This is your industry and your future. You can decide where it will go from here...

The Future Does Not Fit in the Containers of the Past. Edition 33.

11 years ago on April 12, 2010, I keynoted at the annual conference of the Newspaper Association of America in Orlando. Publishing it 11 years later because the Four Key Shifts and the 10 Steps to Re-Invention are as true today for every business and individual as they were in 2010.

While the opening of the talk is focused on the Newspaper industry it really is about every industry since every industry is being transformed and often it is the failure of imagination and mindset to re-think one’s business that leads to business decline. In the newspaper industry some firms like The New York Times, The Washington Post in the US and many all over the world like Dagens Nyheter in Sweden have re-invigorated themselves, but all too many for too long refused to change till it was too late and the “Newspaper Industry” is now less than half the size in revenue and circulation it was a decade ago. The Industry did not fail, its leadership failed it because if one thinks of all the new types of publishing operations that have launched from The Information to Buzzfeed to Group Nine to Substack and more the Industry is bigger than ever. It just shifted. We should all be aware of the shifts in our future. All we have to do is look outside ourselves and our industry definitions.

Last evening while being driven to this hotel from the airport, I checked in on Twitter and followed the live streaming of tweets covering the Eric Schmidt opening keynote to your counterparts, the Editors, at ASNE in Washington D.C.

Was interested in what he had to say since a) he runs Google and b) he was the opening keynoter at the other, albeit smaller conference of the newspaper industry. He was speaking to the journalists and I would be speaking to the business folks, the tech folks, the ad sales folks. Maybe I could use or steal some of his insights!

So, what did Eric Schmidt say?

A few big things like

a)    Mobile is what Google developers are focusing on

b)    There is lots of money to be made from devices like phones and pads linked to the cloud

c)    There is a “nowness” and urgency to the dissemination of the news

d)    Editors are needed if you do not believe it just go see the blogosphere

e)    There is nothing wrong with the news industry but there is something wrong with the business model

f)     Google is not interested in being in the news business

Mr. Schmidt was right in that I was following tweets about his speech in real time on a mobile device. Mobile check. Cloud check. “Nowness” check.

And the rest of what he had to say?

Not untrue.

But.

Pandering.

So, I am getting real time updates from people I follow and then a stream of tweets from the conference (of which a high percentage complain that there is too little tweeting!) and I feel pretty informed but ladies and gentlemen there are no “editors” that Mr. Schmidt believes are needed to save the blogosphere. (This morning there was no coverage of his talk in the papers I read either because the editors decided it was not important or maybe because it missed deadline?)

Yes Google is not in the business of news. It’s in the business of monetizing the news. That ladies and gentlemen is the business. Your broken business model is part of his working business model.

And finally, he says things are okay with the news industry but not the business model. I believe the very idea of what is “news” needs to be rethought. Last night when following his talk on twitter I thought it was news. No journalists. No editors. No “content” company. It was news to me because it was what I believed was news in my context (today’s speech) and it was delivered to me just when I needed it and the form I wanted.

So, in addition to what Mr. Schmidt says we also have an editing problem, a news problem and a monetization problem.

And it is going to get worse unless we rethink things and get on with it.

Why? Because underlying all the changes we see is this little thing called the Connection Engine. The Connection Engine is how I describe the Internet. People connect to share, transact, discover, and express themselves. Many years ago the Newspaper was a great connection engine in that news allowed discovery, classifieds and ads were the transaction medium, letters to editors allowed us to express and we chatted over what we had read in the papers.

This is still true for over 100 million people in the US. This is still an industry that is huge with over 40 billion of revenue. But it is one that is half the size of what it was three years ago. Yes, this year it will decline 4% versus last year’s 27%!

But being less pathetic than last year is not exactly something to feel good about.

We are living in a time of STD and there is no contraceptive but only a vaccine. A time of Seminal, Transformative and Disruptive change.  We must infect our own organizations and minds with seminal, transformative and disruptive thinking to thrive.

So, what would I do? I worry about the media industry because as media weakens it reminds me of Hemingway and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. Working in a communication company and seeing so many media partners struggle forces us to rethink our own business and in doing so we have some collateral thoughts for yours.

The Four Big Shifts

Facilitation: First ask yourself in an age where people, are marketing to themselves and learning by themselves or other people they connect with how do we facilitate this behavior?

Voices and Users: Second, in a world where not just users of a product and service but also voices (advocates and detractors) are instrumental to decisions how do we combine, curate and make convenient all this information?

Re-aggregation: Third, as marketers, advertisers, retailers struggle with fragmentation how do we re-aggregate groups large enough to affordably market to or scaled enough to impact business?  Google is an amazing re-aggregation engine in that via search and to a lesser extent AdSense it combines people who share intent one at a time into large groups. In traditional marketing we segment. We start with a mass audience (cow) and we slice it till we get a segment with a high concentration of our key audience (steak). In the online world there is no mass audience. It is an audience of one (mince) which we must re-aggregate to get a large enough audience (hamburger).

Mobility: The move to mobile has just begun. Mobility will be used to augment and accelerate services, expand and embrace new territories and in time with advanced technologies it will expand and enhance our human capabilities providing Godlike power.

All things analog are becoming digital (such as television)

All things digital are becoming mobile (iPhone, iPad…)

Most things mobile are becoming deeply linked to analog (local and retail space).

Yes, mobile increasingly is about where you are. It is about community. Who is around you? What offers? What is the reputation of the retailer? Is this a good neighborhood to live in?

