Elevator Speech

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Several people have asked me to succinctly describe what we are doing.  This is my best shot as of now.  If you have a better way to describe any part of this, please weigh in!

We need to act like a startup company. Yes, we have a long history, and many assets, but the changes we need to make are so great that we are in effect a startup.

Every startup needs an elevator speech – a quick proposal to potential investors describing what they’ll do, why it is special and how they will make money, all within the time of an elevator ride.

In 1883, and 2003, our speech would have been:

We live in a geographical community, and will serve it by creating a product that journals major events in that community and brings in news of the world to that community.  We will pay for this effort, and provide a good return to investors, by selling space next to those journals for commercial messages.

That view was developed in a time of information scarcity.  Community was presumed, and distributing what had occurred was adequate. We were a fire hose, spraying information across the community, and renting a part of the stream for advertisers – an impression based business. This is generally a high cost model, with particularly high costs-per-unit for local information.  Whether newspaper or television (which have both been ported to the web), the costs of gathering, producing and distributing local information are high.   We have been following this model profitably for a long time, but our communities are not as engaged, connected or informed as they could be.  This suggests we are not adding all the value we could be adding.

Today, just reporting what happened is not adequate.  The digital revolution gives publishing power to everyone, and the cost of distributing “what happened” now approaches zero.  When we provide a high cost newspaper or television program, the result must be a remarkable user experience.

We need to reduce our costs, and greatly increase our value.  Many companies try the traditional budget cuts, but one of the more powerful methods for reducing costs can come from sharing the costs of production with a much larger network.  We are doing some of that now with regional printing, but can do much more in broadcasting and digital production.

The increase in value can come from two divergent paths.  The first is to begin to act as a convener on selected critical community issues.  We expand our role from simply journaling, and truly engage knowledgeable and progressive community members to develop local, actionable knowledge.

The second is to give people precisely the information they want, when they want it, in the format of their choosing. Our approach to that daunting but immensely valuable challenge is to create atomized information that flows through user-defined applications directly to the user’s location via any device, in real time.

Both of those paths require completely different approaches, skills, technology and culture than we were using last year.  We cannot make these changes all at once, but we can start today.

Today, our elevator speech is:

We curate a usable and valuable local information network, and provide access to it through products and services that are built to adapt to the needs and aspirations of the people who use them, in real time, where they are.  We will pay for this effort, and give a return to our investors, by getting paid by entities for valuable attention to and transactions with them, in addition to traditional impressions.

To enable this startup to survive, we must have a strong group of associates, each creating new tools and capabilities with a common purpose of enabling the creation of strong communities, and stronger individuals within those communities.  Our allegiance is to the network of information, not to any particular access point.

Our mission is clear, to Engage, Connect and Inform our Communities, but our tools and capabilities are weak, having been designed for outdated purposes. We need to curate local, usable information to enable individual action and the development of multiple communities of interest.   We must also act as a model for and provide tools to others wishing to do the same in a local information network.  We then provide access to that network through multiple points of entry – mobile, online, broadcast and print – with each entry point designed to create a remarkable user experience.

Our journalists cannot presume community, and journal about it.  We need constructors of local, actionable information, deeply engaged with core contributors within selected communities of interest, and in connection with those who can also contribute to that effort in service to the larger community of interest. We are not alone in this view.  Many have articulated the need for fundamental changes in local information. In recent examples,  Jonathan Stray called for usable information and The Guardian reviewed its open door for those wishing to contribute. Jay Rosen at NYU summed up 25 years of thinking about these issues.   We announced this week that I will be working with Jim Burke, Kiran Sood and Sarah Binder to develop a model for this process focused on how we create value in Iowa’s Creative Corridor.

Our salespeople are not just selling white space or air time.  They are engaged with those entities seeking attention and transactions, enabling them to use the most effective means to achieve their goals. We have organized to provide that service, and describe it in this new videoDan Conover wrote about changing the game for local advertisers in 2005.  Can we do it now?  Chris Edwards is leading the charge. His group is exploring many new options, including completely individualized printing through our new press at ColorWeb Printers.

Our product creators should not be stuck in the current forms, seeking prizes for current standards of excellence.   For example, we are trying to engage the community in new ways through our locally produced broadcasts on 9.2.   Tim McDougall and the team at fusionfarm are exploring digital products and services, including direct commercial transactions. Polly Forinash and the team at Colorweb Printers is exploring very innovative ways to marry print and digital marketing.

