Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Putting the "digital" guys in charge will not turn around old media companies; sorry, it's just not as simple as that

I read a tweet this morning that immediately got my attention as it had something to do with putting "digital people in charge of everything." But in the end it was just a tweet, not something that should be taken all that seriously as an argument.

But the issue of who should be running operations at many publishing firms is still an issue of importance, and I believe is very much unresolved. The reason for this is that too many media executives are looking for easy answers.

The whole digital versus print debate is bogus to begin with. Anyone who can reduce the whole state of the industry to as simple a formula as digital versus print is not to be taken seriously.
A good example of this can be seen at one newspaper company, recently emerging from bankruptcy. I don't want to get personal here so there is no reason to name the company, you'll get the idea. This company recently brought on a bunch of digital gurus and its CEO is well known to be an advocate of digital media. But is this, by itself, a formula for success? Hardly.

A quick look at the management team shows the same weaknesses many media firms have: it is a company run by old, white guys. As for the digital gurus, I would hardly call them a forward thinking bunch if they continue to advocate for strategies straight out of the last decade. As a result, this company has yet to launch mobile or tablet applications, and their websites are some of the ugliest on the net. Some digital strategy!

The point is not to criticize fellow New Media folk, but to point out that the road to success won't be reached through so simple a formula. Have digital people run things (and I'm one of those) is great . . . if the digital folk have some track record of success; also, if those same people can write, edit, sell, produce and distribute. They can't, you need a team in this business.

That is why it is important that media executives understand that the biggest issue revolves around disruptive management: new ideas, procedures and rules placed on top of a stagnant workflow. Every reporter, editor and sales person wants to success digitally, they just often don't want things to change very much personally. This problem has existed for more than a dozen years now – the ol' issue of change.

The web is old enough now that we have digital gurus who are so wedded to web publishing that they are closed off to the new platforms emerging at an accelerating pace. Their advice is often to not get drawn into the new platforms but to instead concentrate on areas where they feel more comfortable. As a result, there are media companies out there right now who think they are digital leaders but are looked at from the outside as dinosaurs.

One thing that I have learned in the 15 months of publishing TNM is that there is a whole new generation of talent that needs to be incorporated into the old newspaper and magazine management structure. Smart, young, creative individuals whose ideas need to be unleashed within the industry. Instead, we forcing these brilliant people to become competitors. It won't turn out well for the old guys.

(Note: don't read too much into the Flipboard graphic. I just used it as an example of creative thinking for a new digital platform.)