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 Employee Live Blogs

We will be discussing the state of the company and the implications of the changing community information environment outlined in my recent post C3 with interested employees over the next two days. In the spirit of transparency and maximum participation, please join us for a live blog of at least two of the upcoming employee meetings.  For those employees not able to attend in person, all the slides, including financial data, are available on the private company intranet.  For those without access to the private intranet,  the slides, numbered as they will be during the presentation, can be found here: Continue reading “C3 Employee Live Blogs”

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?”

Reflections after #MTS at Google

I have been back from the Media and Technology Summit (#mts on Twitter) for 10 days.  The reentry back into work and an early Winter in Iowa has been harder than usual.  Some of that is due to the pace of play in October, coupled with some strong personal challenges for very close friends.  But much of that is due to the deep tensions coming out of three days in Mountain View which were very well organized by Alan Mutter (@newsosaur)

John Temple (@jtemplermn) started us out with sobering reflections on the last decades of the Rocky Mountain News.  We shifted immediately into the latest semantic tools.  Several of the slide shows can be found at this “event” on Slideshare.

The immediate, and lasting, impression is that there are three levels of complex revolutions taking place.  The first revolution is Continue reading “Reflections after #MTS at Google”

Media Technology Summit by UC Berkeley at Google

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Dean Neil Henry, Adjunct Professor Alan Mutter (@newsosaur on Twitter) and the faculty and staff of the University of California at Berkeley have arranged a very interesting group of presenters and participants which are meeting at the Google headquarters in Mountain View California starting at 8:30 AM PDT September 30th and continuing on October 1.

I was asked to arrange Cover It Live events of the sessions. It is a full day and a half as you can see from the schedule.

For the benefit of the participants and any observers or commentators, the Cover It Live event for October 1 is below.

Click Here

The replay of the first day, Sept 30 is below.

Click Here

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Focus on Essential New Tasks

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As business models change, those who pursued the old model are often portrayed as stupid or evil.  Creating a new model is very hard work.

Our C3 work is all about exploring, and creating, new models.   Many in our industry seem to be stuck on erecting walls around the old model. As I noted recently,

the emotional connections we maintain to products and companies often blind us to the relevant tasks of creating a product agnostic local ecosystem of information

We need to focus on creating the new ecosystem for local information, and the appropriate economic exchange for using that system.

While warning us of the dead ends of the old models and attempts to preserve them, recent lengthy posts by Bill Wyman ended with:

And, of course, they are too wedded to past practices.

If I were running a chain of papers, here’s what I’d do:

1)    Go hyper local; devote all resources, from reporting to front-page space, to local news. No one cares what the Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch has to say about Iraq.

2)    Redesign the websites to present users with a single coherent stream of news stories and blog entries. Create simple filters to allow them to tailor the site to their preferences.

3)    Tell the union you won’t be touching salaries, but that all work rules are being suspended, including seniority rights. Tell all reporters that they’re expected to post news if word of it reaches them in what used to be thought of as “after hours.”

4)    Get out of the mindset of “nice” coverage. Tell the reporters to find the “talker” stories in town—development battles, corrupt pols, anything with a consumer bent. Monitor web traffic to find out what people are interested in. If a particular issue jumps, flood the zone. Make each paper the center of every local debate, no matter how trivial, and make finding and creating those debates the operation’s prime job.

5)    Create chain-wide coverage of all areas where it can be done. It’s sad, but it means laying off a lot more film critics and dozens of other duplicated positions. For such positions, do this. Hire two people to cover the beat for the chain. Make them into sparring partners, arguing about each new TV show, movie, CD, traveling Broadway show, concert tour etc. Get out of the business of being promotional. Give your readers sharply argued opinions, something fun to read they can’t get anywhere else.

6)    Create local listings second to none. Create them from the users’ point of view. Don’t use abbreviations. Overwhelm users with insider information that only locals know; where to park, where to sit, when to go, etc. Get rid of all the site navigation levels no one cares about. Put the information people want front and center.

7)    Devote as much manpower as possible to creating must-read local news blogs. Tell the bloggers to work the phones and IMs, finding out about every personnel change, every office move, any tidbit. Support and cite local bloggers in the same areas. Yell at staff members if they are consistently being scooped by (unpaid) competitors.

8)    Create and maintain a wiki designed ultimately to function as an encyclopedia for the town, from neighborhoods and politicians to every retail establishment. Let it become the ultimate guide to the area. Like Wikipedia, it will inevitably contain information that is controversial. Cover the controversies with alacrity.

9)    Serve the community. Don’t publish crap. Tell folks stuff they might not want to hear. Grow a pair.

In our C3 work, the first big decision we had to make was separating content creation from product creation.  I still cannot see any way to get to a new local ecosystem of information without making that split.  But that just gets us to a place to stand to do the real work.

We need to create content in the first instance with a new mindset, both those content creators we employ full time, and contracted or freelance community content creators.  All content creators need to have a primary emotional bond with their content and audience, not a product or company.

This content creation needs to take place in a new infrastructure which allows atomization and tagging at the simplest elemental level.  Today we are stuck with locked-down story and advertising publishing systems, and a bewildering array of blogs, tweets and social space entries.