We are attempting a very difficult task – taking a legacy business and transforming it in very fundamental ways, while keeping the old business thriving.  Many have said that it is too hard – that we should just continue the old business and create a new business separate from it.

Our key value is our relationship with the communities we serve.  If we split those relationships, we will only confuse ourselves and our communities.

What do you think?

Thanks,

Chuck

NOTE:  This post was updated September 21, 2013 from a post originally posted on April 26, 2011.  It was nice to see that the themes have remained the same.  It was updated to reflect the start of fusionfarm, and the announcement this week that I am starting a new initiative in the newsroom.

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13 thoughts on “Elevator Speech”

  1. As someone who has watched with interest for a long time, I believe SM is innovative in this approach.
    As a consumer, as an advertiser and as a community member, it still feels like there is some link missing.
    SM could approach sales as if they are an advertising agency themselves, with their family of products, as well as selling for other outlets on a compensated basis, and help their advertisers be strategic instead of. Calling to re-up their advertising contracts, or having one rep call for one product and another call for a different one.
    As an agency owner, I’d welcome dialogue about what is best for clients, rather than one sided selling. If your reps understand marketing as. It relates to advertising, and how to become a part of the planning processinstead of inserting themselves into a process underway, they add value to your products.
    As for developing community, so many things are on the right track, but again, the link between outlets is shaky. It’s not so much cross promotion that needs to happen, it’s more a matter of bringing it all under one umbrella.
    That entails negotiating with nostalgia, which is difficult, but in the end, your goal is to become one news source that is available to every citizen in whatever medium they prefer for delivery.
    It will break both hearts and ground when you do it, but eventually it can get there.

  2. This is a great post Chuck…but I just don’t understand how you plan to accomplish this goal with the same game you’ve been in for the last 5-7 years.

    It is very clear you have made some interesting shifts in the way you present the news. I would say the most “innovative” being what you have done from the reporting angle.

    But, what has changed with the paper, with KCRG? Can you change those and feel comfortable you will not isolate any current customers/users? And sales – man, I love the concept in the video you linked to, but hope you can commit yourself to being media consultants…that is very hard to change. I wish you good luck – very difficult to do.

    I agree with the statement:
    “Our key value is our relationship with the communities we serve. If we split those relationships, we will only confuse ourselves and our communities.”

    Here are my questions:
    1. What IS your relationship with the community?
    2. What are you doing different today with that relationship that is different than the things you have done in the past?
    3. How can you accomplish both the “old” way and the “new” way simultaneously?

    Again, love the post…and I wish you all well.
    tom

  3. Thanks for the comments. I will try to add color to Jen and Tom’s thoughts as it relates to the advertiser effort.

    Jen is spot on with regard to taking an agency approach to our conversations with our clients. Of the 35 sales folks we employ (with a variety of responsibilities), I would say that we had five years ago we had three or four who were having a truly consultative, wholistic conversation. Part of that was being slave to a single product and some of it was lack of training or management in that direction. Today, I would say that number is probably closer to nine or ten. We have opened up the product set a little bit to expand the reps capabilties and have spent a lot of time working on the concept of focusing on client goals first and THEN presenting a solution.

    Interestingly, what we have found is that our clients are craving a couple of things:

    1) A streamlined approach to utilizing our products (so we have restructured our teams to give us the opportunity to intelligently move that direction on a client by client basis as is appropriate).

    2) Better thought out and more cohesive creative across product types, done in a way that leaves them some money to actually spend on getting the message out there with enough frequency to impact their business. One of the greatest challenges many of our small and mid-size clients face is that they only have enough money to either get poorly done creative out there in high frequency, or get great creative out there not nearly frequently enough to get results. We are hoping to bridge that gap through some internal structural changes that have already gotten high marks in the early stages.

    To Tom’s point about committing to change, it is indeed difficult, but there really is no choice. Any business has to respond to the needs of the marketplace and we are no different (other than it appears to have taken a century for the media industry to understand that concept clearly). We made a fairly hard strategic left turn in January that wasn’t without pain. However, we are seeing more frequent examples of “wins” for both the reps who are working to change and the clients they serve. As the product group continues to develop new and unique ways to help our advertisers connect with our audiences, I believe the sales team is much better positioned to make the best choices for our clients.

    Still a work in progress, but we’ve learned more in the last four months than in the two years prior.

