similar size that basically are investing well in people but not in the actual technological development. That’s primarily in the United States and I’ve heard as big as a 10 to one difference in investment of companies of a similar size. It is a budget issue. It is a priority issue. No point in hiring smart people if you’re not willing to go all the way.”
He’s also worried about where data fits in and what’s ultimately driving that.
“I’m convinced that data can’t succeed in companies unless the CEO shoves it downward. I don’t believe in organic with that. Someone’s got to give it a green light in a blue sky.... And you’ve got to not only match people but also the toys that go with it. How you can integrate it, democratise it, popularise it, I guess is the great question today.”
He has similar concerns about mobile.
“I just keep asking: Where does mobile reside at companies? I’m just a big believer if it doesn’t have a home, if it doesn’t have a political path forward, it’s ultimately not going to be optimised,” he said. “And I don’t know if I’ve gotten an answer.... I heard a lot of ideas. I wasn’t sure where it all resided, especially mobile. I do think that we’ve got to move from incubating bubbles ... departments where this stuff sort of, you know, bubbles up, experiments. It’s got to land somewhere. Even print needs an owner, especially in the outlying years ahead. Platform specialists.”
He also implored: “Let’s be honest about content. Let’s be honest about journalism. Not all journalism is created equally. I go to companies all the time [and hear]: Oh, I want to be like The New York Times. I want to be like The Wall Street Journal. The FT. And I love these. These are the paragons of virtue in our industry. But not everyone can pull off highbrow journalism and not everyone has to. I hope that you produce better journalism and better content, whatever that definition is. But you damn sure well better be producing stuff that’s different and unique and stuff that can’t be replicated.”
To editors, he scolded: “Some of the most engaged content and engaged writers we have are people who don’t write well, don’t do inverted pyramid, don’t follow The Associated Press Stylebook or whatever style you use. Their paragraphs are too long. They’re poorly edited. But they write with an authentic voice and a heart and a soul. And I know newsrooms that are rejecting those voices because they don’t adhere to the rules many of us were taught. How do we find that balance moving forward?”
His answers: Content. Community. Convenience. Cause.
“Couldn’t we say that that is the value proposition of brands? Content may be king in our industry, but it’s not everything. I think it’s only about 50% of our value proposition. I think community and convenience and cause, together, equal the raw content.”
And then there are Google and Facebook, favourite whipping boys for many in the publishing industry who are struggling to make digital ends meet. But is the criticism always fair?
“Maybe they need it from time to time. But my view is is they’re in the ecosystem with us and there needs to be a positive path forward. One of the things that we, as an association, have agreed to do with both Facebook and Google is try to find ways to remove friction that helps solve some of the issues between publishers and these platforms. So I guess I take a little bit of a contrarian view. I’m going to let others do the beating up. I want to see if we can jointly work together to find some paths forward.”
A highlight of the World Congress was certainly Tuesday’s keynote by Bob Woodward, whose experience breaking the Nixon-Watergate story in 1972 provides facinating insights for news professionals trying to cover President Trump today. Woodward's appearance before INMA's more than 500 media executives from 47 countries was obviously a moving moment for Wilkinson.
“A couple of weeks ago I was talking to Bob on the phone in preparation for this and I asked: ‘How do we get out of this Trumpian trap, you know? How do we, I guess, not be so adversarial?’
“And he just sort of paused and he said, ‘Nobody else is going to do this, Earl. It’s on us. We’ve got to fix this. We can’t just shout louder. We’ve got to report smarter. We’ve got to be smarter.’
“It’ll be interesting where this ends. I just think that we’ve got to sometimes stop, breathe, slow down. Because ultimately, we can’t make mistakes. Those mistakes are being weaponised by populous governments, and they will do greater harm to us than being one step slower than others.
“When Trump is gone, when the leader of the Philippines, Venezuela, Poland, Hungary, Cambodia are all gone, what market are you left with? Are you the permanent opposition? Are you left of center? Are you right of center? Are you popular? Are you quality? It doesn’t matter what you are. It’s the perception of what you are.”
Back at the start of the World Congress plenary on Monday, emcee Juan Señor showed off some blue ballcaps he had had made with the stenciled slogan “Make Publishing Great Again,” playing off the iconic red Trump hats and slogan.
Wilkinson, who is distinctively smooth of crown and was obviously not a fan of trying on Señor’s stage prop, was nonetheless cornered during his closing remarks into wearing one just long enough for a few photos, before unceremoniously whisking it off.
But despite his apparent unease with the parody caps, it just might turn out that #MakePublishingGreatAgain is the perfect hashtag for Wilkinson’s call to action for news publishers.