“The advent of broadband ripped our squawking heads from the sand” « BBH Labs
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“The advent of broadband ripped our squawking heads from the sand”

22nd May 09

Within about 5 minutes of arriving at the Telegraph Media Group offices last week, those unvarnished words – first uttered back in 2007 by TMG’s now editor-in-chief, Will Lewis – had been recounted to us, setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon.  A bit of a surprise.  This after all was the home of the Daily Telegraph, the UK’s biggest broadsheet, famously the ‘paper of the shires’ and historically the bastion of the Conservative party, right?  Well yes and no.  Invited in by Nancy Cruickshank, TMG’s recently appointed Executive Director of Digital Development, a group of us from BBH and BBH Labs were about to hear how the paper had undergone a complete operational and cultural transformation over the past few years: moving from a print production-led organisation to one intent upon embracing an integrated, multi-format, audience-focused future.

Before we go much further, it’s worth saying what this isn’t about: it’s not another essay on the accelerating declines in the newspaper industry’s circulation figures and ad revenues, as much as these may form the backdrop, even the driving need behind the changes at TMG. Instead, the starting point here is the premise that adland still needs media and media needs adland, no question.  And, equally importantly, all of us need to find forward-looking ways to accelerate our own response to the change going on around us. Listening to what they had to say, the relevance for any commercial creative business hit home hard. Here then is an unapologetically positive attempt to capture the implications of what we heard: what can we learn from one media brand’s story?

1. THE POWER OF A PILOT STUDY: ‘PROJECT VICTORIA’

Small, nimble, under the radar, with permission to fail: Will Lewis took a team of just seven, each with different skills and experience, out of Canary Wharf to Victoria and set up a separate unit to experiment with new ways of working. For five months they worked with just a dozen journalists to create the first 4 pages of the newspaper and a dummy website, each and every day.  And just about every day they deliberately trialled different ways to deliver it: from different seating arrangements to different processes and responsibilities.

Section editors sit in conference (at centre, surrounded by TV screens)

Section editors sit in conference (at centre, surrounded by overhead TV screens)

Today, editors for each of the paper’s sections meet at a central table three times a day for conference, with their individual teams working in spokes fanning out from that hub, reflecting the layout they found worked best in the pilot.  Obviously this alone wouldn’t have transformed their output, but it has cut down unnecessary lines of communication and created greater cohesion across platforms.

Above all, the pilot allowed the team running it to find out as much about what wouldn’t work, as what would.  A controlled environment where several different approaches were tried out meant failure was an (acceptable) option.

2. INTEGRATED STORIES NEED INTEGRATED LEADERSHIP

In terms of responsibilities, there is no complex matrix system separating channel expertise from editorial expertise. Instead, an audience-driven approach gives each section editor responsibility for how their stories play out across ALL media. And as a general rule, a story is given equal prominence whichever platform it appears on.  Regular conferences ensure if a story crosses sections of the paper this is spotted early and priorities get agreed.

The implications here suggest themselves: telling a story in a multi-channel world is probably done faster and better by a multi-discipline team sitting together, with one point of sign-off.

3. HAVE SIMPLE, TANGIBLE GOALS (and, like it or loathe it, some independent auditing)

Project Victoria’s aims were straightforward: could they move to a model where more content was produced, more often, by fewer people (from “11 pairs of eyes to 3-4 pairs”), across more platforms (print, online, audio and video)? Whilst maintaining the quality of journalism? Without increasing errors?  Without driving people into the ground?  Independent auditing proved they could.  In fact, the net result was more content, of equal if not higher quality, for less. And intense though ‘intra-day’ (versus the old once a day, 9pm deadline) submissions may have been, people actually enjoyed it.  At the root of this was a simple realisation that is particularly telling for any creative business: they needed more content creators and less people handling it.

4. HAVE BUY-IN FROM THE VERY TOP

With a business as steeped in tradition as the newspaper industry, instigating change would have ground to a halt if it hadn’t been for the support and conviction of the proprietors and the likes of TMG CEO Murdoch MacLennan.  Deeper within the organisation, people’s jobs depended – or appeared to depend – on the status quo staying exactly that, the status quo.  Even passive obstruction (the most lethal) at that level could have easily derailed the project without support right at the top of the company.  It goes without saying the same applies to any organisation facing this degree of change.

