The new watchword? Deconvergence — it’s time to separate digital from print

A couple of years ago, when the Seattle Post-Intelligence stopped publishing its newspaper, I suggested that the Seattle Times had a real opportunity to make a serious move into the emerging digital news ecosystem:

First, create geographic-based community sites: Put a pod of jurnos in each of the neighborhoods of Seattle that have a population of about 50,000 people, give or take a few thou. Each pod includes at least two reporters, an ad salesperson, and a community manager. Partner with strong sites that already cover neighborhoods well.  Today, I’d amend that to one jurno and one ad salesperson, and go for neighborhoods with smaller populations. The Times hasn’t done much in this arena except join J-Lab’s Networked Journalism project, in which it provides links to posts from 40 Seattle-area sites. But those links are not on the home page…you have to dip two layers down to find them. [CORRECTION: They ARE on the home page….I completely missed the five links out of the approximately 100 that are on the home page. See Kathy Best’s comment, below, that noted the error. My apologies. However, I stand by my next statement, because I believe that integration means that the content from the sites is integrated throughout the Seattle Times site, including the home page, i.e., treated as if they were part of a news organization  network.] That’s not really developing an integrated network; it’s patting them on the head.

Second, topic-based sites: Do a serious competitive analysis of topic-based beats. Abandon the beats that others own (How’s MaxPreps doing in the Seattle area?) Or partner with them, if you’ve got a strong piece of their action. Build out the beats you still own. Education? Transportation? Environment? Health? And create another pod of jurnos for each of those sites. Reporters, ad salesperson, community manager. Today, I’d add issue-based sites. E.g., in addition to a basic health site, a robust sub-section on health reform. When David Boardman, the Seattle Times’ executive editor, stopped by my office while he was in town last week, I showed him our local health site WellCommons. He commented that he thought that a health niche site wouldn’t work in Seattle, because there are hundreds of good health sites already. But I think it’s a perfect opportunity for the Seattle Times to serve as aggregator and curator, as well as begin the necessary transformation to social journalism. Even when we started WellCommons in Lawrence, KS, I thought developing a regional social journalism health site would be much easier in a larger metro area. (We’re above 100K page views a month now…not too shabby for a population base of 115,000 in Lawrence & Douglas County.)

Here's a rough graphic representation of the mini-metro network. Sumopaint's terrific online software, but it can't improve bad art skills. I'll ask my friend and graphics expert Val to fix it up, after folks send in some ideas on how to improve it.

Here’s a rough graphic representation of the mini-metro network.

Third, I envisioned the Times still putting out a newspaper, but suggested that, eventually, it might not appear every day.

Today, I say: Deconverge. Spin off print from digital. Separate management. Separate P&L. Separate buildings. Separate ad and content staff.

A year ago, you never would have heard me suggest that. Clinging to a fatal optimism, I still believed that newspaper culture could grow and change.

But I began heading in the deconvergence direction last year, when we began talking about developing a digital news network. The person to lead that network would need experience in digital ad networks, digital news, mobile and social media, we said. And nobody that person hired would need to come from a print background. We conceived of it as separate, because we didn’t want to “saddle” the organization with the print culture, we said. Hmmm. The word “saddle” should have been a big light in the sky.

My tipping point was on a particular frustrating day, when I watched, for the second time, Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media CEO Clark Gilbert’s presentation to Borrell Associates Local Mobile Advertising conference last September. At the end of the presentation, Gordon Borrell asked Gilbert if he was optimistic about the newspaper industry. “No,” he said. “Not at all.” He paused. “Am I optimistic that there is a path to doing it (making a transition)? Absolutely.”

Gilbert, who has studied companies and industries in transition at Harvard Business School, pointed out this fascinating and very scary fact: of the companies comprising any industry affected by disruptive technologies, only 9 percent survive. And 100 percent of those 9 percent follow a particular pattern. A key is investing in the future. “Do you want to ride this thing down? Or do you want to invest for the future?” he asked.
The cold reality is this: you can’t have  these two different cultures in the same organization anymore. They set up camps. They expend energy fighting each other for the same resources instead of toward creative efforts to improve their organizations. That’s what led to the demise of TBD.com.

Slide from Clark Gilbert presentation

Gilbert provided a list of what the 9 percent of surviving companies do. In case you can’t make out the text in the slide, the items are:

  • Separate physical location
  • Separate P&L
  • Separate direct sales
  • Separate content, product, and technology teams
  • Separate management structures

Does this mean that news organizations could have/should have spun off digital several years ago? Maybe. But it’s likely that approach would have resulted in a rapid disappearance and even more shrinkage of print-based journalism organizations that had served their communities for more than 100 years. Traditional newspaper culture — and tv culture for that matter — still had too strong a hold for organizations to invest as they should have in digital. And, as they started the first big downhill financial slide, the traditional culture would have been likely to set digital free as an entity that did not have the history with the community or the long-held trust, and settled for riding print down. Instead, here we are in 2011 where most traditional news organizations have laid off staff to preserve profits, merged digital and print newsrooms, and many are beginning to develop digital sales staff to capture appropriate ad revenues.

But now, if they don’t spin off the digital versions of themselves, invest in their future, and let print find its own level, they’ll die and take everyone in their organizations down with them.

So, following Gilbert’s list, they can separate the organizations’ P&L, sales staff, tech staff, management and put them in different physical locations. But the crux of the situation is: What to do about content? The tables have turned. For digital to thrive, and print to continue to be profitable while continuing to shrink and find its place in the new news ecosystem, we now have to repurpose web content to print. Print can’t afford the same compliment of writers and photographers parallel to those in the digital organization.

In the digital news organization, jurnos just focus on building and managing their communities, their web and mobile coverage. In the print organization, a distribution desk repurposes digital content for print. Maybe a couple of print-centric staff writers provide Sunday feature stories, but that depends on who the print audience is and what they want. Oh, yeah — it’s important to know who your print audience is, and who your online community is. Spend the money for good market analyses of newspaper and digital sites.

Also, make print a little more digital — more graphics, more photos, don’t force narrative into coverage that doesn’t need it (city council meetings, school closings, etc.) — so that the information that jurnos provide in their digital posts can appear the same in print.

btw, the opposite of converge is diverge. But I didn’t think that “diverge” encompasses the flavor of the situation traditional organizations find themselves in. Hence, deconvergence. Of course, unconvergence would work. Disconvergence could be a word that describes the current dissonant nature of convergence. Any other suggestions?

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