Should news media companies gut and rebuild, or just blow it up?

By Western iMedia

Western iMedia

Bowling Green, Kentucky, USA


Earl J. Wilkinson
Earl J. Wilkinson



Earl Wilkinson, executive director and CEO of INMA, took the stage Tuesday afternoon to tie a bow atop the 2016 INMA World Congress — a week of media tours, brainsnack presentations, and speeches from industry leaders.

Wilkinson’s tendency to use metaphors and an affinity for U.S. presidential biographies produced a story of President Harry Truman’s stay in the White House. Specifically, how he decided to remodel.

Earl J. Wilkinson, director and CEO of INMA, closes the 86th INMA World Congress with thoughts on the future of the industry.
Earl J. Wilkinson, director and CEO of INMA, closes the 86th INMA World Congress with thoughts on the future of the industry.

Truman had two options: gut and refill or completely demolish. He opted to keep the exterior and redo the inside, a process that lasted almost the entirety of his presidency.

Finally, Truman told builders to get it done quickly, as it was taking too much time and money and his family was desperate to move in and be done with the construction.

After monumental photos were taken and Truman was able to live out a mere eight months of his presidency in the White House, he was asked whether he would have rather just torn the whole thing down instead of renovating.

“If he could have done it again, he would have just blown it up,” Wilkinson said.

This caused Wilkinson to wonder whether industry professionals who spoke of innovation and self-destruction and such major change within the business would have preferred to abandon the whole legacy model, and begin again with something fresh.

Wilkinson circled back around to last year’s metaphor, two ends of a burning rope. Legacy media is burning one end and digital media burns the other. Personally, he believes digital is burning slightly faster than legacy.

“I believe that media companies … are trying to do too many things simultaneously,” he said.

The digital landscape has grown so much since 2009, but Wilkinson argues that we keep turning things on and we never turn things off. He said the problem isn’t having the wrong revenue model, but finding the right one. The industry faces a prioritisation challenge.

Several truths have made themselves evident to Wilkinson.

“I don’t believe that digital will ever profitably replace print advertising,” he said. Consumers expect news to find them, and the challenge now lies in marketing assumptions.

World Congress presentations reinforced that smartphones are where news is going to be consumed, via social platform; and that relationships with customers are now less emotional and more transactional. Wilkinson reminded the audience that content has less value than the people consuming it.

What this means today is information production is going to skyrocket in the next four years, which means individual voices are going to get smaller — and will have to get smarter. Media companies have to stop focusing on growth and start focusing on audience dynamic.

As for paywalls, Wilkinson believes the industry knows a lot and has enough data, it just hasn’t brought all the pieces together.

“You do not succeed by just putting up the wall,” Wilkinson said. “You have to be out there and talk about the value added before you increase prices or put up the wall.”

He noted that popular tabloids prefer the freemium model, and that it works better for national publications than it does for regional publications.

Compared to where we were 100 years ago, where we’re headed is technologically more advanced than where we are now. In the next nine or 10 years, a US $1,000 computer will compute at the rate of a human brain. Screen will replace eyewear. Artificial intelligence will rule the world.

Technology advancements mean journalism industry advancements. Change is inevitable, but Wilkinson suggests having meetings with editorial boards to determine the fundamentals of each business, and what will not change as the industry does.

In the midst of so many questions about the news media industry, one thing is determined: INMA will continue to share ideas and learn together as an organization.

“INMA is a powerful platform, a powerful network; we have members around the world constantly contributing,” Wilkinson said. “We’re going to keep telling that story.”

As the 86th INMA World Congress in London came to a close, it was announced that the 87th INMA World Congress will be held in New York. 

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