Print/online integration: What’s the right mix?
Separate or integrated? That’s a question publishing executives have been grappling with since the late 1990s, as website operations began to take on larger and more important roles at newspapers and magazines.
A decade later, there still is no easy answer, no silver bullet offering the best approach for integrating print and online operations. Several factors go into the mix: the organizational culture, the capabilities of your staff, the technology infrastructure, where the growth opportunities lie. Publishers go through different stages (see box) and try different approaches, hoping to find the best fit.
There are many, many schools of thought as to whether print and online teams should be fully integrated, completely independent, or structured in some type of hybrid. The best answer anyone can offer: It depends. Which makes for a lot of trial and error as publishers try to figure out the right formula. Even large publishers have struggled to find the right mix. For example:
- The Washington Post went from maintaining separate but collaborative print and online businesses into an integrated unit under the Washington Post Media brand in the span of less than a year in 2008.
- Forbes, whose website grew meteorically in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s largely because the dot.com business was unshackled from the print operations, has spent the past year integrating its print and online teams, starting with sales and then moving to editorial. The company is still looking for a president to run Forbes Media, which oversees the integrated online and print groups.
- Playboy announced this past January plans to combine its print and online operations, at the time naming Jimmy Jellinek editorial director for both properties. (This week, Jellinek was named chief content officer, now overseeing content development across all channels, including print, online, mobile, television, film and radio.)
Independence trumps integration?
These types of consolidations are being driven in large part by the need to cut costs in the face of rapidly declining advertising revenues. While integration may lead to some short-term cost savings, however, not every publisher is convinced it’s the right strategy for growing the business over the long term.
“Functioning as an online business unit makes us more efficient,” says Mike Hodges, vice president of interactive media and general manager of SignOnSanDiego.com, the online arm of the Union-Tribune, San Diego’s daily newspaper.
When Hodges joined the company in August, the website’s sales, editorial and IT teams were dispersed among their print counterparts. But online revenues were declining, in part because the focus on interactive sales was missing. Hodges quickly identified the need to assemble the groups into a single digital business unit, with its own P&L. “We continue to work closely with the print operations, but we’re managing the whole [online] process now,” Hodges says.
The main benefit is a sales team that is now tasked with meeting specific online growth goals. Digital revenues are now heading in the right direction, though Hodges declined to provide specifics.
The Union-Tribune print sales team has benefited as well, as it’s now able to tap the online team’s expertise for cross-platform campaigns, Hodges notes. “The print guys are excited about it, because they know they have interactive sales specialists that will help them drive revenue,” he says.
The changes are apparent beyond sales. Hodges’ team just completed a site redesign in three months. “I don’t know if we would have been able to do that if we hadn’t had one business unit focused on it,” he says. Next up: a series of community sections, planned for February, to expand the site’s hyperlocal coverage.
The online and print teams continue to coordinate their efforts closely, with the content teams sharing a newsroom, for example. Hodges notes the importance of remaining aligned with the venerable Union-Tribune brand. “We want to leverage the strength and power of the Union-Tribune for everything we do,” he says.
A back-office integration perspective
Jason Hill, an independent media consultant, suggests that more media companies should be thinking about integration from the perspective of the back office, not the frontline functions such as editorial and sales.
“The truth is, there isn't any difference in content or sales except how they are handled for print and online,” says Hill. “But how they are handled is entirely a back-end problem. Production and billing is where the conflict really lies.”
This conflict often boils down to legacy print systems that can’t support the more dynamic needs of online operations. Many media companies have built online billing or production capabilities through kludgy workarounds or investments in separate systems, neither of which provides an optimal integration solution, Hill contends.
The problem goes beyond inefficiency, Hill says. “Every time something goes wrong with one of these systems and you take a step backwards, not only does that slow the process, but it makes you less likely to experiment,” he says.
The issue requires a rethinking of the business as a whole, as opposed to looking at short-term fixes to solve specific integration issues.
“You have to build your billing and production systems not around print or online, but around your core product,” Hill says. “Keep that as your focus, and the rest of the things will fall into line.”
For Hodges, the integration decision comes down to a question of ownership.
“You need someone to come in and run the business of online,” he says. “When you have multiple owners, no one actually owns it. Owning the P&L is the way to go.”