Winter 2008

To Prepare for the Future, Skip the Present

‘… today’s obsession with saving newspapers has meant that, for the most part, media companies have failed to plan adequately for tomorrow’s digital future.’

By Edward Roussel

“Burn baby, burn.” These are the unforgettable words of a top-ranking Yellowstone National Park ecologist as fire ripped through the park’s forests in the summer of 1988. Few people cared that Don Despain’s words were taken out of context. The remark was used to pour scorn on the supposed devil-may-care approach of the National Park Service, which favored allowing natural fires to burn off accumulations of undergrowth in order to facilitate forest renewal.

A triple whammy of slumping advertising revenues, soaring newsprint costs, and competition from the Internet has left newspaper executives struggling to contain their own inferno. Tactics that helped newspapers survive for decades—budget cuts, promotions, the shuttering of peripheral publications—have failed to restore confidence among investors. In the first 10 months of 2008 alone, the shares of The New York Times Company dropped by more than 40 percent, while Gannett Company, Inc. shed two-thirds of its value.

The best approach for battle-weary media executives may be to let the fire run its course—however counterintuitive that might seem. That’s partly because there is little the newspaper industry can do to stop the advancing flames. But it’s also because today’s obsession with saving newspapers has meant that, for the most part, media companies have failed to plan adequately for tomorrow’s digital future. The economic downturn has added to the urgent need for a change of direction.

“This is a time for rigor, you need to know what you want to come out with at the other end of the tunnel,” said Jack Welch, who was known as “Neutron Jack” when he was CEO of General Electric because of tough steps he took to reshape ossified corporations. “This is not a time to skimp on resources but to focus them on your best businesses: stop the weakest, invest in the strongest.”

Newspapers still tend to define themselves by their paper rather than their news. By doing so they make a critical error at a time when readers and advertisers alike are going cold on paper and turning their attention increasingly to Web media. Newspaper executives have been slow to come to terms with the reality that the fat profit margins of previous decades are gone forever. Audiences, in decline since the 1960’s, have been on an accelerating downward trajectory—from a slow glide to a nosedive—since the Internet’s invasion.

Newspaper executives have often justified their lack of attention to digital media by pointing to the lower advertising yields. “When will the Web match the revenues generated by newspapers?” Maybe never. But it’s the wrong question. The whole point about the Web is that it costs a fraction of the amount of a newspaper to reach your audience, meaning that the break-even point for a newsroom stripped of the need to produce a newspaper is some 65 percent lower.

The probable elimination of a raft of second-tier newspapers during this economic downturn will provide a fertile environment for a new generation of digital media businesses to flourish. Here are 10 ways that will help newspapers make the transition to digital media companies:

  1. Narrow the focus. When newspapers operated regional monopolies, readers depended on them to cover a wide range of subjects. Newspapers still routinely use their own reporters to cover a gamut of stories, ranging from politics to sport and business. That’s nonsensical in the Internet era, when readers may choose content from a variety of sources. Instead, media companies need to invest more money in their premium content—editorial that is unavailable elsewhere but that is highly valued by readers. Go deep, not wide.

  2. Plug into a network. Media companies should finance the additional spending on premium content by eliminating editorial costs in areas where they are unable to compete with the best on the Web. If you are weak in sports coverage, link to the best Web site for your local sports. Well-curated hyperlinks to other Web sites are a valuable service for readers, and they cost nothing. Media companies will increasingly see themselves as part of a chain of content, as opposed to a final destination. Journalists will act as filters, writing with authority but also guiding readers to sources that add depth to coverage. The future of journalism is selling expertise, not content.

  3. Rolling news with views. Newspaper deadlines suit publishers, not readers. News is a continuum. It never starts or ends, and coverage should reflect that reality. That doesn’t mean a newsroom needs to be open for business 24/7. If 90 percent of readers don’t log on between midnight and five in the morning, there is little point in being staffed overnight. But it is critical to be alert at the time when your traffic surges—typically between 8 and 10 in the morning and again around lunchtime. Remember: It’s not simply about serving breaking news—the AP and Reuters can handle that. The role of a newspaper company on the Web is to add value: look at a story from a number of angles, engage your audience, add multimedia.

