This weekend, my ritual readings were dominated by corporate media culture issues: How to transition from the legacy media culture to the more agile and chaotic digital world? I’ve been reading up on this topic — and sometimes conferencing about it — for years. But, to my surprise, over time, I’ve been feeling lectured on those very issues. Sometimes irritatingly so. The last sermon was delivered early March by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The report –which I nevertheless recommend reading– reverberated over many other great online publications such as the Nieman Journalism Lab in a piece written by two journalism professors, Jonathan Groves and  Carrie Brown-Smith; their column is softly titled A call for leadership: Newspaper execs deserve the blame for not changing the culture.

For once, I’ll align myself with the blamed “Newspaper execs” and provide a perspective from this vantage point.

Since December 15, I’m in charge of digital operations for Groupe Les Echos which publishes the only remaining business newspaper in France. Together with a seasoned CEO and a team of managers in charge of business units and critical functions, we’re doing our best to put the company back on track.  All of us are here because we firmly believe in the strength of the company’s core products: a competent and highly specialized newsroom and a line-up of solid business-related products and services. The main idea is to revitalize everything, restore profitability, increase and secure market share and create an enviable working environment capable of attracting the talent required by our many fields of activity. That’s the plan.

I addition to this recent line in my resumé, thanks to numerous exchanges with foreign colleagues, my affiliation with several trade groups such as INMA or the Gobal Editors Networks has nurtured my reflection. We are all converging to a similar train of thoughts: morphing a legacy media business into a modern, digital-dominated company is a f*** (frighteningly) complicated endeavor.

Now I’m coming back to the lecturers of all stripes. When you look at their CVs, not a single one can claim any managing experience. They all have a remote view of what a P&L or a KPI is; they never had to fire someone or to agonize over picking up x vs. y to fill an open position; they never had to make a recommendation for investing several million dollars or euros in a project with an uncertain future. They probably never experienced failure and the ensuing humiliation and anguish. This doesn’t mean they’re not interesting (and sometime entertaining) to read, it simply says they propagate a theoretical and narrow view. In a way, some of their ‘‘obvious’’ prescriptions remind me of people who claim losing weight is easy: All you have to do is exercise more and eat less. Sure. But don’t tell me what, tell me how.

Let’s address a few items mentioned in the Pew Report.

First, the authors deplore the propensity of newspapers management to remain more print centric than prone to speeding up digital transition. There is a good reason for this. According to the survey:

The papers providing detailed data took in roughly $11 in print revenue for every $1 they attracted online in the last full year for which they had data. Thus, even though the total digital advertising revenues from those newspapers rose on average 19% in the last full year, that did not come anywhere close to making up for the dollars lost as a result of 9% declines in print advertising. The displacement ratio in the sample was a loss of dollars by about 7-to-1.

Then, of course, everyone is focused on increasing the $1 digital revenue, but it’s difficult to blame managers for not trying to slow down the decline of print activity that stills account for…92% of the revenue of the 38 newspapers surveyed by Pew.

Fact is, very few industries are suffering as the newspaper business does. According to the latest statistics released by the Newspaper Association of America the evolution in print ad revenue went like this:

2005 +1.5%
2006 -1.7%
2007 -9,4%
2008 -17.7%
2009 -28.6%
2010 -8.2%
2011 -9.2%

Since 2005, print advertising revenue has dropped by 56%. And the $20.6 billion it brought last year has to be compared with the $3.2 billion scored by digital operations. Overall, despite the growth of their digital business, American newspapers have lost 52% in revenue from advertising since 2005.

Such massive revenue depletion is supposed to call for serious restructuring — a move that, at the same time, has become increasingly less affordable. A couple of years ago, management at a French national newspaper briefly considered switching to 100% online, no more print. It made the following back-of-the-envelope calculation: of a €20 million investment for the switch, €15 million would have been swallowed by restructuring costs such as discontinuing print-related operations, buyouts etc. The manager quickly decided against even mentioning the idea to its owner.

Newspaper companies have to deal with the specificities of their workforce that complicates any strategic move. An aging staff, locked-in by layers of antiquated guild or union-negotiated contracts, doesn’t favor labor agility. The same goes for training, job reassignments, etc.