5. MAKE IT PERSONAL

When they moved from pilot to roll-out (a program lasting a phenomenal 18 weeks, training 25 people a week) the going in point was that an integrated, multi-platform approach was not about killing the newspaper off, but about protecting and growing it for the future. It was even pointed out that the web gave the Telegraph a stronger international presence in markets where the paper could not be physically printed. Yet they soon realised people needed to know why it was important to them personally. Saving an industry is not enough. With TMG staff there were a number of positive things to choose from, some of which might be reframed for anyone working in a creative business: you could now be a journalist across 3-4 different media, not just one; working to intra-day deadlines is higher intensity, yes, but it doesn’t mean longer hours; the quality of journalism is improved by more information and a greater choice of stories and, within reason, a faster pace of working sharpens the output, rather than weakening it.

6. TELL PEOPLE ONCE. THEN TELL THEM AGAIN. AND AGAIN (…AND THEN ONE MORE TIME)

A very simple point and one we’ve all heard before, but yet still nearly always overlooked.  In short, when we’re bored of talking about what needs to change and why, others may just about be starting to listen and taking an interest.  Experiment with different ways (large groups, one-on-one etc) to do this.  Accept not everyone will embrace change at the same speed.  Some people may never get it, whilst others may take a while to do so.

7. GIVE MORE TIME & FOCUS TO THE PLANNING PHASE

In terms of delivering a story, it may come as a surprise (it did to us) to hear over half the paper is made up of set pieces that are completely possible to plan for.  In fact meticulous planning is increasingly an absolute necessity.

The web has both exacerbated the need for planning and provided the tools to do so. First, the web is key to story building & fuelling: online publishing means more content, starting much earlier and lasting longer.  Inevitably, this dictates that a plan is in place guiding what content is released, when and how it unfolds over time.

Second, the web can be key to story ownership, in turn helping to drive actual newspaper sales (with the recent MP expenses scandal the media and associated parties were directed initially to Telegraph.co.uk to ‘prove’ the story was live & legitimate in order to engender a response, which was then used to deliver the story in full most publicly via the paper).

The parallels & implications for our industry here seem particularly significant – sure, a lot about a brand story cannot be controlled in the way it used to be (nor should we try), but this provided a timely reminder that we can and should plan the steps we can control.  Without doubt, this also hints at the opportunities to fuel & curate brand stories in closer partnership with media owners.

8. STAY IN PERMANENT BETA

TMG live the spirit of this in a number of ways.  Their innovation Lab has partnerships with Google, Apple and Adobe with whom they develop new and experimental outputs, with a focus on rapid prototyping & delivery (concept to delivery in 6 weeks).  By way of example, they were the first publisher to launch a Google Android app.

TMG are also focused on what needs to change next within the organisation, which they’ve identified as getting editorial & commercial to work hand in hand.  Nancy Cruickshank stresses that a renewed focus on audience and tangible metrics will contribute to resolving what might otherwise be a predictable tension between the two.  Tough as it may be, this is where it gets really interesting. Above and beyond e-commerce (easy because it is measurable; plus reader offers, products & services are unsurprisingly strong sources of revenue), TMG see connecting buyers and sellers through content as the Holy Grail.  Indeed, people may come to the Telegraph site to read news stories, “but when we can move them to do stuff too, it actually improves the reader experience”.  Which is where brands looking for new, more effective ways to connect with their audiences come in.  Although – perhaps inevitably – this is also when concerns around brand integration versus journalistic integrity get voiced, a well thought-through partnership with the right brand has the potential to drive far greater value for all concerned.  Interestingly, on the other side of the Atlantic, the New York Times R&D Lab is pursuing new types of technology-driven innovation with equal vigour, the Nieman Journalism Lab describing recently how “In the (NY) Times R&D Lab, the future of news is the future of advertising.”

By the end of the visit, the overwhelming sense we’re left with is of an organisation that understands change is the new steady state.  Rather than resisting change, better to lean into it, plan for it, even enjoy it.  And on that note, I leave the final word to Chris Lloyd, Assistant Managing Editor at TMG and one of the original team of seven:

“It never really stops.  Don’t let a stagnant state set in.  Keep moving, keep changing.”

Our thanks to the Telegraph Media Group, in particular: Chris Lloyd, Rhidian Wynn-Davies, Murdoch MacLennan & Nancy Cruickshank

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