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Broken news: why culture change and accessible technology are key to solving publishing’s disruption dilemma

News and Insights 28 Aug 2018 04:53

Broken news: why culture change and accessible technology are key to solving publishing’s disruption dilemma

By Ashwin Saddul, Founder and Managing Director, Better than Paper 

Change is never easy, but for the publishing industry it’s proving tougher than most.

Ironically, it’s not news that publishing is facing disruption. From the invention of the printing press, through the development of global communications and the rise of television, this venerable institution has traditionally found ways to leverage new technology to its advantage. There has always been room for media outlets of all sizes, each offering their own take on the world to loyal audiences.

Since the advent of the internet, however, publishing has struggled with the dramatic democratisation of content sharing – suddenly everyone with a web connection and an opinion is capable of publishing freely and continuously. Responding to this intensive competition is a tough challenge for businesses whose bread and butter relies on monetising content. Publishers large and small have struggled to work out how to capitalise on new models and compete with mega-platform aggregators such as Facebook and Twitter, while retaining editorial integrity and offering a high quality, engaging product.

Culture transformation, the co-pilot of digital innovation

To adapt and survive in the new reality publishers need to be brave, bold and bullish, experimenting with new technologies, innovating at speed and embracing a “fail fast” culture. Acting, in fact, like tech industry start-ups.

If only it were that easy.

Publishing, like many legacy industries, is fundamentally risk averse and cautious when it comes to innovation. When you’ve found a formula that has worked for so long, it’s psychologically difficult to break free of it and take a leap of faith into new territory. In a recent podcast looking at the evolution of internal culture at the Washington Post following its acquisition by Amazon, Chief Revenue Officer Jed Hartman reflected on the typical attitude of news media towards experimentation, saying “in the old-school newspaper world, […] if you experiment, [and] it doesn't work, someone's in trouble.”

This reticence towards change and fear of failure is now one of the principal risks to the industry – and the industry knows it. In its 2018 survey of senior leaders in the global news media industry, the Reuters Institute found that internal factors such as lack of ability to innovate and resistance to change are the biggest barriers to overcoming the challenges they currently face.

Doing nothing is not an option but changing a long-established industry culture is no simple task. Publishing has a confidence problem and it’s going to take more than a pep talk to solve it. I believe that the answer lies in democratising access to transformational technology and reducing the cost of experimentation.

Facing the fear factor and embracing the freedom to fail

To tackle the fear of experimentation we need to look at why it exists, and the answer is not that complex: the fear is not necessarily of failure itself, but of the associated financial impact. For organisations that are already counting the pennies, investing in new technology for experimentation can seem too big a risk - the sole preserve of big companies with deep pockets. In order to get companies experimenting and embracing the freedom to fail fast and move on, we need to reduce both the perceived and actual cost of failure.

Take artificial intelligence (AI), for instance, a disruptive technology, which has the potential to create exciting new monetisation and customer personalisation opportunities - it’s what we’re developing here at Better then Paper. Incorporating AI into publishing will eventually become a competitive necessity, but I often hear it painted as a complex, high value investment that requires the recruitment of specialist technical staff into a department that sits in a silo outside the core business team. This perception only reinforces resistance to change and fear of failure.

I firmly believe that to drive the necessary culture change and get publishers acting more like start-ups, they need enabling technologies, such as AI, that are financially and technologically accessible. They need scalable, secure tech that is as valuable and effective for a hyperlocal site as it is for a multinational media giant. It needs to integrate easily with existing platforms and require minimal investment in training and personnel to get it up and running, so it can empower existing staff and start getting them excited about its possibilities.  

Once the technology is in place it’s time to experiment and start to develop that “fail fast and adapt” agile approach that works so well for disruptive industry entrants. Suddenly the disruptive tech, when made accessible to the disrupted organisation, becomes a powerful tool instead of a threat.

Analytics are critical, so ideas can be evaluated quickly for continuous improvement. If it works, amplify it, if it doesn’t, move on to the next idea. Once businesses have the freedom to fail, they can become bolder and more innovative, adopting the fearless characteristics that are the foundations of success. 

Today’s audiences are well accustomed to iterative development in media. As long as there’s nothing too jarring or unfamiliar, they respond well to developments that create a better experience and deepen their relationship with the publisher.

So, publishers need to overcome their fear and reluctance to seize the opportunities that low cost, high impact technology can offer, launching a culture of experimentation so they can drive their own disruptive agenda.

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