Butterfly
Credit: By Paul Reynolds on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Buzzfeed's publication of the leaked New York Times innovation memo created a bittersweet reaction among those of us who have been involved in digital journalism innovation for a decade or more.

On one hand, we felt vindicated, as the report highlighted all the things we've been saying for years. On the other hand, we'd been saying this for years, but it took the New York Times saying it for people to take it seriously.

As the UK's leading left-wing digital tabloid innovator Martin Belam put it in a recent blog post: "So it's an odd thing when you've been saying something for years and nobody believes you, then suddenly, someone publishes one leaked graph, and overnight all the world agrees with you: The homepage is dead. And still they've got it wrong."

More electrons have been slain in discussion of the report that I care to count, and I'm not about to add to their number (but Martin's dead electrons are worth your time).

Instead, I would like to take a step back and think about how the material contained in the report highlights the structural state of the journalistic publishing businesses right now.

Broadly speaking, I think we can place pretty much all traditional print businesses making the move into online publishing into one of three categories: Additive, Replicative or Transformative

Additive


This is the model that most publishing businesses are in right now – the New York Times Included. They are still doing what they used to do – publishing a print product that is much as it's always been – but also creating a digital product that contains additional material.

There's usually a separate digital team, and the business may even consider itself to be digital first, but in reality the brutal deadlines needed to get the print edition out of the door really shape practice in the newsroom.

The initial thinking was probably that power would migrate to the digital side over timeAdam Tinworth
Small things will undermine the "digital first" nature of the title – the desk heads or morning conference will revolve initially around analysis of the print edition, for example – and the very top levels of editorial management will probably have risen through print not digital.

It's also based on a flawed assumption.

The initial thinking was probably that power would migrate to the digital side over time, but that doesn't work out, because the print revenues – even though they're falling fast – still outweigh the digital ones, which aren't growing fast enough to support the size of operation they'd traditionally had.

The net result is that you've just stuffed a whole load of additional costs into an operation which is losing operating income. And, as the NYT is clearly discovering – even if you only ever saw this as a transitory stage, moving beyond it proves to be very hard indeed.

Replicative

This was the business model most publishers started out with, and which we still see operating among the local press and some consumer and B2B magazines. You produce your content for the print edition, and then you shovel it online. This is why this style of working is often known as "shovelware".

You're not doing anything substantially different from what you were doing before, but are instead just publishing it in more channels.

The arrival of the iPad saw a whole new breed of replicative models emerge, as tools like Adobe's Digital Publishing System allowed magazine publishers to just dump their print product to digital and call it job done. This is shovelware reinvented for the touch era, and it's really not working out very well.

This is shovelware reinvented for the touch era, and it's really not working out very wellAdam Tinworth
In theory, this brings you additional revenue with minimal additional costs, and that seems like an attractive proposition.

The problem, of course, is that you're not actually providing a good experience in the new formats, and you're very easily challenged or displaced by competitors who do.

This is essentially a business model of denial – we'd like to keep doing exactly what we've been doing before, and just shove it out in identical form on a digital channel or two. Or three. Or four.

If you want a guide to the likely long-term success of this model, look at how many TV shows or films are essentially just filmed stage plays, or how many books rolling off the presses are identical to the sort of texts produced by monks in their scriptoriums.

Transformative

And finally we come to the model that many aspire to, but few have – yet – achieved.

The realisation is hitting some organisations that we're actually in a markedly different landscape from the one we were in previously.

On one hand, after struggling to manage two channel publishing (in print and online), we're suddenly confronted with multi-channel publishing, and the sort of bolt-on solutions we'd been using previously no longer work.

On the other, there are more and more profitable and successful pure-play online only competitors rising, which have neither the legacy print product, nor the legacy overheads of HR and IT departments, expensive property and a CMS that probably wasn't really fit for purpose when it was installed five years ago, let alone now.

Surviving at this level requires a massive rethink of the organisational structure of the whole operation:
  • What are you goals?
  • Who are your readers?
  • What content do they need – and when?
  • What is the best available tool to deliver that content?
  • What staff and skills do we need to deliver this?
  • Can we partner with others to achieve some of that?
  • Where's the revenue in this?

This is beyond "doing more with less" to "doing different things". Kevin Anderson, whose career has spanned digital innovators like the BBC and The Guardian, has recently returned to the frontline of news publishing, as executive editor of two regional newspapers in the Gannett Wisconsin group in the US.

He's been blogging about implementing his strategy of reshaping the editorial structure of those papers: "I am finding time to innovate because I am building partnerships with local institutions to add context and depth to our coverage.

"We aren't just aggregating content, but more importantly, we are aggregating authentic voices in our communities. We are thinking about coverage thematically rather than focusing on incremental stories and engaging our communities in that coverage. Thematic series allow us to weave a deeper narrative that builds loyal audiences."

That rather reminds me of a post a couple of years ago by Joanna Geary, now head of news partnerships at Twitter UK, who highlighted a couple of quotes by Rupert Murdoch that suggested that too often we're too busy doing journalism to think about what that journalism means to our readers rather than our peers.

Hitting the transformative stage means letting go of the idea that we're an organisation that exists to publishing a newspaper/magazine/website and focusing on the idea that we exist to produce journalistic content for a particular audience.

Then, you figure out which of the many publishing tools and content strategies available allow us to do that.

In some cases, print will be part of that answer – but only a part of it.


Adam Tinworth 2 Adam Tinworth is a digital publishing consultant and trainer with over a decade’s experience of advising and managing digital transformation projects.

He blogs at onemanandhisblog.com.

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