Monday, May 23, 2011

INMA's Wilkinson: Culture trumps strategy

Earl Wilkinson, head of the International Newsmedia (formerly Newspaper) Marketing Association, professes surprise at the theme coming out of the INMA World Congresss - that changing newsroom culture trumps strategy.

Or, to put it another way, all the paywalls in the world and all the gimmicks and marketing strategies don't mean scratch if your organization continues to project the kind of thinking about deadlines, story forms, priorities, incentives, etc., that had become standard in newsrooms for about 45 years (I say 45 because, really, it was from the 1960s on that we began having that strange confluence of factors that produced halcyon days for newsrooms until the bottom fell out in this decade).

I like Wilkinson. I've chatted him up at j-prof conventions, and he was the main force behind trying to get AEJMC to produce more research relevant to newsrooms (though whether news managers ever read what was there already and was pretty damning was always open to question).

But forgive me if I suggest that INMA and its members are coming a little late to the party. Research on newsroom sociology and culture has for decades, and certainly in the past decade, pointed out the corrosive effect of existing culture and the tremendous challenges - but also urgency - needed to change it.

Here are Wilkinson's take-aways:
  1. Separate the business model from culture in print vs. digital discussions. Or, as he puts it: The emerging consensus from New York was that a digital business model can't replace a print business model. Instead, the digital model must be additive to the print model — if for no other reason than the inclusion of print is part of a publisher's USP vs. media competitors. I suspect he'll get his share of blowback on that - that it still elevates the declining print model to the detriment of digital. But in the context he puts it - that it is a way to differentiate a full-service media organization - it can make some sense.
  2. Encourage speed, place small bets, be willing to fail (fast). How long have those watching the evolution of digital been saying this? At least since 2006 and API's "Newspaper Next" project. So far the results have been, shall we say, less than stunning. I'll believe it when I really see a newsroom culture that allows failure. In fact, if there is one defining point for me, it is that. But that raises all sorts of questions. For instance, can there be journalism fail as part of that? If so, to what extent will it be tolerated? It seems to me that's the tough nut. Is it desirable or even possible to have a split organizational personality: Well, yes, you can fail on the "business" side in the name of taking chances. But on the journalism side, nope. It's that fear of failure that makes news organizations still even reluctant to handle corrections with the comprehensiveness and alacrity that digital allows. It still pervades many newsrooms, and, like a poison gas, it seeps through all layers of the organization.
  3. Transparency will change your mindset. Let's just say Wilkinson's concern with transparency is not quite the same as others writing in the same space.  His seems to be a marketing perspective. The [Financial Times] paywall allowed for a transparency in viewing its audience and segmenting its readers based on their engagement — in turn, driving its audience and advertising strategy in ways once thought unimaginable. INMA is hearing this repeatedly from publishers who are implementing paywalls. While the user data is overwhelming, there are mind-bending lessons that are emerging from people willing to pay for digital content — distinctly different lessons than from people only willing to view your content if it's free. Let me put it this way: people willing to pay for digital content are not reading what you are producing. Your differentiators online are different from your differentiators in print which are different from your differentiators on the mobile.
  4. Relentlessly focus on differentiators. Changing the corporate culture to focus on strategic differentiators and cut away non-differentiators was another recurring conference theme. Actually, as coldly marketing as that sounds, I rather think it's something important journalists need to think about - how is what I am doing different from the others and how does it bring utility to users/readers? It's utility that sells in digital, rarely content alone.
All in all, if this means executives are coming around to the idea that you can't a) dictate culture (or strategy, for that matter) from the top down and b) you can't just bolt new ideas onto existing newsroom cultures, then progress is being made.

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