Those constraints, combined to a residual sense of entitlement within newsrooms, further complicate the transition. Regardless of upper management’s determination, you’ll never be able to steer a century-old company the way a young startup adjusts to changing circumstances, whether it’s explosive growth or adverse events.

As a result, management of a legacy media company is left with a dual agenda. On the one hand, going for the low hanging fruits, getting quick wins such as small, swiftly executed projects thanks to “agents of change” identified within the company. And, at the same time, setting deep culture-changes in motion.

One of the most compelling “culture statement” I’ve seen was designed three years ago by Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, a company that rocked the streaming media sector like never before. Here is an excerpt of Hastings’ 126 slides presentation that I think deserves consideration:

– The “Behavior and skills” section is broke up into nine items “…Meaning we hire and promote people who demonstrate these nine:
1. Judgement
2. Communication: Listening others and articulating views
3. Impact: “You focus on great results rather than on process. You exhibit bias-to-action, and avoid analysis-paralysis”
4. Curiosity : “You learn rapidly and eagerly”, “You contribute effectively outside of your specialty”
5. Innovation: “You challenge prevailing assumptions when warranted, and suggest better approaches ”
6. Courage: “You say what you think even if it is controversial”, “You make tough decisions without agonizing”, “You take smart risks”
7. Passion: “You inspire others with your thirst for excellence”, “You celebrate wins”, “You are tenacious”
8. Honesty: “You are quick to admit mistakes”
9. Selflessness: “You are ego-less when searching for the best ideas.”

Other Netflix core values include:

– “Great Workplace [means working with] Stunning Colleagues : Great workplace is not espresso, lush benefits, sushi lunches, grand parties, or nice offices. We do some of these things, but only if they are efficient at attracting and retaining stunning colleagues.”

– “Corporate Team:  The more talent we have, the more we can accomplish, so our people assist each other all the time. Internal “cutthroat” or “sink or swim” behavior is rare and not tolerated.”

– “Hard Work = Not Relevant : We do care about accomplishing great work. Sustained B-level performance, despite “A for effort”, generates a generous severance package, with respect. Sustained A-level performance, despite minimal effort, is rewarded with more responsibility and great pay.”

– No room for what Hastings call “Brilliant Jerks“. His verdict:  “Cost to effective teamwork is too high.”

– About processes: “Process-focus Drives More Talent Out. Process Brings Seductively Strong Near-Term Outcome.  Then the Market Shifts… Market shifts due to new technology or competitors or business models. [Then] Company is unable to adapt quickly because the employees are extremely good at following the existing processes, and process adherence is the value system. Company generally grinds painfully into irrelevance.”

– “Good” versus “Bad” Process:
“Good” process helps talented people get more done.
- Letting others know when you are updating code
- Spend within budget each quarter so don’t have to coordinate every spending decision across departments.
- Regularly scheduled strategy and context meetings.”

“Bad” process tries to prevent recoverable mistakes:
- Get pre-approvals for $5k spending
- 3 people to sign off on banner ad creative
- Permission needed to hang a poster on a wall
- Multi-level approval process for projects
- Get 10 people to interview each candidate.”

And to conclude, I love this one about vacation policy and tracking days off:

” We realized… [that] We should focus on what people get done, not on how many days worked . Just as we don’t have an 9am-5pm workday policy, we don’t need a vacation policy.
No Vacation Policy Doesn’t Mean No Vacation.
Netflix leaders set good examples by taking big vacations – and coming back inspired to find big ideas.”

And my favorite, about “Expensing, Entertainement, Gift & Travel: Act in Netflix’s Best Interest (5 words long).”

“Act in Netflix’s Best Interest” Generally Means… Expense only what you would otherwise not spend, and is worthwhile for work. Travel as you would if it were your own money. Disclose non-trivial vendor gifts. Take from Netflix only when it is inefficient to not take, and inconsequential. “Taking” means, for example, printing personal documents at work or making personal calls on work phone: inconsequential and inefficient to avoid.”

I’ll stop here. I’m sure you get the point. I prefer rules as stated by Netflix’s battle-scarred chief rather than by unsoiled scholars.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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