The Ford Model production line. Newspaper production isn’t that different. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Digital transformation means focusing on readers, not platforms.

Why the challenge facing traditional publications isn’t one of revenue but one of culture.

The first in a series of posts. You can read the second post here. The third post here.

In over 15 years of senior digital experience in North America’s leading news organizations as well as many conversations and meetings with news executives around the world, I know that most traditional news organizations are run by well-intentioned people with the desire to adapt in a digital world.

For as long as I’ve been in the industry, publishers have been too focused on what is ultimately the wrong question: Do we hold on to today’s revenues or invest in tomorrow’s? In newsrooms around the world, attempts to grapple with the question has led to cultural struggles, between those focused on the realized revenues and resources of the legacy platform against those focused on unrealized revenues and resources of a future platform.

By viewing these decisions through the lens of any platform at all, publishers are distracting themselves from what really matters: their readers. So why do many of us continue to fall prey to this misleading paradigm, and what can we do to change our approach?

This and future posts are my effort to compile my own thoughts on these challenges and an attempt to outline how we got here and where we may be heading. It’s a mini-lecture series designed for students, teachers, and anyone else who wants a better understanding of the traditional journalism landscape.

We’ll start with some history. By understanding this historical context we can eliminate some of the ambiguity, fear, and resistance that tends to create environments hostile to digital transformation.

From Print to Doorstep to Smartphone

For more than 150 years, there was really only one platform that mattered for newspaper publishers: print. It was a feat of ambition and coordination that we were able to conceive of a newspaper in a morning meeting and then less than 24 hours later have it arrive on our readers’ doorsteps.

We built an entire production line around it. None of the disparate parts of the organization really needed to interact. In fact, the manufacturing achievement of putting out a daily newspaper from scratch required a rigid structure to keep the trains running on time. The production line worked exceptionally well.

The publisher production line pre-internet.

The newsroom would assign, report and write the stories while sales built and sold the ads to the desired specifications available on the pages. Both would “close” the paper at deadline, sending it to the engineers and crewman who would make sure that the Linotype machines and giant plates would print the run. Once complete, the circulation department, who also ran the subscriber relationship, would back up the trucks to load the newspapers. Then the trucks would make sure that the papers were delivered to subscribers. This system was an expensive and complex logistical feat, and it was pulled off every night.

This process was, and often is, so ingrained in publishers’ heads that it led to the one decision that made digital transformation incredibly difficult.

When the Internet arrived, publishers worldwide divvied up the work, setting up a similar workflow and manufacturing process that they had built so successfully for print, but for the web.

The newsroom repurposed the print articles for the website. A new department, generally called something like digital product, was set up to design, build and manage the business aspects of the site. Sales began selling display ad units for the site. Engineering took care of the hosting, content management systems, and back-end infrastructure. Finally, circulation took care of managing the subscriber acquisition strategy, if there even was one.

The publisher production line, 1995–present day.

This duplication of the production line was a valiant attempt to keep up with the changing habits of consumers, but it perpetuated the idea that all priorities, processes, and resources in the organization were driven by platform-related tasks.

In the newsroom, the structure and workflows of departments remained the same. Stories were selected, reported, and written, not only on the basis of whether they were good stories or not, but whether they allowed the department to provide a comprehensive news package that would fill each section.

When newsrooms began eliminating staff to trim costs, it became a case of doing more with less. Even though we had fewer reporters and editors, we were still required to fill our sections with the same amount of material, giving sales enough pages to sell and circulation enough of a print package to market to subscribers.

In essence, we continued to claw away, trying to get a grip, while tumbling down a mountain.

News organizations continued on this path, even despite all intentions to be ‘digital-first’ or ‘mobile-first.’

By defining workflows and processes using catch phrases centered on preferred platforms, it sent a message that the journalism and storytelling was less important than the platforms they resided on.

Whether in print, desktop, tablet, or phone, the unintended goal of each department became to drive readers back to our owned articles so we could capture the revenues through our existing manufacturing supply chain (and existing business model).

The goal of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Youtube, e-mail newsletters, mobile apps, tablet apps, and websites became to capture potential readers and bring them back to our articles. Why? Because our entire organization was rewarded for capturing revenue through traditional means that were consistent with the workflows established more than a century ago. A big box ad unit wasn’t very different from a print ad unit. A binary on or off pay wall wasn’t that different from a print subscription.

A platform specific storytelling approach that focuses on the print/digital article as the main driver of relevance.

This narrow view of each new digital platform hamstrings newsrooms and publishers from realizing the potential reach and relevance of each new platform and ultimately prevented them from capturing new revenue through these new audiences.

To be successful, any organization must create the possible conditions for success, for us in the news industry, the platform-centered structure made it almost impossible to create conditions ripe for new business models to surface.

By focusing less on platforms and more on each individual story –on any platform- we can begin to see a long-term shift in how we approach the daily news flow.


So what is digital if it isn’t a platform? In my next post I’ll attempt to answer that question and provide some ways that editors and publishers can apply that mindset in their own newsrooms and boardrooms.