journalism

News: Personalized or Serendipitous?

 

Every digital news designer faces the question: should the traditional serendipity of contents be preserved or should we go full steam for personalization? It turns out Google is already working on ways to combine both — on its usual grand scale.

Serendipity always seemed inseparable from journalism. For any media product, taking readers away from their main center of interest is part of the fabric. I go on a website for a morning update and soon find myself captured by crafty editing that will drive me to read up on a subject that was, until now, alien to me. That’s the beauty of a great news package.

Or is it still the case? Isn’t it a mostly generational inclination? Does a Gen Y individual really care about being drawn to a science story when getting online to see sports results?

Several elements concur to the erosion of serendipity and, more generally, curiosity.

First, behavioral among digital readers are evolving. These extend far beyond generations: Regardless of her age, today’s reader is short on time. At every moment of the day (except, maybe, in the loo or in bed at night), her reading time is slashed by multiple stimuli: social teases, incoming mail, alerts or simply succumbing to distractions that lie just one click (or one app) away. That’s one of the tragedies of traditional news outlets: When it comes to retaining the commuter’s attention, for instance, Slate or The Washington Post are in direct competition with addictive products such as Facebook or Angry Birds…

Second, the old “trusted news brand” notion is going away. Young people can’t be bothered to leaf though several titles to get their feed of a variety of topics; that’s why aggregators thrive. The more innocuous ones, such as Mediagazer, mostly send traffic back to the original news provider; but legions of others (Business Insider, The Huffington Post…) melt news brands into their own, repackage contents with eye-grabbing headlines and boost the whole package with aggressive marketing.

Below, see how BuzzFeed summed up the New York Times story on the NSA monitoring social traffic: 80 words in BF that capture the substance of a 2000 words article by two experienced journalists who collected exclusive documents and reported from Washington, New York and Berlin. buzzfeed nyt

(Note that BuzzFeed is serving a more appealing headline and a livelier photograph of general Keith Alexander, head of NSA.) How many BuzzFeed glancers did click on the link sending back to the original story? I’d bet no more that 5%. (Anyway, judging by the 500 comments that followed it, the NYT did well with their article.) This trends also explains why the Times is working on new digital products that take into account both time scarcity and the Gen Y way with news.

This leads us the third reason to wonder about personalization: the economics of digital news. In the devastated landscape of online advertising, it became more critical than ever to structure news content with the goal of retaining readers within a site. That’s why proper tagging, use of metadata, semantic recommendation engines and topic pages entries are so important. More pages per visit means more ads exposure, then more revenue. Again, pure players excel at providing incentives to read more stuff within their own environment, thus generating more page views.

Coming back to the customization issue, should we turn the dial fully to the end? Or should we preserve at least some of the fortuitous discovery that was always part of the old media’s charm?

Let’s first get rid of the idea of the reader presetting his/her own preferences. No one does it. At least for mainstream products. Therefore, news customization must rely on technology, not human input.

Last week, I spoke with Richard Gingras, the senior director of news and social products at Google (in other words, he oversees Google News and Google + from an editorial an business perspective). Richard is a veteran of the news business. Among many things, he headed Salon.com, one of the first and best online publication ever.

gingras

According to him, “Today’s news personalization is very unsophisticated. We look at your news reading patterns, we determine that you looked at five stories about the Arab Spring and we deduct you might like articles about Egypt. This is not how it should work. In fact, you might be interested in many other things such as the fall from grace of dictators, generation-driven revolutions, etc. These requires understanding concepts”. And that’s a matter Google is working on, he says. Not only for news, but for products such as Google Now which is the main application of Google’s efforts on predictive search. (Read for example With Personal Data, Predictive Apps Stay a Step Ahead in the MIT Technology Review, or Apps That Know What You Want, Before You Do in the NYTimes).

The idea is to connect all of Google’s knowledge, from the individual level to his/her social group context, and beyond. This incredibly granular analysis of personal preferences and inclinations, set in the framework of the large macro-scale of the digital world, is at the core of the search giant’s strategy as summed-up below:

google infos2

On the top of this architecture, Google is developing techniques aimed at capturing the precious “signals” needed to serve more relevant contents, explains Richard Gingras. Not only in the direct vicinity of a topic, but based on center of interests drawn from concepts associated to individuals’ online patterns analyzed in a wider context. In doing so, Gingras underlines the ability of Google News to develop a kind of educated serendipity (term is mine) as opposed to narrowing the user’s mind by serving her the unrefined output of a personalization engine. In other words, based on your consumption of news, your search patterns, and a deep analysis (semantic, tonality, implied emotions) of your mail and your posts — matched against hundreds of millions of others — Google will be able to suggest a link to the profile of an artist in Harper’s when you dropped in Google News to check on Syria. That’s not customized news in a restricted sense, but that not straightforward serendipity either. That’s Google’s way of anticipating your intellectual and emotional wishes. Fascinating and scary.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

Memo #2 to Jeff Bezos: Let’s talk about news products and design

 

Should the new owner of The Washington Post dump the print edition? What should its digital online strategy and tactics look like, both in terms of contents and platforms? 

The questions stated above might not fall into Jeff Bezos areas of sharpest expertise. But there is no shortage of smart people within The Washington Post — at least a core group eager to seize their new owner’s “keep experimenting” motto and run with it.

