5 things media companies can learn from start-ups


Legacy news organizations trying to innovate are easily caught in a web of managerial layers and traditional mindsets. Print-based publishers could learn a few things from Web start-ups.

Jim Brady has seen both sides of the spectrum, having worked at both hyperlocal news start-up TBD and The Washington Post. Both cultures face barriers to accomplishing ideas: While start-ups lack resources, big companies are challenged by multiple layers of people used to a certain way of doing things, he said. 
Speaking Monday at an Online News Association event in New York, Brady shared insights about how traditional newsrooms and media companies can encourage innovation to improve their digital businesses. He was joined by panelists from broadcast-based organizations (which face similar challenges to print-based organizations): Lisa Gelobter, head of technology and operations, digital, BET, and David Wilson, founder and managing editor of NBC News' theGrio, a news and opinion site for African Americans.
News organizations can't be exactly like Web start-ups, but they can be successful, Brady noted. He's putting his theory to the test by accepting a position at the Journal Register Company (announced after the ONA event). The Journal Register and other publishers show hope for digital-first thinking at traditional news organizations. Nonetheless, as my colleague Rob O'Regan writes, the digital divide is still wide and deep at media companies.  
Here are a few ways traditional media companies could foster more of a start-up culture (in addition to getting a foosball table, which Brady noted is a staple of any start-up). foosball

Think horizontally, not in silos

Gelobter noted that traditional media companies can fall into a trap of thinking of media in silos (TV, print, Web, etc.) rather than as integrated channels. In her role as a digital advocate, she has to present herself as being able to partner across all media areas of the company, not as her own unit. 
“Digital somehow gets vertical silo-ed,” she said. "I'm actually horizontal, but I'm perceived as vertical."  
Here's one indicator of the digital disconnect: So many media execs (including Gelobter) have “digital” mentioned specifically in their title — shouldn't digital be pervasive across the organization? 

Encourage innovation from the top down

Good leadership and the support of new products matters, but even if the CEO is supportive, it has to reverberate down the managerial line, Brady noted.
“In a lot of these big companies, there's 20 people between a big idea and getting it launched, and  any one of the 20 can veto it,” he said. “You can innovate in big companies — it's just a lot harder than when you can take 10 people in a room and sketch out an entire site.” 
Wilson said theGrio was able to thrive because it exists in a niche separate from other NBC properties and was encouraged from the top to be entrepreneurial. “We got a great deal of support, but we also got a great deal of freedom to operate independently,” he said. 

Put the user first

Gelobter noted that digital brings users into the equation in a way traditional media companies have to get used to. For instance, media websites shouldn't base navigation on the type of media (video, photos, etc.); they need to keep in mind the topics users want to find.  
Having to engage with the audience has been the biggest shift for a lot of traditional newsrooms, Brady said. Digital-first companies have the advantage of launching with the consumer directly in mind.
“I would argue, if you look at most major news organization home pages, and you ask yourself, 'Was this home page designed for the consumer, or was this designed to make the newsroom happy?,' you'd probably answer the latter in most cases,” Brady said. For example, listing newspaper sections in the navigation bar isn't the most intuitive navigation for the user.

Focus on small wins

When asked how people in media organizations can push a start-up culture, Brady's advice is to start small and not spread yourself too thin, because you can't change a long-held culture in one sweep. Back when blogs were taboo for newspapers, The Washington Post launched one blog. Brady said they pointed to its success in order to launch more.
"[Media executives are] not going to respond to a really passionate speech about the future,” Brady said. “You have to have wins on the ground you can point to.”

Foster good journalism and good business

Particularly in larger organizations, business development and editorial operations have traditionally existed in separate spheres, potentially to a detriment of the business. In smaller organizations there's more opportunity to know what's going on across the company.
Brady sees one silver lining to the business struggles of media in recent years: It's encouraged everyone ― even journalists ― to jump in and save the business. 
“Nobody is suggesting that journalists should go write a story and then sell an ad, but I think they should understand — like every other employee in every other company in the world — how the company they works for makes money,” he said. “I think good journalism and good business can easily coexist.” 

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