  4. Engage with your readers. The explosion of blogging and social media Web sites has created a culture in which consumers of news expect to be included in the news publishing process. Closed operations that shun reader engagement will increasingly be seen to offer a second-rate experience. Create functionality that encourages readers to share eyewitness accounts of breaking news, rate services such as restaurants and hotels, and get into discussions and debates.

  5. Bottom up, not top down. The reporters on the ground are closest to your readers. They are therefore best placed to conceive, create and nurture community Web sites. Look at which reporters or editors get the largest mailbags and free them up to manage blogs on subjects that your readers are passionate about. That’s likely to be narrow areas such as gardening or a mom’s network, rather than broad subjects, such as politics or sports.

  6. Embrace multimedia. Train editors to see video, photo galleries, graphics and maps as equal storytelling forms to text. A story about Tina Fey’s takeoff of Sarah Palin is incomplete without video highlights from “Saturday Night Live.” A story about a soldier’s life on the frontline in Afghanistan is best told with video, a map, and pictures as well as text.

  7. Nimble, low-cost structures. About 75 percent of newspaper costs have nothing to do with the creation of editorial content. In a digital era there may not be any need for printing presses or vans to transport a physical product. But the switch to digital should also be an opportunity to challenge the need to hold on to other in-house costs. Newspaper companies are bad at technology, so a digitally minded chief technology officer will be able to get cheaper and more effective services by outsourcing. Newspaper sales teams don’t do particularly well at selling ads on the Internet; too often they sell ads that are irrelevant to a reader’s interests in an era when Google has made relevance key. If your sales team can’t beat Google, then outsource to Google.

  8. Invest in the Web. Don’t try to suck too much revenue from your fledgling network. Your Web site needs investment before it can fly. Large networks, such as rail, phone and utilities, took decades to yield substantial returns. A Web revenue-growth model cannot simply be a mirror image of the decline in your newspaper sales.

  9. Shake up leadership. One of the biggest obstacles to planning for a digital future is the senior editor or manager who is wedded to the analogue past. If the people who run your newsroom aren’t passionate about your digital future, it’s certain not to materialize.

  10. Experiment. We are operating in the most creative phase of the media industry’s history. A time when broadcast, text and social media are colliding. Don’t be afraid of failure. Try new projects, see what works, and build on success.

None of this will come easily. It breaks a newspaper culture forged over a 400-year period. For decades now, newspaper newsrooms have centered on “going to press,” which has meant pointing all efforts towards a single deadline that culminates in the publishing of a definitive version of a story. Journalists who’ve spent a lifetime working around this kind of deadline often cannot make the switch to the continuous reporting demanded by Web audiences.

Nor are reporters and editors particularly good at interacting with readers. As long as newspapers have existed, editors have determined the news agenda and then rammed it down readers’ throats. Sure, readers are welcome to send a “letter to the editor.” It may even get published. But typically most editors have little interest in an ongoing dialogue. Linking to competitors’ news services certainly doesn’t come naturally to newspaper editors either, whereas it’s seen as a sign of sophistication on the Web. Then there’s the lack of familiarity with multimedia and the art of stitching together text, video, photos, maps and graphics.

Still, the dominant newspapers have a huge advantage over start-up news operations: They are trusted brands at a time when the proliferation of news sources has made trust a premium for readers and advertisers alike. That’s a good springboard for success. But time is running out.

Edward Roussel is the digital editor of the Telegraph Media Group (TMG). He manages the Web site and oversees the development of TMG’s expansion into other digital media, including the recent launch of Telegraph TV, a news-on-the-Web service in partnership with ITN. He was instrumental in restructuring the Telegraph’s newsroom, with a view to placing digital media at the core of the 153-year-old newspaper group.

18 Comments on To Prepare for the Future, Skip the Present
Jussa says:
May 15, 2009 at 2:41pm
I totally agree with you, thank thanks for sharing this with us
Upendra Shardanand says:
February 2, 2009 at 11:31am
Remarkable piece Edward.

"The future of journalism is selling expertise, not content."

News organizations have to radically fix their cost-structures, which clearly aren't sustainable online. And the web is exposing a lot of inefficiencies in the industry that weren't visible before.