What can he do? For today, let’s focus on editorial products.

#1. The printed newspaper. Should The Washington Post dump its print product altogether? The short answer is no. At least not yet and not completely. Scores of digital zealots, usually with a razor-thin media culture, will push for the ultimate sacrifice. But in every market — Washington, London, Paris — there still exists a solid base of highly solvent readers that will pay a premium for the print product. This very group carries two precious features for newspaper economics: One, they are willing to pay almost any price to have their precious paper delivered every day. For a proof of that statement, see how quality papers repeatedly hiked prices in recent years, $2 or €2 is no longer a psychological threshold. Hefty street prices helped many to offset the decline of advertising revenues. Keeping the printing presses running offers a second advantage, the ads themselves: They gave lost ground, but the remaining print ads still bring 10 or 15 times more money per reader than digital versions — which is, let’s be honest, a complete economic failure of digital news products.

How long will it last? I’d say around five years. It actually depends of the evolution of the print product. Look at this weekend paper’s layout:

wapo pages

Is there anyone at The Washington Post who seriously believes this paleolithic visual will help retain readers?

Bezos should bring in a team of modern art directors from abroad. One such example is Innovation Media Consulting, an organization that works in many countries and has a great track record (I know one of Innovation’s partners well, Juan Señor, but I have no interest whatsoever in the firm.) Visually, the Post should consider a new layout (the Berliner format is a much better fit for tomorrow’s print than the old broadsheet). Also, to get a much-needed glimpse on what’s going on outside the Beltway, management should use their Amazon account to buy copies of the excellent Best Newspapers Design compilation.

Regarding the national vs. local/regional question, to me, the debate is settled: There is no point at having a physical daily newspaper with a national reach, period. (This could change if, one day, the Post is down to just one thick weekend edition.) Last August, in a remote trading post of Northern New Mexico, I found a fresh copy of the New York Times, most likely printed in Denver or Santa Fe, four hours truck drive from where I was (just have a look at this Google Map featuring the NYT printing plants locations to see my point). National + global scope belongs to digital.

#2. Digital products. The plural is important because, for a news company such as the Post, no single focus will do. At least three avenues ought to be considered: Web, mobile and tablets. (For the moment, we’ll put the Web aside, where The Post is doing great.)

For all publishers, mobile is way more tricky than initially imagined: as long as we can’t integrate content subscription in cell carrier billing, it will be difficult to have people pay for it — except if we consider some kind of in-app purchase for specialized contents. As for advertising on mobile, it now grows in “spectacular” fashion — going from the infinitesimal to insignificant. Furthermore, when comparing their product line to pure players such as Circa, we see how legacy media experienced difficulties in catching the mobile wave (see a previous Monday Note) or Pocket. The Post better work in that direction.

Tablets promise much better monetization. For this, assess the rate of iPad ownership among the Post’s readers (I bet it must be around 60%). Unfortunately, in the old press, the current rationale calls for flavors of print replicas, usually based on a PDF. As I’m writing this paragraph, I’m trying to download this morning’s Sunday edition of the Post for their iPad app; I’m stuck at about 20% of the download. (I certainly won’t ridicule the Post’s occasional glitches since it still occurs too often at my own paper– and I’m the one responsible…)

Why are digital publishers like us still struggling with this? It’s because we are stuck with a technology — namely PDF — that wasn’t designed for low download times, nor for interaction with the user, enhanced contents, social sharing, etc. Plus, many of us can’t depart form the idea that readers need to find on our apps the exact page look and feel, column structure and general layout of the print version. That assertion becomes less and less valid as the number of online readers keeps growing. That audience can become several orders of magnitude larger than the print edition’s readership: Simply consider that the NYT has 50 million people who are in contact with its online version one way another (including the very long tail), that’s more than fifty times it’s print circulation on any weekday.

Granted, a news product must have a visual identity, recognizable in every possible form, but that certainly doesn’t mean sticking to a 1993 technology with guys like us trying to keep outdated stuff alive, like a Havana car repairman nostalgically tinkering with a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air

Jeff Bezos must keep one important things in mind: The modernization of print media has always been driven by the magazine industry, not by newspapers: From graphic design, to marketing, to advertising, weeklies and monthlies have lead innovation for decades. Now, as their print vector is dying, many of them tend to innovate on digital. They’re not doing it equally well, of course: a large group such as Condé Nast is pathetically backward — most of its titles offer only ultra-basic and unstable apps — but many publications (Fast Company, Business Week) made the leap forward with digital magazines really designed for the tablets. Even the NYT is about to launch a digital magazine for tablets that will feature great productions such as the Pulitzer Prize winning Snow Fall. So will ProPublica, I’m told.

fastco app

The Post should get rid of the cumbersome PDF legacy and switch to a full blown e-newspaper for iPad, generic Android tablets and Kindle Fire. There is no shortage of inspirational works available in the AppStore and in Apple Newsstand: Longform for the curation (my favorite weekend readings), The Magazine, TNW and more, all filled with interesting ideas or features…

To further stimulate innovation Jeff Bezos should call in firms able to genuinely think outside of the box such as Ideo or smaller shops who design great selling apps like Caroline+Young (the dataviz app mem:o), the people who did the sketching app Paper53… Personally, I’d even go as far as picking up the brain of great architects like Norman Foster, Rem Koolhas or workspace specialists NBBJ who have been commissioned to build Amazon new headquarters… It would be the most enthralling experiment to mix such great and diverse design talent pool with the Post’s journalistic excellence…

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Culture War: Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

After predicting the death of newspapers, that was last year, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, now buys himself the The Washington Post. Necrophilia or the beginning of another spectacular transformation of an old genre?

