A Tough Message for News Organisations: Change or Become Irrelevant

December 4, 2017 • Business Models, Media Economics, Newsroom Management, Research • by

Source: Wikimedia, Shashi Bellamkonda, Matt Brown. CC BY 2.0


It is currently one of the most pressing questions in journalism: how can legacy media successfully master the digital environment and flourish in a world dominated by the Internet and social media?

So great is the interest and the demand for answers that the Web is filled with think-pieces, best practice guidelines and conference talks on the topic yet, until recently, there has been little empirical research available.

A new report by Lucy Kueng, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and professor of strategy and innovation in media organisations, tries to address this gap.

Source: Lucy Kueng

Drawing on extensive research involving over 60 interviews in over twenty organisations including the Washington Post, Vox, Vice, the Financial Times, the Economist, Axel Springer, Schibsted, the New York Times and Le Monde, Kueng sets out to answer how news organisations can successfully “disrupt themselves” in order to master an increasingly challenging digital environment while, at the same time, providing best practice for any such undertaking.

Legacy leaders do not die; they slip down the food chain

Perhaps one of the most surprising findings is Kueng’s insight that the structure of a new media ecosystem is becoming increasingly clear, a realisation which runs counter to claims that we are still in the midst of the digital revolution. According to Kueng’s research, this poses substantial challenges to legacy media organisations: “The risk”, she writes in her report, “is not extinction but gradual erosion: of market share, of revenues, of share of voice, of relevance. Legacy leaders do not die; they slip down the food chain.”

Kueng warns that the gravest mistake under these circumstances is to focus merely on content, rather than opting for a more holistic approach. “Understandably, media players default to the content transformation…[but] they need to put as much effort into transforming their organisations as they do into transforming their product. This is the only route to sustainability.” But what if a legacy organisation chooses to pay no heed to this advice? Well, Kueng includes a strongly-worded warning. “Failure to do this”, she writes, “[…] compounds the risk of reduced relevance in digital media markets” – undeniably a gloomy outlook for many.

How to prepare for digital transformation

Yet, not all hope is lost. According to Kueng, legacy organisations can achieve a successful digital transformation if they have the right strategy. This usually consists of:

  1. an unwavering long-term goal (usually analogous to the journalistic mission)
  2. a clear business model
  3. a rigorous process for ‘shiny new things’ such as virtual reality
  4. a ‘central nervous system’ combining technology and data
  5. the willingness and ability to exit low-potential business areas

In different chapters of her report, Kueng fleshes out how these broad guidelines apply to more specific areas and topics.

  • New tools and products: Virtual Reality, the Internet of Things, home assistants such as Alexa, all these developments are closely watched and many wonder how they could be used in journalism. Yet, Kueng cautions that outlets should not get overexcited. New developments should be screened against strategic goals and the business model.
  • Agility: Kueng acknowledges that this is a difficult topic for legacy organisations. Nevertheless, she advises them to build “a cultural expectation of ongoing change, using multidisciplinary teams, and designing tech systems and processes to maximise agility.”
  • Human Resources: prioritise recruiting top talent and ensure continuous learning at all levels of the organisation. According to Kueng, this will shorten innovation cycles and build momentum for transition.

Most important to a successful transformation, however, is the willingness to enforce a radical culture change within the organisation. Kueng argues convincingly this is ideally achieved through a combination of “strong leadership messaging combined with exposure to the speed of change outside the ‘organisation bubble’.”

Embedding tech experts in the newsroom and ensuring that large tech projects have an implicit culture change component are easy steps which can help to smooth the transition.

The full report “Going Digital. A Roadmap for Organisational transformation” is published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and is available here.

You might also be interested in Lucy Kueng’s: Research: Why Are Some Digital News Organisations More Successful than Others?

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