News organizations sometimes get in the habit of asking "how do we get our news to readers" and sometimes forget the question is "how can we best serve our audience's news and information needs." Or rather, how can I help our audience best navigate the world, whether it's "our" content, or someone else's.

Part of the solution for both fixing cost-structures (technology, content creation, curation, deployment, trafficking) and offering a better user experience will be in smart aggregation - but done with your own content as king, you own voice, your own hand.

[Example and shameless plug: see and, powered by Daylife]
Amy Wood says:
January 24, 2009 at 6:48pm
Blending social media and traditional news can be successful. We're doing it, with engaging results for our viewers. There's a constant conversation underway, about the stories we're covering, tips about the stories we're not, viral buzz about stories viewers get excited about, and a new deeper understanding of what viewers care about. Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, and a live chat room, I host as I anchor, energize the connections. completes the circle. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. We've been at it for more than a year and couldn't agree more, that you've got to jump in and experiment to see what works, for you and for your audience. More and more newspaper reporters in this market are jumping in to give it a shot now too.
Phil Buckley says:
January 16, 2009 at 9:41am
Dead on! The web side of the newspaper industry is treated as a step-child that needs to be medicated for ADHD by the older, well-traveled father.

The trouble is that the father is actually on fire, and the step-child is running around trying to convince him of that fact.
Phogg says:
January 12, 2009 at 4:23pm
"Journalism" professionals STILL can not Identify their competition.

If you have an automotive engineer who writes an insightful three page description of an engine his team is developing every three years, that used to not be a problem. Even though it was just as well written as someone with a journalism or English degree might write.

It was one article every three years that only the man's friends were likely to see. If they shared it, well a few xerox copies mailed around still don't reach that many people even if it pyramids out seven times and by the time the last group gets it it will be a month later if they were being mailed.

Fast foreword to now.

There are thousands of engineers. Every 1095 of them writing once every three years equal one story a day. Written, generally, for free. As in costs no money. As in they are writing for their own vanity.

And on the web, writing in interest forums, or having those forums available as a place their friends might send the article - it will be seen.

Extend this out to other interests, because it carries over across the board.

Journalists keep looking at the picture trying to figure out how content producers are going to be paid in the new media.

The stopper is that they have to compete with people who write about any given subject as well or better than they possibly can WHO DON'T EXPECT TO BE PAID.

When the internet arrived and provided a means for people to disseminate their writings, this became inevitable. I saw it, Drudge saw it, hundreds and hundreds of people saw and have been discussing it for over a decade.

TV is passe. Neither I, nor most news readers are interested in a medium without a method for response and debate. Like the New York Times website - TV isn't good enough. Consumers want an engagement, not a lecture.

The dinosaur media is late to the party.
David Dunkley Gyimah says:
January 11, 2009 at 5:52pm
Correction !

I meant, "we appear to be caught in a highly fluid Inductive phase."

Dave Barnes says:
January 11, 2009 at 4:12pm
A few problems with

1. You must register and login to make comments. This always reduces the number of comments.

2. Channel 7 is one of the weaker (in terms of audience size) TV news stations in Denver. Channel 9 dominates.

3. Many, many stories just won't generate comments as they are not worthy, not controversial, not significant enough.
David Dunkley Gyimah says:
January 11, 2009 at 3:22pm
"Stop trying to control everything and just let go! LET GO! "

One of the more memorable aphorisms in 1999 from David Finch's "Fight Club".

Quite a few media execs are picking themselves up, handkerchief dabbing that upper lip; either they've got a hang of these abstract new rules and expressions e.g. (SEO, code-event driven multimedia) or they've confined themselves to the thinking: "it's all gonna stop soon - this madness".

This year we're told to expect the following:

- Increased traction to mobile web; writing twitter type micro stories
- Refinements in search string optimisation
- More APIs encouraging greater mash ups
- Thermo, 3D, and further breakthroughs in HD web video and videojournalism.

And then as one respected company, Razorfish, put it, expect more of the unexpected.

Sociologists might refer to this period of uncertainty and abstractness between journalism and the media's comprehension as "Grand Theory", when what we appear to be caught in is a highly fluid phase of Deduction.

Meaning you can match customs [macro and micro] and behaviours, to the way viewers and readers are inter and (intra) reacting with a myriad of new exhausting apps and modifications - spawning new social theories.