A successful business man reaches the dangerous age of 50, looks at his fortune and makes a decision: He’s going to plough a few of his millions into a restaurant. In the past 25 years, he’s been to many of the best dining places around the world. Power lunches, closing dinners, gastronomy road trips with the family, he’s done it all.

He knows restaurants.

But he keeps failing. He fires the chef, changes suppliers, hires a new dining room manager, looks for a classier sommelier, fights city inspectors, calls on his acquaintances and asks them to bring their celebrity friends… nothing works.

He was blinded by his command of his true calling: being a customer. He saw the show from a comfortable box seat and only went backstage when invited by a knowing proprietor eager to glad-hand a moneyed patron. Our gastronome failed to see he knew very little about being a restaurateur, the intricacies, the people challenges (theft, drugs and sex), the politics that are involved in running a real restaurant.

(During my psychosocial moratorium, before I joined the high-tech industry in 1968, I worked in a bar, a food-serving strip-joint, and a restaurant. I thought these places were deranged. Decades later, I read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and realized the “people challenges” I witnessed aren’t so unusual after all. Enjoy the book and think about the goings-on back there next time a maitre d’ looks down his aquiline nose at you.)

Failed restaurants are common in Silicon Valley, with its crowd of affluent and well-traveled business people who think they can master the trade. A few of them subsidize the great dinners we get to enjoy — for a while. They have our fleeting gratitude and end up with a painfully depleted bank account.

Is this a valid parable for Jeff Bezos plowing $250M (so far) into The Washington Post? To start, the price paid for the DC “paper of record” amounts to less than 1% of the Amazon founder’s fortune. Even if he has to double or triple his initial investment while he turns the paper around, it won’t trouble Bezos’ pocketbook much — he can eminently afford the bet.

And, unlike our failed restaurateur, I don’t think Bezos’ purchase was made in a mid-life fit of vanity. (Although see this delicious piece of Internet satire that contends he bought the paper as a result of a mistaken click.) Read Bezos’ Wikipedia bio, or his letters to shareholders… you’ll see he’s a deep-thinking geek (now a term of respect. The Urban Dictionary updates the meaning: people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult). He’s justifiably famous for taking the very long view, and he’s quotably willing to be “misunderstood” for a long time.

But can he win?

Personally, I hope so. I used to love newspapers, I remember how much I enjoyed breakfast with two local and two national papers, all delivered to my doorstep, an unimaginable luxury in France.

Once upon a time, for their advertising revenue, newpapers enjoyed an oligopoly. With three or four dailies in each market, prices were contained. And we, the readers, certainly didn’t mind that advertisers paid 75% of the cost of our daily fix.

Then, the Internet that Bezos has ridden so well intervened and newspapers lost the news race. The Internet won on velocity and, too often, on relevance. In a Fortune Tech piece offering “5 hacks for Jeff Bezos“, Ryan Holmes, CEO of Social Media Management company HootSuite, points to the speed and tone of social media as sources of fixes for the Post:

Perhaps the greatest criticism of newspapers today is that they have lost relevance to their own readers. Writing on the decline of the Post, New York Times media columnist David Carr points out that “[the] days when people snapped open the daily paper to find out the things they should care about were long past …” Big newspapers, in particular, have proven startlingly inept at delivering timely, relevant news to the people they serve. So, naturally, readers have gone elsewhere, to myriad online sources that better cater to their interests.

Since the Net offered a seemingly unconstrained amount of billboard space, the price that newspapers could charge for ads was quickly cut by a factor of ten and, more recently, sixteen.

But it wasn’t just the emergence of the Internet as a news medium that dealt newspapers a near fatal blow. They also lost the race because of internal, cultural circumstances.

In another case of the Incumbent’s Curse, newspapers looked down on the Internet and those annoying high-tech people and things.  Kara Swisher, co-head of AllThingsD (a Wall Street Journal enterprise), recounts her trouble with the old, arrogant culture at the Post in her Dear Jeff Bezos, Here’s What I Saw as an Analog Nobody in the Mailroom of the Washington Post letter:

“It happened every day — other reporters playfully mocking me for using email so much or for borrowing the Post’s few suitcase cellphones, or major editors telling me that the Internet was like the CB-radio fad, or sales people insisting that the good times would never end for newspapers as long as there were local businesses that needed to reach consumers. (In truth, they still do, but that’s another letter.)”

Sadly, the Post’s cultural reluctance isn’t unique. In another country, two prominent dailies I know exhibit very similar symptoms, print journalists who actively despise or even obstruct the Internet side of their house.

