A year of learning – what are we doing?

Summarizing a year of learning

When starting this blog, a little over a year ago,  I knew we needed to learn the attributes and explore the ramifications of a new mindset.  We will not succeed in the new relationship economy with a mindset developed by and for the industrial production economy.   Openness, collaboration, transparency and engagement are all essential components of this new mindset.

Yochai Benkler explored the ramifications of this new mindset in a very deep and scholarly approach three years ago in  The Wealth of Networks.  An online seminar on this work can be found at Crooked Timber.

Jeff Jarvis explores this new mindset in a more accessible and popular approach in the first part of What Would Google Do?.  Last week,  Amber Smith applied the WWGD concepts to newspapers in a very accessible list format.

And, for those with a more graphic learning style, Neil Perkin’s slide show from last year explores how this new mindset fundamentally changes the media business.

As I mention frequently in employee meetings, I do not believe that human nature is changing. However, we are learning new behaviors, using new tools.  I do believe that we have been constrained with the limiting mindset and information production capabilities of the industrial age.  The new information tools allow each individual to express and connect with other people in previously unimaginable ways.  As with many new innovations, we tend to place these new tools within an existing mental framework (let’s push newspaper articles out into this new distribution network called the internet), instead of thinking of a new model (everyone should have access to exactly the information relevant to their needs at that particular time and place, and be able to connect with those who share similar interests through a robust local ecosystem of information).

Last June, Steve Buttry had just arrived from API with many of the concepts of his “Blueprint” for a Complete Community Connection, describing the “what” of such a local ecosystem.  Before he arrived, we had been exploring the functional requirements of a network of local information, and had come to the conclusion that no significant progress was possible without separating the functions of content creation and product production.   So, as Steve has noted, we were ready to marry his “what” with our “how”.  Just after Steve arrived, we were stunned by the largest natural disaster in Iowa’s history, the Flood of 2008, which roared through 10 square miles in the center of Cedar Rapids, severely damaging 5400 homes; 1000 businesses; city, county, state and federal offices; water, electric and sewage utilities; the main library; performing arts venues and core downtown businesses.  While just beginning to adjust to the magnitude of the rebuilding effort from that disaster, we were faced with the most precipitous financial meltdown and economic recession since the Great Depression.  So, we were a little distracted in our efforts to separate content from product.

Toward the end of last year, several major newspapers were in deep trouble, and many people were concerned about the future of newspapers.  I recently enjoyed reading how the very thoughtful Martin Langeveld explained the state of newspapers in a speech to his local club.  In a recent post, Jeff Jarvis more pointedly notes the end of printed newspapers and proposes an elegant organization for a local news ecosystem to serve metropolitan areas after they no longer have a newspaper.

Given the support we have received from many citizens of Eastern Iowa in response to the publicized difficulties of other newspapers, I think we will be serving this area with a printed newspaper for a long time to come.  However the role of the newspaper will change to be primarily a daily sense-maker in a torrent of information.  With the easy, repeated access to the fact that something happened, the unmet need is to have the events of the day, week, month and year put into perspective.   Why should I care?  What does this mean to me?  How are we affected in this area?  What are the trends?

So, after a year of exploring this new mindset and the changing economic landscape, what are we doing?

In response to the market, we know we need to both significantly reduce our costs and position ourselves for the new world.  Our company is smaller than it was a year ago, from over 600 employees to around 500 today.   Our newspaper is smaller and more focused on local news.   Our content gatherers are blogging on websites, on micro-blogs such as Twitter, and live blogs from events of interest such as trials, sporting events and the inauguration of President Obama.  We are doing more work, including printing another regional newspaper.  All of this took exploration and effort, but we are only beginning to create the elegant organization of a local ecosystem of information, and to develop how we thrive in that new ecosystem.

In order to create C3, we first need to survive.  With the significant decline in advertising revenue, we needed to cut our costs without sacrificing the activities that our readers and viewers value most.  I think we have done that.  We have maintained our readership and viewership.  We have a revenue problem, not an audience problem.

Now we need to focus our efforts on selling local businesses on the fact that we can reach the audiences they desire to reach.  We have had too much emphasis on selling our products.  We are revamping our sales efforts with a company-wide coordinated approach focused on serving messages to audiences.

