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:
- 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
- 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
- Product Planning and Development – responsible for profitably reaching audiences with value added products – print, broadcast and digital
- Sales – helping businesses and causes reach audiences
- 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
- Digital production – the networks, websites and mobile applications – both development and production
- Broadcast production – transitioning our broadcast production to high definition digital production
- Print production and distribution – producing printed products for us and others, and getting them physically distributed
- Human Resources and facilities – leading us to the proper people, in the appropriate organizations and facilities
- 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.