Much has been written about Jeff Bezos’ personal (not Amazon’s) purchase of the Post. For example: Good Luck With That – Pew Research Graphs Bezos’ Stunning Challenge, where Tom Foremski steps us through the Post’s business challenges, starting with the inexorable decline in Print revenues:

Post Revenue Decline

Another comment well worth reading, Stop the Presses: A New Media Baron Appears, comes to us courtesy of Michael Moritz, a.k.a. Sir Michael, a journalist who went over to the Dark Side and is now Chairman of Sequoia Capital, a leading venture firm. The article reminds us of Bezos’ foremost preoccupation with customers [emphasis mine]:

“It won’t come as a surprise that Bezos explains that pleasing, if not thrilling, customers is Amazon’s most important task. In his 2009 letter he provided a peek into the internals of Amazon explaining that of the company’s 452 detailed goals for the ensuing year 360 had an impact on the customer, the word ‘revenue’ was used just eight times, ‘free cash flow’ only four times and ‘net income’, ‘gross profit’, ‘margin’ and operating profit were not mentioned. Even though there is no line item on any financial statement for the intangible value associated with the trust of customers this is, by far and away, Amazon’s most important asset.

Elsewhere, Moritz reminds us of another source of Amazon’s prosperity, Free Cash-Flow, a frequent topic in Bezos’ letters to shareholders:

“Since inception Amazon has generated $20.2 billion from operations almost half of which ($8.6 B), has been used for capital expenditures such as new distribution centers, which improve life for the customer.”

With this and more in mind, we now turn to the letter Bezos wrote to employees at the newspaper. While he professes no desire to “be leading The Washington Post day-to-day”, he nonetheless makes no mystery of his goal to be an agent of change, of modernization, of adapting to the Internet Age:

“There will, of course, be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.”

This comes from a man who, last year, said ‘People Won’t Pay For News On The Web, Print Will Be Dead In 20 Years‘.

Changing business models as a publicly traded company is impossible in practice. The old model dies faster than the new one kicks in and Wall Street runs away from the transition’s “earnings trough”. By buying the Washington Post, Bezos is afforded a privacy that the old public ownership structure doesn’t permit. (That’s exactly why Michael Dell wants to take his own company private, so he can perform surgery behind the curtains.)

Which leaves the new owner with his biggest challenge: Understanding and changing the culture at the old “paper” — which sounds harder and more expensive than a gastronome trying to become a restaurateur.

There will be blood.

This is no reflection on Bezos’ truly amazing diversity and depth of skills, but a sincere concern borne of Culture’s ability to devour anything that stands in its way, sometimes silently until it’s too late. As the saying goes, Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.

Of course, we have examples of people performing seemingly impossible feats. Steve Jobs’ Apple 2.0 comes to mind, a turnaround of monumental proportions to which Bezos’ Amazon achievements could be fairly compared. So, why couldn’t Bezos build a WaPo 2.0?

As Aaron Levie, the founding CEO of Box, tweeted last week:

“Industries are transformed by outsiders who think anything is possible, not insiders who think they already know what is impossible.”

One more thing, a thought I can’t suppress: Unlike Steve Jobs, who gained insight from his tribulations and then spread the benefits on the largest of scales, Bezos hasn’t been burned and tempered by failure.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

Data Journalism is improving — fast

 

by Frederic Filloux 

The last Data Journalism Awards announced last week at the Global Editors Network News Summit in Paris established one important fact: The genre is getting better, wider in scope and gaining many creative players.

Data Journalism is thriving. This the most salient conclusion from the second edition of the DJ Awards organized by the Global Editors Network and sponsored by Google. I was part of a 20 persons jury, chaired by Paul Steiger, founder of Pro Publica. We had to choose among a short list of 72 projects divided into seven categories: data-driven storytelling, investigation, applications (all three for large and small media), and data-journalism section or website.

Here are some quick personal findings.

#1: Data-journalism is a powerful storytelling tool. The Guardian won the Storytelling Big Media category, with this compelling graphic showing the situation of gay rights for each state of the US. It did so by analyzing a range of stats and administrative rules or laws such as hospital visits, adoption, schools or housing. (In half of US states, gays have no clearly stated rights). On that matter, no story could have spoken more loudly.

gay_rights_guardian

In a different way, Thomson Reuters collected another prize for its amazing Connecting China project that looks like a visual LinkedIn for the PRC elite. It’s a huge, 18 months endeavor, built on more than 30,000 connections between Chinese power players.

china

#2: Data-journalism extends well beyond the usual economical/social topics. One DJA 2013 laureate displayed the explanatory power of good data-journalism. The French site Quoi? explored aspects of the art market. In its Art Market for Dummies (available both in French and in English), Quoi? explains who are the most bankable artists (since 2008, it’s Picasso, Warhol, Zhang Da Qian); it also shows why it is a terribly dead-male-dominated business; and it illustrates the rise of Chinese artists. It’s both entertaining and information-rich.

art_market2

Another French company, WeDoData collected an award for a great app showing the (terrible) state of female/male parity in France, in a smart, user-friendly package commissioned by France Television.

pariteur

Another great example of clever data journalism expanding to society issues is the Great British Class Calculator presented by the BBC (it won the Data-driven apps category). The project started with a survey of 161,000 persons, conducted with several universities. This helped define seven social classes ranging from the Elite, to Precarious Proleteriat, or more imaginative New Affluent workers or Technical Middle Class.

class_calculator

#3: Tools can be surprisingly simple. In many instances, data-collection and analysis are performed using relatively simple tools such as large Excel or Google Docs spreadsheets (the latter being excellent at scraping data repositories — just google the terms to find tons of resources on how to use those. The Argentina newspaper La Nación, winner of the Data-driven Investigations Big Media category, explained in its DJA filings how it retrieved 33,000 records showing the expenses of senate members by using sets of Excel macro commands.

la_nacion_ar

For its Art Market for Dummies project, the French multimedia journalist Jean Abbiateci explained how he scraped the ArtPrice database (links are mine):

For scraping data, I used Outwit, a amazing Firefox Add-on. This is very useful to convert a pdf file to an Excel file. I used Google to refine, to clean and merge my dataset. I used the Google API Currency Converter for my uniform monetary values. Finally, I used D3.js and Hichcharts.js. I also reused open source code shared by Minnpost and a software developer called Jim Vallandingham.

