Legacy media suffer from a deadly DNA mutation: they've lost their appetite for competition; they no longer have the will to fight the hordes of new, hungry mutants emerging from the digital world.
For this week's column, my initial idea was to write about Obama's high tech campaign. As in 2008, his digital team once again raised the bar on the use of data mining, micro-targeting, behavioral analysis, etc. As Barack Obama's strategist David Axelrod suggested just a year ago in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, compared to what they were working on, the 2008 campaign technology looked prehistoric. Without a doubt, mastering the most sophisticated practices played a crucial role in Obama's November 6th victory.
As I researched the subject, I decided against writing about it. This early after the election, it would have been difficult to produce more than a mere update to my August 2008 story, Learning from the Obama Internet Machine. But, OK. For those of you interested in the matter, here are a couple of resources I found this week: An interesting book by Sasha Issenberg, The Victory Lab, The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, definitely worth a read; or previously unknown tidbits in this Stanford lecture by Dan Siroker, an engineer who left Google to join the Obama campaign in 2008. (You can also feast on a Google search with terms like "obama campaign + data mining + microtargeting".)
I switched subjects because something jumped at me: the contrast between a modern election campaign and the way traditional media cover it. If it could be summed up in a simplistic (and, sorry, too obvious) graph, it would look like this :
The 2012 Election campaign carries all the ingredients of the fiercest of competitions: concentrated in a short time span; fueled by incredible amounts of cash (thus able to get the best talent and technology money can buy); a workforce that is, by construction, the most motivated any manager can dream of, a dedicated staff led by charismatic stars of the trade; a binary outcome with a precise date and time (first Tuesday of November, every four years.) As if this was not enough, the two camps actually compete for a relatively small part of the electorate, the single digit percentage that will swing one way or the other.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have traditional media. Without falling into caricature, we can settle for the following descriptors: a significant pool of (aging) talent; a great sense of entitlement; a remote connection with the underlying economics of the business; a remarkably tolerance for mediocrity (unlike, say, pilots, or neurosurgeons); and, stemming from said tolerance, a symmetrical no-reward policy -- perpetuated by unions and guilds that planted their nails in the media's coffin.
My point: This low level of competitive metabolism has had a direct and negative impact on the economic performance of legacy media.
In countries, regions, or segments where newsrooms compete the most on a daily basis (on digital or print), business is doing just fine.
That is the case in Scandinavia which enjoys good and assertive journalism, with every media trying to beat the other in every possible way: investigation, access to sources, creative treatment, real-time coverage, innovations in digital platforms... The UK press is also intensively competitive -- sometimes for the worse as shown in the News Corp phone hacking scandal. To some extent, German, Italian, Spanish media are also fighting for the news.
At the other end of the spectrum, the French press mostly gave up competing. The market is more or less distributed on the basis readers' inclinations. The biggest difference manifests itself when a source decides to favor one media against the others. Reminding someone of the importance of competing, of sometimes taking a piece of news from someone else's plate tends to be seen as ill-mannered, not done. The result is an accelerating drop in newspapers sales. Strangely enough, Nordic media will cooperate without hesitation when it comes to sharing industrial resources such as printing plants and distribution channels while being at each other's throat when it comes to news gathering. By contrast, the French will fight over printing resources, but will cooperate when it's time to get subsidies from the government or to fight Google.
Digital players do not suffer from such a cumbersome legacy. Building organizations from scratch, they hired younger staff and set up highly motivated newsrooms. Pure players such as Politico, Business Insider, TechCrunch and plenty of others are fighting in their beat, sometimes against smaller but sharper blogs. Their journalistic performance (although uneven) translates into measurable audience bursts that turn into advertising revenues.
Financial news also fall into that same category. Bloomberg, DowJones and Reuters are fighting for their market-mover status as well for the quality -- and usefulness -- of their reporting; subscriptions to their service depends on such performance. Hence the emergence of a "quantifiable motivation" for the staff. At Bloomberg -- one of the most aggressive news machine in the world -- reporters are provided financial incentives for their general performance and rewarded for exclusive information. Salaries and bonuses are high, so is the workload. But CVs are pouring in -- a meaningful indicator.
Digital newsrooms are much more inclined to performance measurements than old ones. This should be seen as an advantage. As gross as it might sound to many journalists, media should seize the opportunity that comes with modernizing their publishing tools to revise their compensation policies. The main index should be "Are we doing better than the competition? Does X or Y contribute to our competitive edge?". Aside from the editor's judgement, new metrics will help. Ranking in search engines and aggregators; tweets, Facebook Likes; appearances on TV or radio shows; syndication (i.e. paid-for republication elsewhere)… All are credible indicators. No one should be afraid to use them to reward talent and commitment.
It's high time to reshuffle the nucleotides and splice in competitive DNA strands, they do contribute to economic performance.