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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Employee Review Meetings – Tuesday, May 4, 2010

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We will be live blogging our employee review meetings at 10 AM and 2 PM on Tuesday, May 4.  This will be the first time that we have live blogged an annual review meeting, following our annual board and shareholder meetings, which were held last week.   You can follow live, and contribute comments and questions, at the CoverItLive site noted below.

The slides we will be reviewing include:

Year in Review and Work Plan

Last year at this time we were undertaking a major reorganization of the company — both to survive the most precipitous decline in revenue we had ever experienced and to position us for the speed and flexibility we need to thrive in the fast-changing local media world we are going to be experiencing for some time to come.  I am very thankful that our team was able to cut expenses commensurate with the revenue decline so that Continue reading “Year in Review and Work Plan”

Exploration to Execution

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When I started this blog, in April, 2008, all I knew was that we needed to explore new ways to fulfill our mission of being the “information provider of choice”.  After 21 months of exploration and experimentation we have a plan that needs to be executed.

There are many nuances to this plan, but the core of it revolves around Continue reading “Exploration to Execution”

Level Set

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It has been over a month since the employee meetings, and we are learning much every day.  As Mike Coleman, our Director of Technology likes to say: BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front – I am more convinced every day that we are on the right path, but we certainly don’t have the operational details of the transition all worked out, and we need lots of help to build the new local information system of the future.

That future is built on a network of information that is mobile (fluid and flexible), social, and location based.  From that network we can create better packaged products (web, print and broadcast) and with mobile and desktop applications we can let users Continue reading “Level Set”

C3?

We have our quarterly board and employee meetings this week.  We are an ESOP company, owned by our original founding families (over 126 years in business), and the Employee Stock Ownership Trust.  So everyone is interested.

The last time I made a formal report, we were having difficulty forecasting our sales, and we did not know if we would be able to cut sufficient expenses to offset our accelerating revenue declines.  We were in danger of not meeting our bank covenants.

Today, I am very appreciative that we have stabilized, thanks to the wonderful support of our customers and the hard work and dedication of our over 500 employees.  We are profitable, have positive cash flow, have met the bank covenants and have been able to maintain our cash position after paying millions of dollars to Continue reading “C3?”

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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We are way behind

When I made my presentation last week at the NAA’s MediaXChange, many commented that our C3 effort was way too far ahead of the newspaper industry.

In fact, we are too far behind in our C3 effort to be able to participate successfully in the relationship economy.

For the best overview of the intellectual framework, activities and technical infrastructure needed to make C3 work, see Dan Conover‘s wonderful piece at Xark on 2020 Vision.

As Mark Potts says, let’s bring these ideas to life.  We, and our communities, will be stronger for it.

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Powerful Communities

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As you know, I am a fan of Neil Perkin‘s slide shows.  As anyone in our company can attest, building a C3 – Complete Community Connection is challenging and disconcerting, particularly in this time of economic contraction.  When pressed about the purpose of such an effort, I commented:
a bigger goal of C3 is strengthened communities.  If each individual in the community has exactly the information they need, when and where they want it, and can develop stronger relationships with those in their defined communities, each of those communities will be stronger.
So when I heard Neil was developing a slide show about strengthening communities, sourced from the community, I was eager to see what developed.  In order to get the full flavor of this presentation, it is best to visit Neil’s site, where he gives the context of this effort and the outline of his presentation of the slides.
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