The projects mentioned above are just examples. A visit to the GEN Data Journalism section is well worth your time. For once, the digital news sector has fostered a healthy, creative segment, one that relies a lot on small agile companies. I find that quite encouraging.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The Need for a Digital “New Journalism”

 

The survival of quality news calls for a new approach to writing and reporting. Inspiration could come from blogging and magazine storytelling and also bring back memories of the 70′s New Journalism movement. 

News reporting is aging badly. Legacy newsrooms style books look stuck in a last Century formalism (I was tempted to write “formalin“). Take a newspaper, print or online. When it comes news reporting, you see the same old structure dating back to the Fifties or even earlier. For the reporter, there is the same (affected) posture of effacing his/her personality behind facts, and a stiff structure based on a string of carefully arranged paragraphs, color elements, quotes, etc.

I hate useless quotes. Most often, for journalists, such quotes are the equivalent of the time-card hourly workers have to punch. To their editor, the message is ‘Hey, I did my my job; I called x, y, z’ ; and to the  the reader, ‘Look, I’m humbly putting my personality, my point of view behind facts as stated by these people’ — people picked by him/herself, which is the primary (and unavoidable) way to twist a story. The result becomes borderline ridiculous when, after a lengthy exposé in the reporter’s voice to compress the sources’ convoluted thoughts, the line of reasoning concludes with a critical validation such as :

“Only time will tell”, said John Smith, director of the social studies at the University of Kalamazoo, consultant for the Rand Corporation, and author of “The Cognitive Deficit of Hyperactive Chimpanzees”. 

I’m barely making this up. Each time I open a carbon-based newspaper (or read its online version), I’m stuck by how old-fashioned news writing remains. Unbeknownst to the masthead (i.e. editorial top decision-makers) of legacy media, things have changed. Readers no longer demand validating quotes that weigh the narrative down. They want to be taken from A to B, with the best possible arguments, and no distraction or wasted time.

Several factors dictate an urgent evolution in the way newspapers are written.

1/ Readers’ Time Budget. People are deluged with things to read. It begins at 7:00 in the morning and ends up late into the night. The combination of professional contents (mail, reports, PowerPoint presentations) and social networking feeds, have put traditional and value-added contents (news, books) under great pressure. Multiple devices and the variable level of attention that each of them entails create more complications: a publishing house can’t provide the same content for a smartphone screen to be read in a cramped subway as for a tablet used in lean-back mode at home. More than ever, the publisher is expected to clearly arbitrate between the content that is to be provided in a concise form and the one that justifies a long, elaborate narrative. The same applies to linking and multi-layer constructs: reading a story that opens several browser tabs on a 22-inch screen is pleasant — and completely irrelevant for quick lunchtime mobile reading.

2/ Trust factor / The contract with the Brand. When I pick a version of The New York Times, The Guardian, or a major French newspaper, this act materializes my trust (and hope) in the professionalism associated with the brand. In a more granular way, it works the same for the writer. Some are notoriously sloppy, biased, or agenda-driven; others are so good than they became a brand by themselves. My point: When I read a byline I trust, I assume the reporter has performed the required legwork — that is collecting five or ten times the amount of information s/he will use in the end product. I don’t need the reporting to be proven or validated by an editing construct that harks back to the previous century. Quotes will be used only for the relevant opinion of a source, or to make a salient point, not as a feeble attempt to prove professionalism or fairness.

3 / Competition from the inside. Strangely enough, newspapers have created their own gauge to measure their obsolescence. By encouraging their writing staff to blog, they unleashed new, more personal, more… modern writing practices. Fact is, many journalists became more interesting on their own blogs than in their dedicated newspaper or magazine sections. Again, this trend evaded many editors and publishers who consider blogging to be a secondary genre, one that can be put outside a paywall, for instance. (This results in a double whammy: not only doesn’t the paper cash on blogs, but it also frustrates paid-for subscribers).

4/ The influence of magazine writing. Much better than newspapers, magazines have always done a good job capturing readers’ preferences. They’ve have always been ahead in market research, graphic design, concept and writing evolution. (This observations also applies to the weekend magazines operated by large dailies). As an example, magazine writers have been quick to adopt first person accounts that rejuvenated journalism and allowed powerful narrative. In many newspapers, authors and their editors still resists this.