I would redefine the future of your business not as “news” or “newspaper” or “content” but rather as a leader and key partner in facilitating and re-aggregating community information, history and voices for civic, retail and commercial purposes

Local is where it is at. Community will matter. Your legacy industry has some very strong assets such as sales folks, writers, and relationships with retailers as well as other voices in the community. You also have a trusted brand name that allows you to either be a leader or significant partner in what will be a huge future business.

People need a well-curated, combined and convenient resource as they meander their communities. Retailers need help in promoting and spreading the word about themselves. Marketers need to find folks in large numbers as “intent” based marketing is supplemented by “location” based marketing.

This is one idea. Maybe it is a miserable idea. But it is one aligned with where tomorrow is going and one that reflects the reality that “national news” is a two or three newspaper industry if that. And that “news” is not what it used to be.

The 10 Steps to Re-invention

As you think ahead here are some actions we can take:

1)    Run Schizophrenic Models:  Andy Grove said that only the paranoid survive. In a connected age treating everyone like a threat may no longer be the right approach. Rather consider that only the schizophrenic will thrive. Run a model for the 40 billion dollar, 100 million-reader businesses that today’s business is. It is a huge business and an important one even if declining. But then run a fresh sheet of paper business with a relentless focus on the future. When you can, give access to the new folks of the best of the old stuff but do not give them the old ways of thinking and metrics. Put some of your best people against the future and do not incentivize your people only the metrics of today (existing revenue streams, client relationships) if you expect change.

2)    Embrace Technology: We are living in an age of magic. Software coders, hardware designers, application developers and a whole lot of technologists are key to the future. You must embrace them and make them key (either hire them or partner with them). But most importantly you should use an RSS reader like Google Reader, go onto Facebook, get a Twitter account, sign on to Four Square to see how mobile and local intersect. And get yourself a mentor who is in their 20’s in your organization. Buy them a drink or a meal every month and listen. They will surprise you. Do! Learn by practicing. Otherwise, smart clients and buyers will see through the smokescreen of platitudes and buzzword bingo.

3)    Move Fast: In the past they said speed kills. Today the lack of speed kills. The future driven in part by the technology industry is rapid iteration and rapid prototyping. Please accelerate. This industry will be very different in 1000 days. Go now. Go fast.

4)    Embrace the Blur: Go to your editors and have an honest non bull shit, non-fear based, non-posturing, conversation with them. This church and state stuff is all very fine but what does it matter when the entire landmass is going underwater?  You both must serve the community and the community is the civic folks, the retailers and the readers. People out there will call you out on anything that is weird or not transparent. The folks who read or interact with you are not stupid. They are smarter than us.

5)    Get Youth: The newspaper business is struggling at attracting young people to engage with your products but may also not be getting enough talented young people to join your industry. Am not suggesting that more experienced folks like some of us are over the hill (just watch what we have in store!) but the way we consume and interact and relate, changes over the generations. A business that wants to thrive for tomorrow must make sure that it gets people who will be like the people who are alive tomorrow unless you are in the cremation business. Give folks more responsibility and more money and whatever it takes. Relative to senior salaries this is cheap.

6)    Curation. Combination. Convenience:  In a web of streams and not pages. In a world of voices and users and abundant information and content how can your business curate, combine and make convenient for folks in your community this chaotic but wonderful world. Do not think edit, do not think content, and do not think news, Think Curate. Combine. Convenient.

7)    Plan your Device, Platform and Search/Discovery Strategy: In a networked world, links matter. In a networked world, platforms like Google, Apple iTunes and Facebook and soon maybe Twitter are huge realities. They are the platforms of the future. You must have a strategy to engage. There are new devices like iPad. There are issues here with regard to closed systems and the fact that you may not know whom your consumer is, but it is a big deal with advertisers. What is your device strategy? And search. It is still there and still growing important.  It is not just Google but Twitter and Facebook and Amazon and others. Maybe instead of your search strategy what is your discovery strategy?

8)    Think Deep about Partnering: The world is moving too fast and the array of skills to vast for any company to do it alone. Partnership is very important but realize that in the world we live in most partnerships are what is called co-opetition where firms co-operate and compete. Things are grey. So, build around this reality and choose your partners well. Platform partners, technology partners, and yes content partners too (there is a lot of content you do not have).

9)    Organizational Design: The future does not fit in the containers of the past. Many organizations and incentives are optimized for the past and the people who came before. If you are to be an industry of the future you must incentivize behaviors of the future and organizational design of the future.  If everything is to protect the declining cash cow sooner or later, you will have lots of dead meat and very little milk.

10) People: In the end the future of this Industry is about you. Not about your boss, your weird colleagues, the crazies in IT and others that do not “get it”. Every firm is a wonderland filled with thousands of folks who “get it” who believe nobody else “gets it.”

So, I turn to Alice in Wonderland at the end.

Alice is asked about her “muchness”. I ask each of you where is your “muchness”?

And Alice says, “This is my dream and I will decide where it goes from here”

This is your industry and your future. You can decide where it will go from here…

If you came across this post via social media or a forwarded email you may want to sign up to receive writing like this every Sunday for no cost (except the five minutes, it will take to read) at https://rishad.substack.com/

Photography by Rishad Tobaccowala.

Rishad Tobaccowala (@rishad) is the author of the bestselling “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data” published by HarperCollins globally in January 2020. It has been described as an “operating manual” for managing people, teams and careers in the age we live in and The Economist Magazine called it perhaps the best recent book on Stakeholder Capitalism. Business and Strategy named it among the best business books of the year and the best book on Marketing in 2020. Rishad is also a speaker, teacher and advisor who helps people think, feel and see differently about how to grow their companies, their teams and themselves. More at https://rishadtobaccowala.com/