Then, as mentioned by Wyman, we need to consciously create a wiki of local knowledge and wisdom, that can be edited by many trustworthy contributors.  Most wikis today are just too complicated for that type of community effort, and don’t easily link to the atomized content.

So, let’s focus on the essential tasks of new content creation, atomic content, local wikis and the structure of the new local ecosystem of information, not berating the past models, or arguing about walling off the old models.

As Chris O’Brien recently put it:

But on a fundamental level, it’s still the “blogs or mainstream news” construction that bothers me. … On any given week, I produce more words for blogs than the newspaper. So what am I?

Answer: It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that I’m constantly trying to see how all those different pieces fit together and complement each other. I see blogs not as competition, but vital parts that help expand the conversation around news and information. I worry less about who is winning the battle of breaking news first, whether it’s mainstream sources, blogs, or Twitter.

Seeing these other pieces as competition leads down the poisonous road where people complain about bloggers stealing content. Or, it takes you down the equally poisonous path where people argue that blogs (or now Twitter) have rendered the mainstream newsroom obsolete.  I don’t want to choose option A or B. I want “All of the Above.” That is the mindset we must choose to fully realize the enormous potential of this digital era of journalism.

And, as Chris ended his well regarded post on August 13

Journalism is doing fine.Instead, newsrooms need to ask:

> How do we reinvent local community on the web?

> And how do we reinvent the local marketplace online?

By no means are these puzzles solved. I don’t believe that Craigslist represents the last, best way people in a community will buy and sell things. Yelp, while growing in traffic, continues to have reputation issues with local merchants.

The discussion over paid content and tweaking the advertising model is too limited. Solve those two bigger challenges of community and the local marketplace, and you’ll create a business that will support smart, multi-platform newsrooms. These newsrooms won’t be dominant, as they were in the past. They’ll exist as part of local news ecosystem.

But create community, help people succeed in business, and you’ll find a way back to re-igniting the passion for a local news organization.

Progress Report on C3 Organization

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People have asked me, often, why I don’t blog more about our progress in implementing our C3 organization.  The last post was May 10th, a quarter ago.

I try to wait until  I have something to say.  Something to say requires change.  Change requires time.  Sometimes too much time for my taste.  As the engraving here represents — time reveals all things, and truth is the daughter of time, adversely affected by hypocrisy.

The thoughts and comments of others are updated regularly, usually every week, in the right column, under what I am “paying attention to”.  After reviewing the links that have been noted there,  it is clear that the media environment has changed a great deal, and there have been many good ideas on how to proceed toward a new future.  But, the Three Gorillas noted here over a year ago still remain, blocking change in our traditional media company – organization, culture and technology.

This year, we realized that we would not be able to survive the deepest and steepest decline in our revenue in anyone’s memory, let alone attack the culture and technology issues of creating C3, without truly implementing one organization that separated content creation from product creation.  We needed to reduce our expenses.  We needed to create focused product management for our existing and contemplated products.  We needed services that could effectively support all of those products, including content creation.

As I noted in the May post, we took three operating companies focused on products and created 10 operating divisions which split content creation from product creation, and include:

  1. Content Creation and Collaboration – developing information content “without an agenda” other than strengthening communities 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 (buy, attend, believe) – 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 packaged 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

The ten people who agreed to lead these divisions are attacking their new responsibilities with vigor and dedication.  How is it going?

In a word, “messy” as recently noted by Becky Lutgen Gardner, who is responsible for the creation of information content without an agenda (#1 above).  While this should not have been a surprise, it is still no fun to live through the confusion and anger.    We are making progress every day, and have celebrated numerous small wins.  We are developing “service level agreements” to make roles and expectations as clear as possible.  Yet, the emotional connections we maintain to products and companies often blind us to the relevant tasks of creating a product agnostic local ecosystem of information.  Reforming these emotional connections will take time, tasking and new tools.

Even when we get over the emotional barriers, there are the very detailed issues of understanding who is taking primary responsibility for the numerous tasks that must be accomplished every day to keep our business flourishing.  Beckey Woodard Cole, who is leading our work force development efforts within the Human Resources division headed by Cathy Terukina (#9 above) created these slides to show the responsibilities for the judgments needed for individual products, while utilizing common content creation.

We have focused the organization on essential tasks and cut our expenses in line with our reduced revenues to maintain operating cash.  We have a long way to go to approach our work with the openness, transparency and engagement necessary for success.  While this reorganization was absolutely necessary for our survival, and to give us a place to stand to create the C3 local ecosystem of information, we will not make real progress unless and until we can create information in the first instance in such a way that it is fluid and flexible, and can serve multiple products and platforms.  That will take some tinkering with the technical infrastructure, another of those Three Gorillas.

Here’s hoping that the progress report on the technical infrastructure is not three months away!

What do you think?

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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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NAA – MediaXChange Presentation

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I will be discussing our C3 organization, tasks and drivers on March 10 (starting with iMedia business model work at 3 PM CDT — 1 PM PDT) at the NAA MediaXChange in Las Vegas, using these slides, and will be live blogging during the presentation.

For link to the slides, go to NAA MediaXChange Slides

For link to the Live Blog Click Here

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