Digital media needs to invent its own journalistic genres. (Note the plural, dictated by the multiplicity of usages and vectors). The web and its mobile offspring, are calling for their own New Journalism comparable to the one that blossomed in the Seventies. While the blogosphere has yet to find its Tom Wolfe, the newspaper industry still has a critical role to play: It could be at the forefront of this essential evolution in journalism. Failure to do so will only accelerate its decline.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

It’s the Competitive Spirit, Stupid

 

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.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

Transfer of Value

This is a story of pride vs. geekiness: Traditional newspapers that move online are about to lose the war against pure players and aggregators. Armed with the conviction their intellectual superiority makes them immune to digital modernity, newspapers neglected today’s internet driving forces: relying on technology to build audiences and the ability to coalesce a community over any range of subjects — even the most mundane ones.

When I discuss this with seasoned newsroom people on both sides of the Atlantic, most still firmly believe the quality of their work guarantees their survival against a techno-centric approach to digital contents.

I’m afraid they are wrong. Lethally so.

We are a facing a culture shock. On one side, legacy medias: Great franchises who grew on strong values, such as “pristine” journalism, independence, storytelling, fact-checking, solid editing, respect for the copyright… Along the way, they made their share of mistakes, but, overall, the result is great. After all, at the height of the Fourth Estate’s power, the population was better informed than today’s Facebook cherry-pickers.  Now, this (aging) fraternity faces a new generation of media people who build their fiefdom on a completely different set of values. For instance, the notion of copyright has become exceedingly elastic. A few months ago, Flipboard began to aggregate contents from French news organizations, taking large excerpts — roughly capturing the essence of a story — along with a token link back to the original content. Publishers sent polite letters saying, in substance: ‘Guys, although we are fond of your iOS applications, you can’t simply pick up our stuff without permission, we need to talk first…’

Publishers’ attitude toward aggregators has always been ambiguous. Google is the perfect example: on one hand, publishers complained about the search giant’s power; and, at the same time, they spend huge sums of money optimizing their sites, purchasing relevant keywords, all to make the best use of the very power they criticize. In Belgium, publishers challenged Google in court for the Google News product before realizing they really depended a lot on it, and begging for reintegration in the Google traffic cauldron.

Another example of the culture shock: reliance on technology. It’s a religion for the newcomers but merely a support function for traditional editors. Unfortunately, evidence shows how wrong it is to snub the traffic building arsenal. Here are a few examples.

On July 5th, The Wall Street Journal runs an editorial piece about Mitt Romney’s position on Obamacare.

The rather dull and generic “Romney’s Tax Confusion” title for this 1000 words article attracted a remarkable 938 comments.

But look at what the Huffington Post did: a 500 words treatment including a 300 words article, plus a 200 words excerpt of the WSJ opinion and a link back (completely useless). But, unlike the Journal, the HuffPo ran a much sexier headline :

A choice of words that takes in account all Search Engine Optimization (SEO) prerequisites, using high yield words such as “Squandering”, “Snafu”, in conjunction with much sought-after topics such as “Romney” and “Health Care”. Altogether, this guarantees a nice blip on Google’s radar — and a considerable audience : 7000+ comments (7x more than the original), 600 Facebook shares, etc.

HuffPo’s editors took no chance: the headline they picked is algorithm-designed to yield the best results in Google. The aggregator invested a lot in SEO tools: I was told that every headline is matched in realtime against Google most searched items right before being posted. If the editor’s choice scores low in SEO, the system suggests better terms. In some instances the HuffPo will A/B test headlines: It will serve different versions of a page to a couple of random groups and, after five minutes, the best headline will be selected. Found on Quora, here are explanations by Whitney Snyder, HuffPost’s senior news editor:

The A/B testing was custom built. We do not, however, A/B test every headline. We often use it to see if our readers are familiar with a person’s name (i.e. John Barrasso vs GOP Senator), or to play up two different aspects of a story and see which one interests readers more. We also A/B test different images.

Other examples below will prove the effectiveness of HuffPo’s approach. Here is a media story about a TV host whose position is in jeopardy; the Daily News version: a 500 words article that looks like this:

The Huffington Post summed it up in a 175 words form, but introduced it with a much more potent headline including strong, Google-friendly locutions:

Results speak for themselves:

Daily  News original version : 2 comments, 1 tweet, 1 Facebook share
HuffingtonPost version : 4601 comments, 79 tweets, 155 share.

Like no one else, the HuffPo masters eye-grabbing headline such as these :
Watch Out Swimmers: Testicle-Eating Fish Species Caught in US Lake (4,000 Facebook recommendations), or: Akron Restaurant Owner Dies After Serving Breakfast To Obama (3300 comments) or yesterday’s home: LEPAGE LOSES IT: IRS ‘THE NEW GESTAPO’ displayed in a 80 points font-size; this adaptation of the Maine’s daily Press Herald generated about 6000 comments on the aggregator.

The point is not to criticize the Huffington Post for being extremely efficient at optimizing its work. They invested a lot, they trained their people well. Of course, the bulk of HuffPo’s content  comes from : a) unpaid bloggers — 9,884 new ones last year alone according to Arianna’s count; b) content borrowed from others media and re-engineered by 170 journalists, a term that encompass various kinds of news producers and a bunch of true writers and editors; c) a small percentage of original reporting.  Each day, all this concurs to “over 1,000 stories published” that will translate into 1.4 million of Facebook referrals and 250,000 comments. Staggering numbers indeed. With some downsides, too: 16,000 comments (!) for an 200 words article about Barack Obama asking to turn off Fox News during a campaign tour is not likely to attract enviable demographics advertising-wise. The HuffPo might make a billion page views per month, but most of them only yield dimes.

