The short answer? Be agile and well-managed. Here’s how.
Of course, I don’t have all the answers. Not by far. But this month’s report by Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism on the efforts and failings of newspapers to grow their digital businesses had me thinking about some insights I’ve had while working for Schibsted-owned VG.no.
"It’s not a revenue problem, it’s a culture problem," Matthew Ingram and others concluded from reading the Pew report. Incidentally, cultural inertia – and the explanations for its presence or absence – has always fascinated me (see e.g. previous posts here, here, here and here).
So it was with great fascination I went from writing about Verdens Gang (VG), a media company much acclaimed for its innovative approach and profitable digital operations, as a media journalist, to writing for it about a year and a half ago.
It is, as Frédéric Filloux argued last week, easy to lecture on how to solve the cultural challenges of legacy media from afar (though it could just as well be argued that you easily can become so entrenched in this legacy culture you struggle to see it from the outside).
And while it is true that I’ve co-founded and been the driving force behind building up Norwegian Online News Association (NONA) and a few other start-ups and projects, I’m not going to claim any major management experience –especially not when it comes to legacy media (where I have zero).
However, I’m a keen observer, have a special interest in organisational culture and have worked for a wide range of different media companies over the last decade+
What’s especially struck me about VG.no is how the company combines a well-run, professional organisation with a structure that allows it to mimic some of the key features of small, nimbler start-ups.
A few key characteristics:
- Short way from idea to execution
- Programmers in the newsroom
This is one reason why that way from idea to execution can be short. Also, the company has few walls between IT and the newsroom. In particular, VG.no has a designer and a journalist-programmer who are 100% dedicated to news related innovation, they’re not just on loan when IT doesn’t need them, and they each have that 20 per cent innovation time Google is famous for baked into their job descriptions.
- Helping readers help each other
One of the best examples of the value of having programmers in the newsroom was during the ash cloud crisis, when someone had the genius idea for the Hitchhiker’s Central - and it only took 6-7 hours to program and get up and running. The site certainly saved my day, and that of Journalism.co.uk contributing editor Colin Meek, as I explained in a blog post at the time. I’m particularly fond of this notion of VG using its position as Norway’s most read news site to design solutions to help readers help each other (there are numerous other examples) as a form of service journalism (as described in this column).
Some of the most successful of the company’s editorial innovations are made on the basis of the idea that you have to move fast, it doesn’t have to be perfect – just get it out there, then improve as you go along.
- A Goolesque-attitude to trying out new things
It struck me while reading and reviewing Steven Levy’s excellent Google-book "In the Plex" last year, VG has a similarly low threshold for trying out new things.
- Kill things before they die a slow and painful death
It goes with the territory: Trying sometimes means failing, and even a massive success can have a limited time span and may need to be abandoned before it becomes a liability. Social network Nettby is a good example. At one stage it was by far the biggest social network in Norway, and it was profitable (as I described in this post for Journalism.co.uk), but it was eventually eclipsed by Facebook – and killed off towards the end of 2010.
- A willingness to cannibalise your own products.
- Okay, I read this, in a very interesting American report on Schibsted which is quite old by now, but it rings true and is still worth reading. How will this be affected when VG now is merging its print and online operations? I don’t know, but there’s lots of food for thought in that report.
- Good management, good routines (on everything from press ethics to payment) and clear leadership.
The last bullet point is especially important.
If you’re a two-three person start-up it’s easy to play by ear, be flexible etc – too much structure might even get in the way. But on the road to success most start-ups reach a stage where they need to get those routines in place in order to operate efficiently. In some respects, it’s the price of success.
And in a big organisation good routines make all the difference – in a creative one, it frees you up to be creative.
I’m not quite sure how to phrase this, but I’ve seen it in so many (media) companies:
A well-run organisation facilitates a good, consistently creative and innovative work environment in ways a badly run one, or one where management is absent or erratic, simply cannot match. The contribution of good PAs, accountants, administrators are highly undervalued, and clear leadership makes a huge difference,
I think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is relevant here as well: just as it’s easier for an individual who’s very existence is not constantly under threat, who’s got all his or her basic needs covered, to be creative and innovative, it’s easier to be so if you don’t constantly worry about getting paid on time, what to expect of the management next or whether or not you have a job tomorrow.
At a news:rewired-event in January 2009 professor and head of journalism at City University, George Brock, said that his title shouldn’t be professor of journalism, but professor of chaos history.
Most journalists have become very adapt at living with daily (news and production) chaos, but dealing with it creatively becomes easier when you don’t have to deal with it at management level too. I’ve previously put together some musings on how this affects innovation here.
Now, in the above, I’ve mostly described my impressions of how VG.no deals with editorial innovation. I have no direct experiences of how this works on the commercial side of the business, but my impression is that the culture is much the same in that department too.
The big question is how this culture will fare when the company’s print and digital operations now are merged. I don’t know enough of that process to answer, but given all of the above I think it has decent chances of surviving intact.
I may of course be a bit biased here, and none of those things I describe take away the very real management challenges that Filloux describe in his post on newspaper culture.
But I do think that what I describe show that there are ways, even for a very old newspaper such as VG, to break away from the legacy culture - although I have no illusions about it being easy. Also, there are bound to be other newspaper organisations combining some or most of the above, VG just happens to be a company I’ve been privileged to gain more insight into.
Update 30.03.2012: VG.no's Lucas Weldeghebriel explained more in detail how the news site has created an organisational structure to facilitate editorial innovation at a recent NONA-meeting. Read the headlines from his talk here (in Norwegian).