Tomorrow, I will join the digital advisory board of a very large, and, assuming they’ve read this blog, very brave newspaper company. After almost two years of firing my unsolicited opinions at the newspaper industry, I must say, it feels nice to actually be asked for them.
Here’s some thoughts I’ve been having about newspapers lately:
1. Newspapers need to stop swimming against the current of the Internet. It’s a sure way to drown.
Wikipedia lists one of the 8 behaviours associated with downing as “trying to swim in a particular direction, but not making headway.”
Watching newspapers committing to strategies that are sure to fail is to stand helplessly on the shore as they thrash against wave after wave of inevitable digital upheaval.
Where the Internet is about openness and abundance, newspapers are attempting to recreate scarcity by moving toward the closed environments of iPad apps and paywalls.
Where the Internet is about receiving information anywhere, anytime, News Corp is about to release “The Daily”, an iPad app whose publishing schedule follows an old-fashioned, once every 24 hours news cycle.
Where the Internet is collaborative, many newspapers are continuing to engage in one-way conversations. In fact, to some, community interaction is considered a “gimmick” rather than the fundamental factor that has lead to the development of the web as we know it. As Clay Shirky said recently: “We have greatly overestimated the value of access to information and underestimated the value of access to each other.”
I’m not saying don’t ever swim against the current. Sometimes it’s necessary. But that kind of risk should be undertaken by only the very strongest of swimmers.
2. Newspaper executives need to determine an audaciously awesome vision for the future of their companies, and then align their organizations to make it happen.
It’s simple. To be controlling and defensive is to contract. To be open and visionary is to expand.
Have you ever noticed that there much of discussion about “the future of newspapers” but no real conversation about “a vision for newspapers”? We all talk about how the Internet is changing things and how uncertain everything is and how uncomfortable that makes us all feel, but not about how awesome it could be.
Ah, vision. What happened to that?
Many of the world’s best newspapers were founded on a vision. The New York Times, the Guardian, and my old workplace the Toronto Star were the products of visionaries who wanted to change their cities and nations for the better.
But somewhere along the way, that changed.
Perhaps newspaper executives are too focused on very real short-term economic issues such as crushing debt and shrinking revenues to form an inspiring long-term vision. Or perhaps the day-to-day 24-hour news cycle has created a culture where long-term thinking is not required or valued. Or perhaps newspaper executives have simply been unable to adjust to the ever-shifting world of new media, the resulting lack of understanding and fear leading to paralysis.
Having a clear vision and aligning resources to it works, even for media properties in the 21st century. It resulted in the Atlantic turning its first profit in decades in Q4 of last year.
What if newspaper executives imagined the best possible outcomes for their newspapers and then aligned their organizations so that they had the means to achieve those outcomes?
And what if they created that vision without ever using the words “still”, “once again”, “regain” or “recapture”?
Perhaps a newspaper could become:
A platform that facilitates the coming together of individuals, organizations and governments to solve a city’s great problems: poverty, education reform, joblessness, environmental degradation, transportation, budget deficits…
A platform that facilitates interactions between consumers and businesses –whoever, whenever and wherever they are.
An interactive and continuously evolving guide to living, working, shopping, playing, parenting and doing business in a city.
Who knows? But it’s time to start thinking about it.
3. Journalists need to stop looking at new Internet developments as frightening or frivolous trends and start looking at them as tools that can be used to achieve a vision.
You cannot succeed on the Internet without using the tools that it affords. In my opinion, refusing to use these tools is the same as refusing to use a telephone, tape recorder or word processor.
Social Media. Many a journalist hates Twitter because “it’s not journalism”. I honestly don’t know if it’s journalism or not. What I do know is that it’s a fantastic tool for disseminating information, rallying communities and tracking trends.
Aggregation/Curation. I can’t understand why newspapers have not sought to create a Huffington Post – like aggregation site around not just news but also vertical content areas such as parenting, health, automotive, sports, business, etc. These sites would attract loyal and engaged users and deliver advertisers a healthy ROI with minimal cost to the publisher.
Online Gaming. Newspapers could use online game dynamics to engage a community in solving a city’s large problems. Before you dismiss the notion outright, watch Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk on how “Gaming can Make a Better World” and then consider the implications of Cubeduel’s “Who would you rather work with” game built on the LinkedIn platform.
If I were a newspaper executive trying to align my resources to achieve an audaciously awesome future, my next hires would be community managers, curators and game designers.
What would you tell a newspaper company executive team if you had the opportunity?