The essence of what we’re seeing here is a transfer of value. Original stories are getting very little traffic due to the poor marketing tactics of old-fashion publishers. But once they are swallowed by the HuffPo’s clever traffic-generation machine, the same journalistic item will make tens or hundred  times better traffic-wise. Who is right?  Who can look to the better future in the digital world ? Is it the virtuous author carving language-smart headlines or the aggregator generating eye-gobbling phrases thanks to high tech tools?  Your guess. Maybe it’s time to wake-up.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Lessons from ProPublica

Paul Steiger is one of the men I admire the most in my profession. Five years ago, at the age of 65, and after a 16-year tenure as the Wall Street Journal’s managing editor, he seized the opportunity to create a new form of investigative journalism. Steiger created ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom dedicated to the public interest and to deep dive reporting. He hired a bunch of young staffers (coached by seasoned editors and reporters) that could help him lift data journalism and computer-assisted reporting to the highest level. Thanks to wisely managed partnerships, he gave ProPublica a wide audience and the quality and breadth of his newsroom’s reporting landed it scores of awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. ProPublica was the first online news organization to receive such a seal of approval.

All this in five years, with now 33 journalists. Kudos.

Last wednesday, at the end of quick hop to New York, I paid Paul Steiger a visit. His corner office nests on the 23rd floor of Broadway, overlooking Wall Street’s canyons and Manhattan’s southern tip. At 70, Steiger has a twinkle in the eye that you don’t often find in reporters half his age. Especially when he speaks about ProPublica’s most shining journalistic moments.

In late 2006, the Sandler Foundation, approached Steiger with a wish to allocate a fraction of its immense wealth to the funding of investigative reporting. The newsman made four recommendations:

– The first one was to rely on a permanent staff as opposed to hired guns. “To do the kind of journalism we wanted to do, you must have people comfortable enough to stay on the story as long as needed. You also must accept dry holes. Freelancers will starve in such conditions!”

– Two, for the biggest stories, he wanted to partner with one or two large news organizations that could be granted some exclusivity over a short period of time in exchange for good visibility.

– Three, in order to guarantee the widest reach, Paul Steiger wanted to distribute the material freely on the web.

– Four, he would solely be responsible for content; funders or other contributors would not be involved in selecting stories. (Actually, on ProPublica’s first board meeting, none of the financial backers knew what the newsroom was working on.)

The partnership proved to be a great idea and expanded much farther than anticipated. It relied quite a lot on Paul Steiger’s and Stephen Engelberg’s personal connections (Engelberg is ProPublica’s editor-in-chief.) Quite often, Steiger explained, once a story neared completion, he’d place a call directly to a key editor in a major publications. “Sometimes, I could feel the excitement over the phone”, he laughs. He had to be very careful not to say too much before hammering the deal. I asked him how he handles confidential sources: “Well, we do not mind giving sources’ names to editors and lawyers, but less so to beat reporters… You know, reporters are human, and they might be tempted to call the sources themselves…”

Cooperation with other medias turned out to breed an unexpected advantage: transforming good national stories into a local ones. The best example, is the Dollars for Docs project. In a nutshell: a sizable portion of pharmaceutical firms operating in the United States are now required to reveal all direct contributions to doctors. (It’ll be 100% next year.) Needless to say, they complied reluctantly, providing a sloppy, almost useless database. As a result, the two reporters assigned to the subject were at a loss when it came to retrieve relevant data. Then, a young ProPublica in-house data specialist joined the team and solved the puzzle in a few weeks. The story was published by ProPublica’s five partners: The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, PBS, NPR and Consumer Reports. Why Consumer Reports? “Because they had polling capabilities”, Steiger said. “Pharmaceuticals companies were saying patients didn’t mind if doctors got fees from them, we proved patients actually care…” After a few days for the key partners’ exclusivity window, the database was released on the web on October 19, 2010. In an easily searchable way, it showed the status of 17,000 doctors receiving a total of $750 million. A small stimulus to keep the flow of prescriptions smooth and steady — and to contribute to the indecent cost of healthcare in America.

Then the local mechanics kicked in. In the months afterwards, no less than 125 local outlets picked up the story, extracting relevant local information from the database and adding context. That’s one of the most interesting aspects of ProPublica’s work: its ability to cause a national interest story to percolate down to the local news organizations which, in turn, will give the story more depth by connecting it to its relevant community. (ProPublica now has 78 partners)

I asked Paul Steiger if he believes this model could be translated into a classic business. After all, why not gather half a dozen non-competiting news outlets, happy to split the price of large journalistic projects — each costing from $100,000 to $200,000 to produce — in addition to a small fee from local news? Paul Steiger says it cannot be made to work. To sum it up, by asking a newspaper or a TV network to pay, ProPublica would directly compete with their clients’ internal economics. Inevitably, someone will say, hey, last year, we paid x thousands dollars in fees for ProPublica’s stories, that’s the equivalent of y staffers. Not to mention the state of the news industry with, in fact, very few companies willing (and able) to pay extra editorial costs. The consequence would be a down spiral: deprived of the vast audience it now enjoys, the organization would have a hard time attracting clients for its content, nor would it be able to attract donations. Fact is, such syndication doesn’t work. California Watch, which operates on the same beat as ProPublica, burns more than $2 million a year but collects less than… $30,000 dollars in syndication fees.