  4. Chuck,

    insightful post. Lots of thoughts here from my end but I will focus on just one and potentially (if time permits) more later on.

    From your post:

    “…curate local, usable information to enable individual action and the development of multiple communities of interest.”

    Specifically “usable information.” Who decides this? And I’m picking on myself here to explain this.

    For those that don’t know: I started my career as a traditional journalist, left the industry to produce training videos for financial industries, started my own website on the side (EasternIowaNews.com) and then returned to SourceMedia in 2010. In the last year I have worked several projects and have now completely moved to the business side of things. So, I wouldn’t call myself a journalist anymore and haven’t been one since Aug. 2007.

    But when I was a journalist, “useful information” was what I (or my editor(s) deemed useful. If it wasn’t deemed useful it would end up nowhere. It wasn’t published.

    Today, I see that “useful” means different things to different people.

    Here’s an example: In March I went to a small performance of Magician Nate Staniforth. I filed this little bity article here: http://easterniowalife.com/2011/03/30/magician-nate-staniforth-performs-to-small-crowd-in-cedar-rapids/

    Now, rewind five years and ask me if that “article” provided “useful information.” I would have told you that it didn’t. Perhaps knowing when the next show was has some value to some.

    But, that article was shared almost 40 times by people on social media networks. I’m assuming they saw some “useful information” or else they wouldn’t have passed it on to friends.

    My point: I believe it’s important to find “playgrounds” for just about all information as long as it’s not slanderous, offensive, etc., because it might be useful to somebody.

    Christoph

  5. To go further on Christoph’s comment: Useful information is whatever the audience defines as useful.

    So to the question of who decides what is useful information, ultimately the audience decides. We’re as good as our ability to understand what our audience finds useful and our ability to provide it.

    I’m not intending for this to be some kind of philosophical stance. It’s definitional for me. If nobody “uses” the information … it’s not “useful.” It doesn’t matter how brilliant we think we are as a news organization.

    The friction point in conversations about this usually happens around topics that we (as a news organization) feel our audience *needs* to know, even if they’re not asking for it.

    And that’s a fair point. For me, that’s where context comes in. If we feel our audience “needs to know something they don’t know they need to know,” then it’s our job to set up the context so they can understand why it’s important. That’s part of the value we provide our community.

    And *that* said, I also believe most news organizations (ours included) can do a better job establishing context. It has always been an issue, but it’s becoming a more acute issue in this new era of information overload.

    As for Paul’s question about “what is your relationship with your community” … it’s a great question, and one that requires some more thought to develop a less-than-novel-length answer. (Code for “that’s a really broad, complicated question.”)

  6. Hi Chuck,

    As I told you earlier today: I think the direction is spot on but I don’t quite know if it’ll do as a elevator pitch for people who aren’t familiar with your blog and the changes SourceMG has gone though.

    I love the two-pronged approach with community engagement on the one end and contextualized, atomized, tailored information on the other… but it’s awfully abstract, isn’t it? There are so many good ideas out there, we know what we have to do, but now’s the time for execution and tangible output. Then you won’t need an elevator pitch, you’ll just say, “Here’s my newspaper, and you can visit us at thegazette.com and kcrg.com. See for yourself. Feel it.” Demos, not memos, as Matt Waite would say.

    Cheers,
    Stijn

  7. But thats the crux isn’t it Stijn? The output “thingy”.

    We can resolve sales and advertising process issues within SourceMedia without changing any of our product offerings. We won’t take anything new to market, but I haven’t seen anything from a process perspective that leads me to believe we can’t do whats being purposed already(with a bunch of work of course, I’m not downplaying the effort to do new things in sales/advertising). To me, the product that goes to the customer that makes advertisers want to be with us is the main unanswered question of the new era. Yes, that “thingy”.

    Content people will create content. Yes, they can add more context and do more things in various formats. Win.

    Advertising people will create advertisements. Yes, we tailor our services to suit our customers and provide more cross-selling. Win.

    We can improve our business without touching any “thingy”

    But here is the question I want to answer. What do communities want and how are we helping them get what they want?