We began the separation of product and content in March, and had some initial false starts.  We did not fully appreciate that the activities that support an information network do not readily support products.  In the network, the essential activities are ingesting and tagging content elements such as meaningful text, photos, audio and video; creating heavily linked explanations of events and issues; and, maintaining the local information backbone in the form of local wikis.  None of that activity results in a story for the newspaper or website, or a video segment for a newscast.   We have regrouped, and are trying new approaches to both content creation and product creation that will allow us to bridge this transition.

We have a new company-wide organization that we are rolling out in the next two weeks.  Particularly with all the changes, and some false starts, I know that many in our company have reorganization fatigue.  However, we need to get at the core of our essential activities, and organize accordingly.  Not enough people in our organization have adopted the new mindset, thought through how to transition our current activities, and been able to act.  We need to accelerate this process by starting new tasks, organized in a new way.

We start with the creation of content without any agenda other than thriving communities (i.e. we are in favor of open government, good schools, recreational opportunities, etc.,  but do not champion particularly people or causes).  Of course, we also need the creation of commercial content (i.e. content clearly with an agenda – buy this, vote for me, believe in my cause, go to this event); the creation of profitable products and the sale of commercial messages to the audiences we reach.   So, we are developing new information content, commercial content, sales and product organizations.  Our first effort is to develop robust work flows as we separate content creation from product production, and to maximize sales of our existing products and services.  We can then determine how we can create new revenue streams such as transaction fees or sales from within our existing products or the developing network.

We know that the “what” of the Steve Buttry “Blueprint” will take some time, and the actions of many people outside our company, to achieve.  We cannot invest all the time, money and effort ourselves – such a network is simply too big for any one company to take on.  Many new tools need to be developed, and many people have to change their behaviors to have a thriving network.  However, we can seed that network, show people in the communities we serve how to use the network, and encourage organic growth.  We and others need to be able to make money from the network to thrive.

We are organizing one digital production organization to explore and develop the technical aspects of the network, and distribute digital products such as websites.  Much of this will not make sense without a new user interface, and we have begun working with selected vendors on developing this new interface. We have existing organizations for television broadcast distribution and printed product production and distribution, and they will become much more flexible in order to work on many products.

As in all organizations, we depend on people, how they are hired, organized and housed, so we have one organization focused on those matters.  And last but not least, we need to account for all this, and develop auditable financial statements, and so have an organization for that.

We also recognize that a newspaper is much more to a community than a profit making advertising product.  We publish opinions on the matters of most importance to the community and are very active in community development.  We need a separate group focused on that effort, with a Publisher as leader.

So, as CEO of the operating company, I have 10 operating organizations reporting to me:

  1. Content Creation and Collaboration – developing information content “without an agenda” in such a way that the elements are fluid and flexible, and that we can deliver “packages” to existing products
  2. Commercial Content – just like 1, except clearly with an agenda – commercial content elements that are fluid and flexible, as well as packaged messages for products
  3. Product Planning and Development – responsible for profitably reaching audiences with value added products – print, broadcast and digital
  4. Sales – helping businesses and causes reach audiences
  5. Publisher – maintaining the integrity of the Opinion page of the newspaper and community development.  Works within the Product Planning and Development group (in 3 above) on the profitability of the product
  6. Digital production – the networks, websites and mobile applications – both development and production
  7. Broadcast production – transitioning our broadcast production to high definition digital production
  8. Print production and distribution – producing printed products for us and others, and getting them physically distributed
  9. Human Resources and facilities – leading us to the proper people, in the appropriate organizations and facilities
  10. Accounting – providing appropriate financial operating statistics and auditable financial statements

Some of our people realize, and are pushing for, the need for fundamental changes.  Others recognize that even relatively simple new tools, like Twitter, create amazingly deep concerns.

We need to get through this fundamental reorganization, while regaining momentum lost during the tumult of the last year, and then move swiftly and decisively to create our future information ecosystem together while enhancing our current products and services.

We are open to all who want to help, and all ideas to help us.

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16 thoughts on “A year of learning – what are we doing?”