That’s why ProPublica plans to stick to its original structure. Next year, Paul Steiger will step down as ProPublica’s editor-in-chief and chief executive, he’ll become executive chairman, a position in which he will spend most of his time raising money for the organization. As it stands today, ProPublica is on a sound path. The first two years of operation were solely funded by the Sandler family, for about $10 million a year. This year their contribution will be down to $4 million, with $6m coming from other sources. In 2013, the breakdown will be $3m and $7 million. Not only did ProPublica put itself at the forefront of the public interest, high quality, digitally boosted, modern journalism, but it also created a sustainable way to support it.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Culture Shift: User To Client

Fifteen years ago, Louis Gallois, the SNCF (French Railways) chairman decided to change the company’s lexicon: passengers were to be referred to as “customers” instead of the old bureaucratese “users” (in French: “clients” vs. “usagers”). The intent was to convey notions of choice and consideration for the rider. This being France, the edict led to convoluted debates. The upper management old guard held the company was on its way to betraying its traditional mission of service public. Unions—notoriously opposed to any forms of competition threatening their fiefdoms—saw the new word as a portent of evil mercantile designs. In Louis Gallois’s mind, a clientele should not be seen as captive herd but ought be shown respect and empathy. It took more than a decade to see the French railway system become more customer-oriented. The French Postal service underwent a similar transformation—largely under pressure from internet-based services. Today, when compared to most other countries, these companies have become good performers.

Back to my media beat, you see where I’m going: The transforming media industry is still stuck into a user’s culture. Media companies still believe this: One way or another, they own their readers (or viewers and listeners). Of course, this belief is not evenly shared among different corporate layers. In the C-suite, the comfy old view is long gone as numbers confirm, quarter after quarter, the industry’s slump. Most executives share a sense of vital urgency. But the deeper you dive into those companies, the more you see complacency still lurking.

As long as the old media culture still dominates and resists change, better business models won’t be able to gain traction.

It all boils down to a simple market place evolution.

In the pre-internet era, the media sector lived by its own rules: a captive audience left with no other choice but a bunch of well-entrenched media outlets. At the time, these companies didn’t feel the need to probe their audiences, let alone to market to them. People were listening, viewing, and reading, roughly at the same rate, year in and year out. Editors and publishers felt immune to any form of challenge. Newsrooms were a great place to be, filled with witty, smart people, most of them notoriously unproductive, but great to hang out with, caring very little care for the user’s state of mind.

Then, the digital wave unfurled. With it came a new business culture, completely antinomic to the legacy media’s thinking. At first, the tech/startup way of doing things was dismissed as a freakishly geeky and completely inapplicable to media organizations.

Then the two spheres—the new entrepreneurial culture and the old one— got closer and closer and began to intersect. The overlapping zone was, precisely, digital information. It began in chaotic but participatory (massively) and profuse ways. This led to the rise of “commodity news”—whose value evaporated in the process—at the expense of the original (and traditional) news sources that were slow to understand the scope of the upheaval. This put a brutal end to the widespread old complacency.

As the user morphs into a customer, s/he becomes more demanding of its media provider. There is a reason for that shift: a magazine subscriber is also an Amazon patron and s/he now expects the same level of service. Instead, for most magazines, it still takes 3-6 weeks for a monthly print subscription to start.

Today, the media industry must change its reference system. Every single day, traditional-media-in-transformation collides with companies (pure players, aggregators, portals, search engines, mobile applications, retailers, distributors) built on very different, opposed sometimes, values and principles. As a result, the competition on products (and audiences) leads to a competition on the processes of building and marketing these products.

This can be summed up to three notions.

The Customer (again).  He (she) is no longer a well-defined monolithic individual. Consider the structure of a digital audience: news consumption is scattered all over the day with different size and shapes. This should impact the way news is packaged. Most newsrooms are currently unable to adapt to the time-sensitive diversity that has become expected. Too many newsrooms don’t understand their output should be reformatted, re-edited, for different uses, at different times of the day, on different devices.

Competition / Speed => Leading the pack. The media business is now intensively competitive. Newsrooms should be obsessed with beating the competition in every possible way, exactly in the same fashion a tech company is constantly rolling-out new features for an application or a service. Unfortunately for the slowest and the weakest, the media industry is migrating to a “winner-takes-all” system, with very little oxygen left to the lower tier.

Responsibility / Empowerment / Focus => Better Execution. This implies two moves: First, a complete overhaul of the HR culture. The old media culture is plagued by poor accountability and dilution of responsibility. It’s time to shift to one project (or one segment of the business) = one Direct Responsible Individual, meaning true delegation, a clear mission, and the sanction (positive/negative) that goes with it. Two, it involves a change in the compensation structure, until then dominated by guild-management negotiated agreements that abhor genuine meritocracy. Again, the technosphere teaches us the benefits of the opposite: a human management system able to attract, retain and promote talented people. The combination of responsibility and reward (not only financial) is a non-negotiable requirement for better execution.

Before going back to spreadsheets and corporate dashboards, all the boxes above must be checked. Vaste programme.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Media Culture Shifts: theory vs. reality

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