03-31-18 | Printable Version

Industry Strategies: How working together bilaterally and multilaterally will move our industry forward

Since leaving McClatchy last year, I’ve looked at various positions, including a number beyond media. One I found to be particularly cool was the COO of Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware, working for the company’s founders. I extensively researched the company, which is currently the 12th largest craft brewer in the U.S. and noted for the originality of its products and focus on collaboration and community. Unfortunately, I was late to the process and didn’t get the job.

Still, my research on the company and its philosophy stuck with me. One point made by co-founder Sam Calagione during a 2015 TedX talk in Wilmington, Delaware, struck a chord with me.

He said, “The industry I work in itself is exemplary for its prioritization of collaboration, its altruism [and] its mutual support because collectively the 3,200 small breweries in America share less than 10 percent market share. As much as you might hear about … Sam Adams, and it’s ubiquitous, Sam Adams controls 1% domestic market share in America. The other biggest American brewery, the Yuengling family-owned brewery up the road from us here, [has] 1% market share. Two foreign-owned conglomerates control over 80% domestic market share. So again, thinking collaboratively, the 3,200-odd craft breweries in America recognize that we have way more to gain standing shoulder to shoulder and that rising tides float all ships and we take opportunities to work with each other and to help each other.”

Eighty percent. Sound familiar? So I thought about the news business. After all, local news organizations try to craft a high quality product for their communities. But why do we work so hard to reinvent the wheel when our energy should be spent on creating new ways to provide high quality journalistic and advertising experiences that sustain paying customers and create new consumption patterns that, as Mr. Calagione said, “float all ships”?

While at McClatchy, I was as guilty as anyone of “not-invented-here” disease. Upon reflection, during my time as its CEO, I should have pushed harder for all of us to work together and find more solutions for our business challenges. And I should have accepted more offers to do so. While historically the company was at the center of many industry partnerships, there were many more we could have done together.

For example, our industry has developed 100 ways to do a paywall. Many of us copied what was done before us, added our own twist, and then rarely gave the originator credit. How much more powerful would it have been for the industry to decide jointly on the right strategy so we could have come out with one marketing message? In the focus on local, it’s easy to forget how much marketing is now national. It took years for consumers to understand what paywalls were all about, and only recently has the industry begun to surmount that confusion.

Another example is digital agencies. According to local digital guru Gordon Borrell, less than half of all newspapers have digital agencies with their own identities. Operators developed those agencies in myriad ways. I am surprised that half still don’t have one. What resources will be used up by those other operators to develop their own go-to-market strategy when another group should be perfectly happy to white label a product for them? A local digital marketing agency with its own brand identity should be as ubiquitous for newspapers as classified advertising was in its zenith, or having a website is now.

The industry’s CEOs ought to take an even stronger collaborative position to help offset the competitive threat coming from all sides. Here are some ideas:

Take every advantage of existing collaboration networks. 
Use the organizations that work and try to get more out of them. News Media Alliance. Inland/SNPA. Local Media Association. Local Media Consortium. The Matter media accelerator. Nucleus. AP. ONA. There are lots of points of intersection, but instead of joining forces, operators often copy what they hear from speakers at conferences and put their own twist on it. Does the industry have time for that? If you don’t like some aspect of what those organizations are doing, it’s your obligation to work with them to see if they can fix it, or else to convince you theirs is the better way. And stop doing those initiatives that aren’t working.

Be open to new models for high quality newsgathering.
Others have come into the industry with fresh and patient capital, ready to take on your politics bureau, your sports coverage or your features section. More are coming every month. If you partner with your peers, you may find you can afford better coverage, albeit with less control, while concentrating efforts in areas where your publication really must excel. Focus on what makes your publication unique, and partner everywhere else. It is by that creativity that the industry can say it has truly tried everything to focus its journalistic resources on the areas of greatest community impact.

Adopt best-in-class solutions, even if they were developed by someone else.
Nearly all newspaper ownership groups, whether having one or dozens of markets, have developed business strategies that can be considered best in class or nearly so. When another operator has a best-in-class solution, use it. Take that development time and put it toward areas more important to your other solutions. There will surely be screw-ups, but they can be fixed and don’t justify the lost opportunity from failure to innovate together. And if groups are truly collaborating back and forth, there is additional incentive for all to perform their assigned tasks as well as possible for all.

Innovate.
A note about innovation. I applaud all efforts to come up with new business models for engaging with our readers and advertisers. Our people should be supported and encouraged to try new approaches. A culture of experimentation, rapid iteration and permission to fail –but fail fast before losses become too great – should be fostered throughout our industry. For some of our industry’s larger challenges, experimentation should be taken on more broadly. We’ve seen some examples of great success through coordination that resulted in massive payoffs: Careerbuilder.com; Cars.com; Apartments.com. In earlier times, I would argue The Associated Press has had an enormous pay-off for publications that needed an economical way to cover the globe with high quality, in-depth reporting. External entrepreneurship through Matter, internal product development and joint ventures all need to be prioritized and funded.

Owner Strategies.
Owners, you don’t get to escape these collaboration imperatives either. Think about what you want out of your businesses. Capital is scarce, so the industry will be helped by making better use of it. Have you considered whether there is a better owner for your print and digital properties? Does it make more sense for you to sell or swap your market for someone else’s? Might you be better off jointly owning some of your publications with another owner to benefit from regional synergies? Are you managing your publication for cash rather than focusing on the long-term digital opportunity? Good journalism in the long-term will keep your organization trusted and relevant. Focusing on immediate profit rather than on the long-term will invite new entrants into your market and damage your market position. Be intentional about where you are focusing your investment. That may force some difficult conversations, but in the end your organization will be more sustainable, more digitally oriented and better positioned for the long road ahead.

Recognize and accept that every year there will be some new wave to deal with.
Some of us wanted the internet to go away. It didn’t, and mobile devices and social networks were launched on top of it. Then the Great Recession reared its ugly head. And who would have forecast a president whose mission, it seems, in part, is to damage our collective brand equity? The new normal is accelerating, rather than lessening change. Are you positioned for it? Has the industry even come together to debate what success in this digital world even looks like? I’m sure that is subject to dozens of opinions as well.

Industry leaders are only stewards of these publications. Those in a position to do so owe it to posterity to see them through this difficult transition to digital so their impact on the American experiment can continue to be strong. Our nation’s founders believed enough in the impact of journalism to codify it into the Constitution. Let us be worthy of that trust.