  1. Chuck what a year. Congratulations on staying the course and providing a vision of our new media future. Our most pressing challenge is moving our organizations to exist, thrive and grow through solving effortlessly the information needs of our communities which extend beyond the platforms of our past business. But the here and now centers on being better problem solvers/business partners in the area you refer to as commercial content. For too long we have relied on selling our product now is the time to move with your content architecture concept and invest more resources on solving and selling solutions for our business communities. The following is an interesting view from the Christian Science Monitor on the Value of Journalism. http://bit.ly/W5QHV

  2. Mr. Peters,

    The Complete Community Connection vision that you and Steve Buttry have enunciated is intriguing.
    You may detect a certain hesitancy In neutral words such as “vision” and “intriguing.” Frankly I have studied C3 with a fair patience and yet I don’t feel like I have my head around it. May I ask you a few questions — some carry the baggage of skepticism, for which I apologize. Some are posed with wide-eyed curiousity:
    1) Mr. Buttry makes an allusion to creating a business in which a Gazette sub-enterprise either sells goods and services on consignment for your customers or actually takes possession of merchandise which it would mark up and resell. In exchange, the customers would receive a promotional/advertising benefit. Have you actually launched such an enterprise? To what extent would you judge it to be a successful business or a successful launch with strong potential?

    2) I would like to know if I have overlooked any business models/income streams in C3? Besides the novel “e-commerce” idea above, you have talked some and I see on your Web sites traditional “banners and buttons,” some of which are enhanced by links, audio, video other digitial capabilities. I have seen your iGuide which uses these capabilities in a business directory/yellow pages format. I have not seen, but presume you’ve contemplated, serving up ads targeted to readers whose consumer propensities are divined from their content reading and searches. I also presume you’ve thought about offering such services as building Web sites and e-commerce sites. Oh yes … there’s also paid content … that deep well of discord in our community. Perhaps you’ve thought about non-profit business models (in any war, retreat is always an option). Beyond that, what have I missed? Although many of these ideas would stretch or exhaust my small enterprise, I want to know if I missed some practical new service that might gather a significant number of paying customers.

    3) Assuming I haven’t overlooked any low-hanging fruit, which of these sources of income is contributing the most to your top line — which next fruit hangs lowest and tempts you most?

    4) Your theme of separating content and product seemed challenging at first but how much more complicated is it than this: Make sure every effort to gather information is made maximally useful by thoughtful and efficient reformatting, republishing, repurposing and archiving? Did I miss something? I don’t want to be catty, but the idea seemed no more “new school” to me than the just replating and zoning applied to Web readership communities. Yes, I know it will be hard. But my real fear is that scaled down to an audience my size it may prove unprofitably inefficient.

    5) I hope I don’t sound stuck in “old, industrial” thinking, but I worry that local content may have limited profit because it serves impractically limited audiences. Given the apparent low monetary value placed on our content (free news, free ads …), how do we assemble audiences of critically large mass and remain a source of “local” content. If that is not the problem, which products command high enough prices that they may be tailored to small, highly specialized audiences? If that is not the problem, what forms of automation/artificial intelligence exist to serve up highly specialized information with minimal human labor? And without some monopolistic protection, how do we keep that price from deteriorating faster than we can innovate?

    6) Now I’m going to challenge you with one of my ideas. Would you agree that most Web sites are modeled on the primacy of search — the presumption that the reader knows what he/she is looking for — and that a human being mentally focused in this way is not a good candidate to receive an unexpected message as often happens in advertising. If you do, do you accept the idea that this “message of serendipidity” delivered by many advertisements, is a significant value to advertisers? Now — have you examined the problem and do you have a few suggestions on how to improve the “browsability” of Web pages.

    Please excuse any tone of disrespect or hopelessness. Your columns and links have launched me on several weeks of thoughtful visualization. We are challenged but I remain hopeful that shared knowledge will lead to answers. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on our future and your consideration of my questions.

    Gratefully, Marty Weybret, publisher
    Lodi (CA) News-Sentinel

  3. In my second question — the list of potential online products — I left out this one: I also presume you put ads on push e-mail, Twitter and text messaging to cell phones and maybe even RSS feeds.

