Newark mayor Cory Booker Tweeted an African proverb last week: “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”
Brilliant. And, disturbingly applicable to the current state of the newspaper industry.
One has to wonder: how could floating along on margins of 20%, 25% even 30% and higher for the past couple of decades have created executives capable of fighting through a swell or two much less the perfect storm of recession, competition and structural change crashing down on them in 2009?
Case in point, check out the Live Blog and supporting materials from the API’s recent summit on their news media economic action plan where you will find a complete lack of actual business discussion.
Oh, there was lots of discussion about the various ways newspapers are thinking of charging for content, but no discussion at all about readers and potential readers, their needs, what they value and what kinds of things they might be willing to pay for.
The session included the presentation of survey data complied by industry consultants Greg Swanson and Greg Harmon, which show a dismal perception gap between news execs and readers. When asked how difficult it would be to replace newspaper sites, 52% of visitors think it would be easy while only 31% of news providers believe so. When asked what would replace newspaper websites, the gap grows larger as 75% of news providers think it would be their print edition while only 30% of visitors agree.
News execs still aren’t looking to understand their users or to seek gaps in the marketplace, but instead they are trying to do the same old thing only now get paid for what has become free. It’s all about existing products (i.e. news and features), nothing new. What about data? What about helping users to make or save time or money? What about niche content that is rare or specialized enough to command payment?
As usual, newspapers are showing their complete lack of innovation.
I’m not talking about newsrooms. Innovation has always been encouraged and valued in newsrooms. Ask any old-timer (if you can find one) or new-comer for that matter (if you can find one) and you will be regaled with tales of brilliant journalists and the innovative techniques invented to get the story, get the quote, confirm that key fact, get the photo that proves everything…
No, I’m talking about the business side. Why is that same innovation not encouraged and valued there?
Smooth seas allowed poor business decisions, counter productive structures and lackluster talent to be rewarded, fooling managers into thinking that they were better than they were. How could they not be talented with all that money rolling in?
There are 4 P’s of marketing. Product, Promotion, Place and Price. The folks at the API summit just want to talk about price. That’s because they’re not thinking of their websites as products.
The problem has been exacerbated over the years by the belief that only editors and publishers can be trusted with the integrity of the brand. This simply isn’t true. A good product person keeps a long-term perspective and knows that the key to success is the integrity, credibility and power of their brands even if that means saying “no” to advertisers from time to time (actually, a great product manager focuses on how they can say “yes” to an advertiser while maintaining editorial integrity instead of when to say “no”).
It’s time to break the cult of the editor and publisher and bring in product development expertise. Not just someone from advertising or editorial or a committee of cross-departmental managers, but honest to goodness professional product people. Product people who will examine the market data, study the demographics, lifestyles, challenges and habits of potential readers and then bring together editorial, advertising, technology and marketing to create digital products that serve users and advertisers and do so profitably.
Make sure they are digital experts. Give them their own division. And please, hire them from outside the organization. We need some skillful sailors.