Wednesday 21 November 2018

Is legacy media the new opera?

Lucy Kueng
Lucy Kueng
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Legacy news outlets have had over two decades to get to grips with the internet. But they've struggled. As a result many media outlets with a proud tradition of social and cultural prominence - not to mention healthy profit margins - are finding that their influence is on the wane in the face of agile digital pure plays, and online advertising giants.

But help is at hand in the form of a new report from Lucy Kueng, an author and strategic adviser to media organisations. Going Digital. A Roadmap for Organisational Transformation reads like a playbook for legacy media organisations struggling with the digital evolution.

"There is an existential threat to the classic media," Kueng,says. "There's a risk with quality journalism that if they don't move with some very difficult shifts, they could find themselves in a position similar to opera in the world of music. You could end up with a field that is massively respected, but people don't really engage with it any more. It's elitist, it's expensive, it's subsidised. People want it to be there but they don't really care very much if they're involved."

But the fat lady isn't singing just yet. And according to Kueng, it's because successful news organisations are adopting four key elements. First, they have an unwavering long-term goal that's aligned with their journalistic mission. Second, they have a clear business model. Third, they've a rigorous process for realising the potential in 'shiny new things' and the opportunity cost of pursuing them.

Finally, they possess a 'central nervous system' that combines technology and data. Kueng, pictured, also points out that the more successful companies know when to walk away from low-potential ventures.

But there's one other common thread to the news organisations that are meeting the challenge: they know they're fighting for survival. "The ones that have their act together are the ones that are really worried," Kueng says. "They're not at all complacent. They don't feel that they have their act together. They're just more aware of the battle that has to be fought and the true contours of this battle. In 'Stranger Things' terms, they've seen the monster in the upside down world. They know what it is they're facing."

And what they're facing is the fact that they've suddenly shrunk in comparative size due to platforms like Google and Facebook. "Essentially what the platforms have done is redefined mass," Kueng says. "If you were a mass-market player in the UK market, you are now a minnow. Even in America, the New York Times is a minnow when its turnover is viewed against that of Alphabet. So they're now all niche players and they're fighting for a fraction of the revenues they once had."

But Kueng doesn't see the digital platforms as threats; rather, companies from which traditional news publishers should learn. "The platforms are so well run as organisations and I think that's where legacy media leaves so much on the table. It's never been an industry that's really cared about good management. It's cared hugely about good content. But I think now they need to focus on talent and copy the platforms."

Kueng's report features a host of testimonials from the Financial Times, the Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph, Bild and more about attracting, developing and retaining talent, particularly now that modern media companies need new teams with new skills . Here's one quote: "Most people worry about the business model of journalism, but my biggest worry is talent. If I can continue to attract and retain people who could go to Google, or Facebook or Uber, we'll be fine. The day I can't do that we start the long slide again."

But many media companies are failing to recognise that these firms are following long-term strategies Kueng says. "What was really clear was the degree to which rigorous, tough long-term strategy, which might throw up nasty conclusions, is not happening.

"Most organisations that look at this report will say 'well, we're doing this. We have a data team, we have a digital storytelling team. We've experimented with AR, we talk to Facebook'. But it's all about detail; the calibre of execution, the degree of reflection and the rigour with which you do these things."

And burnout is an issue.

"The problem is the resource scarcity and the amount of learning that has to be done," Kueng says.

"There are some people that are too tired. For the people who are pushing these changes through, it's completely exhausting. Digital storytelling is really fun, data is completely seductive once you get into it, but transforming organisations is a grind."

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