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Embrace platforms: Why these gaps exist

In order to overcome them, first understand the barriers to success at publishing on the platforms used by your target audiences.

This is an excerpt from “Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News,” published Nov. 14, 2017. Read more excerpts here.

Gaps in your newsroom’s effectiveness at publishing on the platforms used by your target audiences arise from: 1) the legacy mindsets, operations and organization of print-based distribution; and 2) the inherent complexities of navigating a world of multi-platform distribution, especially one where dominant platforms are owned and controlled by others.

Gaps exist because of print legacy impediments

Not surprisingly, the legacy of having once controlled distribution and publishing fosters a range of practices and conditions that slow down and clutter up how fast and well you adapt distribution and publishing on multiple platforms. Some of these have softened in recent years yet can remain significant factors in metro newsrooms.

The comfort of controlling print distribution created an organization culture that is slow.

Owning the means of distribution in print from beginning-to-end always had operational challenges (e.g., when to stop the presses for late closing and how best to optimize distribution routes). But those rarely caused news enterprises significant discomfort about controlling the interaction with print readers. This culture of comfort – of being in control – ill serves the radically different dynamics and unsolved challenges of distribution platforms that are unfamiliar and not totally or even partially controlled.

Even your own websites where you retain control demand audience-first approaches characterized by dynamic, fast moving uncertainties that are a far cry from distributing newspapers. And, mobile web and apps move even further away from the comfort zone because the technology requirements of different mobile operating systems come into play. Finally, publishing on platforms controlled entirely by others strips all comfort away.

Digital-only publishers have no choice but to embrace the challenges of digital platforms. Legacy metros, in contrast, can and too often have retreated into organizational habits of comfort and/or denial – especially, the sense that your metro can dictate the terms of distribution. You don’t and you can’t.

Unchanged legacy organization structures and processes are out of sync with new demands.

Legacy metro news enterprises were functionally structured organizations whose clear division of labor spelled out the well defined, function-by-function – silo by silo — effort that linked every step from words typed on a page to a newspaper delivered on a doorstep. In this world, when one function finished work it could and did successfully hand it off to the next function. It could with good results ‘throw it over the wall.’

Not today. Not in a world where content can be created and published on the same keyboard. This shift raises organizational questions about how best to publish on your own platforms and those of others, including:

  • How to make decisions to start publishing on a platform?
  • What are the roles and responsibilities related to each platform you use?
  • Who “owns” a given platform?
  • What bridges must connect editorial, technology and the user experience for each platform?
  • Who develops a working knowledge of platforms owned by others – and relationships with those owners?
  • Who’s looking out for what’s coming next and thinking about experiments to try?
  • How is the overall portfolio of platforms assessed and adjusted and who’s involved?

These questions cannot get resolved by newsrooms stuck in the fixed roles and functions tied to print. Yet, for too long now, too many newsrooms have put off addressing these questions in favor of improvising at the edges.

Nor does managing digital as a separate unit work any more. Small web teams in another building that few in the newsroom even knew about made arguable sense in the early days of the web. Today, those arrangements are too slow and too cumbersome.

Nor do separate teams focused on social sites and platforms controlled by others work either – for example, through staffing distinct “audience development” positions who serve as appendages to the newsroom. When this happens, the expertise too often gets stuck doing routine tasks (e.g. updating Facebook pages) for others who, with time and learning, could do it better themselves. Even worse, opportunities to ‘wow’ audiences through digital experiences suffer when, as one of the Knight Temple folks with digital and social expertise said, “The whole story is written before they even talk to us.” While such skilled experts can and do make a difference even after the fact of content creation, their impact is severely limited in the absence of the entire newsroom’s embracing and integrating audience engagement and development into how everyone – not just the experts – do work.

The continued financial realities of print trigger unhelpful either/or choices.

For most metros, print still generates the lion’s share of revenue. It also carries the lion’s share of costs. It’s understandable, then, that metros perpetuate or revert to ‘print first.’ Understandable? Yes. Acceptable? No. It is now Table Stakes to be audience-first to be in the game of 21st century news and information. And, audience-first means shifting from print-first to both digital-first and print later and BETTER as part of a commitment to publish on the platforms used by your target audiences.

The either/or trap of print versus digital is a subtle and powerful legacy impediment. Only when your metro newsroom sees and experiences how the print product – the print reader’s experience – gains from embracing the rich possibilities of digital content across multiple, relevant platforms will you find a way out of the either/or trap of sacrificing audience growth and engagement to print revenue needs.

Gaps exist because of inherent complexities of multiplatform distribution

Adding to these legacy-driven impediments are the complexities of navigating and managing distribution in a world of multiple and emerging platforms, some of which you own and some that others own. These complexities manifest themselves organizationally in ways that further impede effectively publishing on the platforms used by targeted audiences.

Ambivalence saps and wastes energy

Current publishing ecosystems mandate choices across a spectrum of possibilities: serving audiences who already come to you versus finding audiences elsewhere and trying to pull them to you versus finding them elsewhere and serving them elsewhere.

The choice to distribute on platforms owned by others provides your newsroom much wider reach. It also raises concerns about (1) loss of control, (2) undermining direct reach, (3) losing direct relationships and brand identity with audiences; and, (4) becoming dependent on and vulnerable to the actions of others. It’s natural for any content producer to feel conflicted and ambivalent – especially in newsrooms with legacies of being in control of publishing.

These conflicted feelings, though, can and too often do generate ambivalence, inaction and risk avoidance. They generate either/or framing of choices (‘print versus digital’) rather than both/and approaches (both print and digital – both reaching audiences where they are and figuring out how to bring them to us).

They also can too easily sap energy and precious resources by triggering seemingly endless debate and discussion over platforms. Talk trumps action – unresolved debates persist instead of ‘learning by doing’ and ‘just getting on with it.’

Reactiveness displaces management discipline

News organizations can be overly reactive. Ambivalence and delay turn suddenly into urgency. Platform choices leap to the top of the agenda. “We have to be on Snapchat!” “We need a special app for the bar scene!” Such efforts launched impulsively in the absence of any managerial discipline and choice grounded in attention to target audiences, platform optimal content, publishing workflows, maintenance costs, revenue possibilities and more. While such sudden reactive efforts might produce good results, they also regularly fail to match optimistic expectations that, in turn, can leave the platforms languishing in unmanaged ways – neither killed nor developed further. When that happens, skepticism grows in ways that undermine instead of building confidence.