    Here are some things I want:

    have the ability to share my feelings on a piece of content.
    have the ability to ask questions to the curators of that content with prompt feedback.
    have the ability to suggest new topics to trusted journalists who take the time to find out answers for my “community”.
    have the ability to vote on other community suggestions and help decide the importance of new content.
    have the ability to see what other people liked most today, yesterday, last week, last month, last year.
    have the ability to see what other people viewed most today, yesterday, last week, last month, last year.
    have the ability to go to one site for my information irregardless of device and user interface fits my device perfectly.
    have the ability to ignore people in my community because I do not like their views or attitudes.
    have the ability to ignore types of content that I do not value today based upon a vast set of filters.
    have the ability to change what content I value whenever I want.
    have the ability to tag content for my own welfare and it is private to me.
    have the ability to view content based upon sub-community groups of my choice (not just what my friends like but also what my family likes, what my poker club likes, what my doctors like, what my computer geek friends like, what my neighborhood likes, what my zip code likes, what my city likes, what my government officials like, etc…)
    have the ability to turn off advertisements (even if it means paying a fee).
    have the ability to …

  8. Thank you all for the very thoughtful comments. Jen notes very well that this is clearly a work in process, and I think Chris responded very well to Jen. Tim ran out of time with Tom, so I will weigh in on Tom’s questions. Christoph notes well that we as a centralized company cannot ever understand what might be useful to someone, and Paul drives home the types of individualization that will be necessary to meet the needs of the community. Stijn agrees directionallly, but is clamoring for demos, and so am I.

    To Tom’s questions –

    1. It is not one relationship, but a complicated set of interlocking relationships. But at least we acknowledge that, and are not just trying to be a firehouse of information, and renting that stream. When you think of all the relationships that could result if we fill Paul’s needs, the possibilities are infinite. I won’t attempt to describe them.
    2. The two big things we need to do differently are described in the two divergent paths of creating value – convener on critical issues and curator of flowable atomized information.
    3. The only way to accomplish both the old and the new at the same time is to make the old a subset of the new. Create the atomized content that is flowable in the first instance, convene the critical conversations around those atoms, and have the products reflect that process. We cannot focus on the legacy products first, and expect to make the new work.

    I want what Paul wants, and more. I would want all that flexibility if I had lots of time to explore. I also want to be able to have my device know who I am, where I am, and what my major interests are. I would then like to be able to set my timeline of interest – from I need immediate help, to I am exploring for something in the next few hours, to I am exploring for something in the next few days, to general exploration to “feed me, I am bored”.

    We can’t create the filters that Paul and I want if we don’t create content differently in the first instance.

    What do you think?

    Thanks,
    Chuck

    1. Reed –

      I am not sure we have met. Can you be more specific about what does not make sense to you in this post?

      Our fundamental business model is changing. I have been told by others how confusing I am, often from those who have only known the current business model. However, I persist in pursuing this direction because I believe we can serve our community much better by being a trusted information hub, enabling actionable local information and easing commercial transactions.

      If my writings don’t make sense to you, have you read Mathew Ingram, particularly his recent writing about engagement?

  9. I would only add that, were I charitably read Reed’s comments, it is the case that forging into new territory often involves groping in a rough direction. Let me state for the record that I’m whole-heartedly convinced that the author of this post is groping in exactly the right direction, but the precise contours of the destination are still obscured. This can lead to a bifurcation in readers – those who are also thinking in the same direction and thus ‘get’ what’s being said and those who aren’t yet in the same mind-space and thus find it to be little more than empty words. The burden rests with us to work towards being more precise.

  10. Dear Chuck,

    I finally got around to reading your proposed “elevator speech” from April 26, 2011.

    “We curate a usable and valuable local information network, and provide access to it through products and services that are built to adapt to the needs and aspirations of the people who use them, in real time, where they are. We will pay for this effort, and give a return to our investors, by getting paid by entities for valuable attention to and transactions with them, in addition to traditional impressions.”

    Comment:

    I wonder what’s happened to the heart of journalism — the news and information gathering, news and information vetting and news and information writing process — in this description? It seems to be missing. The first first verb is “curate.” What about reporting? Curation seems as though it is the second task.

    Don’t you need to collect something to curate before you curate it?

    Curation is an interesting idea, and it opens up the pipeline to all manner of valid and useful material, but many news organizations base their reputation on their credible ability to gather and verify information before they publish it.

    I always think of journalists as information consultants to the community — seeking out, gathering, and verifying key information a community needs to know.

    They need not, and should not be the only sources available to explain the issues of the day. But in a busy world, where most people don’t have the time or resources to tackle this complex information-gathering task, shouldn’t journalists assist the community in this way?

    How does the news and infomration gathering process fit into your formulation? And if it does, doesn’t it belong in the elevator speech?

    Paul Steinle

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