But you need to be in it, to see it, let alone win, which certainly shouldn't turn you into a techie shepherd, but open to the idea of the speed and paradigms of change affecting the media/consumer/ etc.

Countless newspapers, particular the big brands with room for "Chatham House" rule type experimenting, are already in there.

And, building up those figures may help thwart any future shocks. Or should that be "those future shocks".

Old sea hands scoff at 5m waves; quiet storm, they say, she'll get a lot more rougher yet.

As Ed put it, the dominant newspapers have an advantage over start-ups.....but time is running out.

Here in academia, and outside, with the an eye and modules on the future, a new generation of all round digi-journalists is gestating.

Thought-swilling piece Ed, and I have enjoyed the training and interaction with your extremely bright trainee multimedia journalists.

David Dunkley Gyimah
Snr Lecturer
Kevin Sablan says:
January 11, 2009 at 8:04am
I agree that "Well-curated hyperlinks to other Web sites are a valuable service for readers," but they do come at a cost. To do this correctly, someone has to put in the time to find the links and organize them, lest they simply duplicate what Google already does well.

It takes time to add context and explain relationships between important pieces of a story -- especially when those pieces come from different places.

To curate efficiently, journalists need to learn the tools of trade: social bookmarking , feed readers, alerts, microblogging, etc.
William McGuinness says:
January 9, 2009 at 2:39pm
interesting article, but I'm having trouble with the refocusing part that puts editorials over reporters and their content. Don't most blogs use actual articles when writing an opining? It's much easier for an armchair pundit to comment on something than to go out and report. The number of blogs in each realm shows this. So, on a content (and marketing) level, couldn't newspapers be focusing instead on "invest"igatory stuff, stories that cannot be duplicated, ones that will be linked to by the thousands on pundit blogs, and will spread the paper's brand as trustworthy and worth reading/visiting online?
Tom Johnson says:
January 8, 2009 at 11:53am
Yes, but....

I fear Mr. Roussel has left out a key ingredient for all of this change: constant teaching/learning/education going on for all employees in journalistic institutions. In a dynamically changing information environment, if employers and employees are not spending 10% of the workweek investing in their own learning, the industry will simply fail to thrive.
Emily Bell says:
January 8, 2009 at 11:48am
Very good piece Ed, sparing Chuck Peters' blushes I would add that his observations on the C3 blog, about changing midsets, tasks and therefore ROLES within news organisations is also absolutely key. At the Guardian, I was totting up how many roles we now have that we didn't four years ago .. platform neutral 'heads of', pod heads, story producers, multimedia team, exec producers, flash developers, seo managers, community team, product managers, data journalists ...etc etc. It begins to irrevocably change the makeup of the organisation and improves the digital journalism.
Chuck Peters says:
January 6, 2009 at 6:08am
We are living your description as we are trying to transform a traditional media company into a C3 -Complete Community Connection, based on micro-communities of specific geographical, relationship or affinity. We have been tracking our progress at

We have been focusing on concepts, attitudes, tasks, organization and projects. As we continue to make progress this year, we are going to need all the help we can get!
Steve Kane says:
December 26, 2008 at 3:30pm
Excellent piece. Interesting thoughts on burning it down to rebuild stronger. This requires strong leadership from people unafraid of the unknown, but with visions of what can be.
Karen McAllister says:
December 26, 2008 at 9:48am
Great piece. Love the response to “When will the Web match the revenues generated by newspapers?” A question we've all heard a million times.
Donald Johnson says:
December 24, 2008 at 9:32pm
Out of curiousity, I went to a local TV channel's web site, which I've never visited before. It's not obvious, but readers are allowed to comment on every story. So far I haven't found any comments.

Wonder how this site would measure up in the scheme suggested by Roussel?
Maurice Cardinal says:
December 24, 2008 at 9:16pm
One of the best articles I've ever read re newspapers' struggle with change management.

Well done Mr. Roussel

Maurice Cardinal
Donald Johnson says:
December 24, 2008 at 9:16pm
Many TV stations in the U.S. already are using multi-media on their web sites. I don't think many are linking, networking or engaging readers, however. Their brands are stronger than those of many newspapers despite their weak editorial content. People watch tv rather than read papers.
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