Publishing's digital divide: Still wide and deep
Will “digital” and “legacy” media cultures ever truly mesh? It’s doubtful. At many media companies, the gap between digital media’s believers and its skeptics remains wide.
One side always wins, and pushes the other side out. At publishers such as the Journal-Register Co., digital is “winning.” At media companies such as Allbritton Communications, the status quo has the upper hand. Which camp emerges as the victor usually depends on who’s at the top – and the message (stated or otherwise) they’re sending to the troops about the importance of change. Strong leadership is the only way to acculturate new ideas and approaches – particularly in a volatile industry such as publishing.
“Resistance to change is a natural human instinct. The only way to overcome that is strong leadership at the top,” said Jim Brady, who speaks from experience. Brady is the former Washington Post editor who joined Allbritton last year as general manager of TBD.com, the hyperlocal site that was launched with much fanfare. A little too much fanfare, as it turned out, for the folks at Allbritton, who were not convinced of TBD’s value. Brady abruptly resigned three months after TBD’s launch, and last month, Allbritton announced it was scaling back TBD and refocusing the site around arts and entertainment coverage for the Washington metro area.
In a recent phone interview, Brady said the failure by Allbritton’s senior management to set the proper tone around TBD and what it represented – a chance to establish a new business model – ultimately doomed the startup from achieving its goals.
“Someone at the top has to make it clear that you have to be on board or face the consequences,” he said. “In our case, it should have been presented as ‘If TBD fails, this is a failure of the entire organization.’ If you don’t set that tone from the top, the [existing staff] will view the new part of the organization as something that will go away eventually.”
Brady will get another chance to test his theory: The Journal Register today announced that Brady will lead the company’s digital transformation efforts, including Project Thunderdome, its plan for engaging audience and creating content across all platforms and geographies.
“The Journal Register is doing some fabulous stuff,” Brady said during our interview, which took place before he joined the company. “Everyone there may not all agree on the direction, but they know there are consequences if they don’t start trying the things [CEO John Paton] wants to do.”
Conflicted over digital
The problem is not that legacy media types view digital as a flash in the pan. Most will acknowledge that digital revenues must grow in order for their company to survive. It’s just that many have an inherent distrust of outsiders – especially those who are competing for their slice of the budget. Others strongly believe they know what’s best for their brand and don’t see the value in an outsider’s perspective. Battle lines are drawn and become difficult to cross.
“My biggest frustration is that you’re there to help them get to the next level in terms of digital, but you’re treated like a total unwanted outsider,” Brady said. “We were not there to ruin their lives – we were trying to provide a cushion for that TV money to land when it starts to go away.
“I’m sympathetic to what newspapers and TV stations are going through,” he added. “But the only way for some of these companies to survive is to find new lines of business and new ways to do things on the Web.”
Capital Beta’s Tom McGeyeran notes the difficulties that arise when an organization hires new-media journalists to “redirect” an organization’s corporate culture:
Sometimes it works in a small way, but usually it doesn't; and almost never on a vast scale. If management's idea for a brand overhaul is to import cool, or gravitas, or intelligence, the best-case scenario is almost always that the importees exist successfully but completely separately: valuable parts that don't add much to the sum.”
Usually, he adds, the imported talent ends up leaving.
Brady can relate. “There’s a certain level of frustration in continuing to bang your head against a wall that never seems to give,” he said. “After getting the site launched, I didn’t really have the full energy to fight those battles.”
Beware the change agent
TBD is one of a handful of recent high-profile examples of the digital divide that persists within media companies. The most notable, of course, is last month’s ouster of Time Inc. CEO Jack Griffin just six months into his tenure. In Griffin’s short reign, it’s easy to see the scenario that Brady described – an organization that brought in an outsider as a “change agent” but did not fully support the agenda that Griffin envisioned.
When Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes stated in a company memo that Griffin’s “leadership style and approach did not mesh with Time Inc. and Time Warner,” it was clear that the insiders had won this battle.
Griffin’s abbreviated stint at Time Inc. shows that even a CEO can run into a wall if he doesn’t have air cover from his superiors. Griffin certainly didn’t help his cause through some of his actions – insisting, for example, that his name be placed on top of each Time publication’s editorial masthead.
Griffin’s first-day memo no doubt caused plenty of eye-rolls among the staff as he laid out his 5-point “vision” for Time (abridged here)
- The consumer is the bedrock of our business. Serving consumers with high-quality content and great products, no matter the platform, is the organizing principle of our business.
- We will continue to deliver exceptional value to our advertisers and marketing partners. As we progress, we will continue to develop new ways to provide value to marketers and we will always insist on being fairly compensated for doing so.
- We must develop new sources of revenue and thoughtfully optimize costs. We must deploy our resources and people to develop new products and consumer offerings, brand extensions and marketing capabilities that will generate new sources of revenue and profit.
- We will keep leveraging new technologies and distribution channels. Looking ahead, we'll work to expand even further our relationships with channel partners, especially at retail and in emerging digital distribution venues.
- We must embrace change as constant and collaboration as vital. We have all heard the maxim that it's not the strongest that survive, but those who adapt best to change. As we lead in an ever-evolving marketplace, we must welcome possibilities for new ways of doing our work, organizing ourselves, partnering with others and delivering value to customers.
HBR’s Julia Kirby notes that any outsider who storms into an organization as a “change agent” will quickly raise the defenses of the existing workforce. She offers key pieces of advice about how to lower those defenses.
- Avoid the term "change agent."
- Gauge the internal hunger for change.
- Arrive without a vision.
Another way to look at it: Make the workforce feel like they’re part of the solution, not the cause of the organization’s problems. With the right message and the proper top-down support, those who embrace new ideas will eventually muscle out the most intractable defenders of the status quo.