Yesterday I summarized why it’s crunch time in newspaperland—and why, rather than making strategic decisions, most of America’s newspaper companies will be rolling out a variety of tactics to chop off a digit here and a limb there, until the patient bleeds to death. Shortly after I published that post, Jim Hopkins reported that Gannett will chop as many as 3000 jobs, or 10 percent of its newspaper division, on top of earlier cuts, and that a corporate reshuffling is to be announced today. I rest my case.
And you know, some cuts may be essential and unavoidable. Some newshole tightening is probably called for. Some sections and supplements make no sense and ought to go. In my own career, I found plenty of ways to reduce expenses. It’s part of doing business. And guess what, I even supported, right here on my blog, my old boss Dean Singleton’s thoughts about outsourcing the copy desk—I’ve wondered for years why nobody was doing that. In fact, what’s the difference between that and Dave Morgan’s proposal to disaggregate the whole news business?
Yesterday I promised some solutions, but I’m going to suggest and expand on only one, and mention an organization that’s embracing it. It’s not new, it’s the necessary strategic transformation everyone has been talking about, but which very few companies have actually thought through.
The strategy sounds simple: Transform the business from its manufacturing roots into a digital enterprise. I proposed a version of it in my second-ever post, back in September: “To have even a chance of survival, the mindset of the industry needs to become: We are in the business of publishing information content continuously on our web sites; every 24 hours (for now, and this may ultimately change to once or twice weekly) we gather some of that information into a printed product and distribute it, but our business is focused on and driven by our online operations.” And I’ve explained it again more recently when I explored the economics of a daily that morphs into a web-first weekly or twice-weekly, and previously as part of my Six Theses, and elsewhere. I’m not alone on this. “Digital is first” is at the top of Steve Outing’s list of suggestions for the industry as well; others have hammered away at it; it should simply be on everyone’s list.
But, the problem with”digital enterprise,” “digital first,” or “online 24/7”, however it gets distilled, is that it’s much easier said than done. Many news organizations have talked the talk, but when you really look closely at how they’re organized, they’re still completely focused in all departments on the daily print cycle. Newsrooms plan budgets, assign stories, cover events, write stories, edit, format and send, all with the old 11 p.m. deadline in mind. That’s not “digital first,” it’s digital when we get around to it, no matter what the mission statement might say.
An organization adopting the strategy of becoming a digital enterprise must think through what it really means. If they do it right, they’ll find it will literally change every job in the company. Getting people’s heads into those newly defined jobs is not easy, but it has to be done.
(And really, newspapers are about 10 years late to the party. Most Fortune 500 firms have been engaged for at least a decade in transforming themselves into digital enterprises. It means different things in different outfits, but those that ignore this revolution are left behind.)
One newspaper CEO engaged in this process is Chuck Peters of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, who gained a few moments of fame while microblogging the API summit a few weeks ago. (He heads Gazette Communications, which encompasses TV and commercial printing as well as the daily paper, its web sites, and other print and online products).
Chuck’s blog is called “C3—Complete Community Connection.” Back in July, after spelling out the need to break away from a focus on product, he laid out this challenge to his team: “What we need is the ability to create and collect, in the first instance, textual snippets, audio, video, and visual assets in native XML, tag them appropriately, and place them in a contextual framework that has meaning for the community or communities that have interest in that information.” That’s the raw material and the core content flow in a digital news enterprise focused on becoming the glue that holds its communities together.
After some setbacks from this summer’s floods in Cedar Rapids, Chuck is now focusing his organization on understanding the changes in jobs and mindsets that are needed for success.
As an individual, my interests are not easily discerned by my geographical location or demographics. So, I am looking for a way to keep up with friends, neighbors, certain local organizations, and certain local issues, while getting the overview of key issues that an editor thinks I should know. We need an elegant organization of information to make that happen….
It is my strong belief that an organization such as ours, with over 500 employees, cannot expect that we can change all the mindsets and pursue a new game by simply repeating the forces and ideas driving the change in a series of seminars or links to interesting articles. We need to change the tasks, titles and organization so that we are doing new tasks, in new ways, and making the results of our efforts available immediately to our communities as we begin the larger task of organizing all this information elegantly.
Walking the walk, the other day Chuck laid out new job concepts for various key players in the C3 organization, including himself. The CEO becomes “Community Liaison,” the editor becomes “Information Content Creator (Moderator).” The process is ongoing (for more detail and background, read this report from the Readership Institute about what’s happening in Cedar Rapids.) But the point is, here is one news organization working hard at blowing itself up, reinventing itself, and becoming a truly digital enterprise.
Becoming a digital enterprise has many other potential implications, depending on the market. I’ve suggested some of them: emulate the CIA’s Intellipedia model; find an end-run around the FCC’s cross-ownership rule (Cedar Rapids is one of the grandfathered markets); disaggregate; adopt social networking as a key part of your model; experiment with lots of new digital tools like Twitter. Every news organization needs to be exploring these and many other implications of becoming a digital enterprise.
Can any of this be even discussed in an organization demoralized by waves of layoffs and cutbacks? It won’t be easy, obviously, but it has to be done. A newspaper organization that chooses not to adopt, embrace and fully implement a strategy of becoming a digital enterprise will remain a manufacturing enterprise with a product that fewer people want or need, every day. Perhaps it will be remembered one day by a nice brass plaque on the historic printing plant.