  4. Marty –

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and for including your team in these discussions. As I mentioned in our email exchange, I have been in all day meetings this week, and have not had the time to properly frame my responses.

    However, Steve Buttry was with me in those meetings, and we were with a very diverse group of newspaper and online executives who are also exploring new business models, so we had vigorous discussions about many of these issues. Steve Buttry had some more time yesterday to gather his thoughts, and I hope he responds soon.

    As a quick response, I would note that all of us in this industry are struggling with revisiting the fundamental concepts on which we have based our business for more decades than any of us currently in the business have been involved. That is not an easy task.

    My main purpose in starting this blog was to engage with others struggling with the same re-envisioning, and to share our learnings. I would never have imagined that it would have taken us this long to get to actual actions (but of course the worst natural disaster in Iowa’s history intervened).

    As you will note from my latest post, we have just completed, and are beginning to operate in, a new organization that is different in many fundamental ways. I do believe that this new organization gives us the best chance of being able to focus our energies on creating the real world experiments in implementing new ways to connect with our community, and be paid for those connections.

    As you can also tell from this blog, I am a big fan of Neil Perkin’s slide shows and blog. Neil’s latest post on the changing media landscape might be of interest to you. It can be found at http://neilperkin.typepad.com/only_dead_fish/2009/06/making-money-from-social-2.html

    I look forward to sharing more specific comments with you shortly.

    Thanks again for engaging in this conversation. You ask very appropriate questions.


  5. Buttry is still around? My friends at the Gazette (or Gazfriends) told me had basically been marginalized and was merely collecting a paycheck at this point. Nice to read otherwise.

    Keep up the good work gentlemen. You’ll have the Gazette COMPLETELY unrecognizable with a few more makeovers.

  6. I’m probably going to spoil the party with a negative comment (in fact, I’ll be surprised if it shows up).

    What, exactly, have you gained in the last year? You cut a lot of quality journalists with knowledge of the area. You have cut the newspaper, the product most in the community identify with, into a shell of its former self, and people are fleeing. If anything, you have taken a step back.

    Are you making money on blogs? Are you making money on Twitter? Didn’t think so.

    Meanwhile, Steve Buttry, the super genius behind this, has been relegated to a lower-level room running out the clock on his contract.

    I am sad at the continued demise of a quality product. Your spin doesn’t change that fact.

  7. Knox Fan and Big Ten Midget highlight the inherent contradictions in trying to transform an existing media company to play in the new game of the networked economy, particularly in the midst of the worst media economy in anyone’s memory.

    I am working on a new blog post to try to sort out the multiple transitions. However, in direct response to the comments/rumors that Steve Buttry has been marginalized/relegated and is running out the clock/contract, I offer the following comments:

    1. The coming of the networked economy is like an advancing glacier – we are trying to stay on top of it, rather than be crushed beneath it.
    2. The overwhelming magnitude of change in individual work, work flows, relationships, technical infrastructure and business models will challenge us all for as long as I can forsee.
    3. In order to play in this new world, we need to survive the current economic crisis.
    4. Steve Buttry is a key part of our efforts to create our participation in the networked economy. To focus his efforts on short term survival would be a waste of his talents and to our long term detriment.
    5. Much of our work on the networked economy is deep foundation, “sub-basement” work. The consuming public is not going to see the results for some time.
    6. The work that Steve, and others, are doing to create the networked economy should not be confused with the changes at The Gazette newspaper, which is the responsibility of Dave Storey, the Publisher. Dave and Lyle Muller, the Editor, have been very transparent in the factors driving the changes with The Gazette to date, and those to come, as they try to find the right formula for the printed newspaper.

    Thanks for pointing out the confusion.


  8. We all look to get the right formula, and this “model” seems to be a good approach. It’s sad that in all of our working lives, we become complacent and criticize when we’re unsure of tomorrow.

    It’s here.

    This is our yesterday, however it progresses.

    I am a fan of the Gazette and quite a few other local papers that i read daily on line.

    We need synergy to capture and keep our base of readers. Anyone with a better idea can speak up, in the meantime, the Gazette’s movement is being watched by important industry folks nationwide.

    Let’s hope it bears fruit.

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