One year after leaving corporate media: Focusing on fundamentals

spring training 2011

Watching the fundamentals of baseball at McKechnie Field, 2011

Today marks one year since I left the E.W. Scripps company, resigning my post as Vice President of Content and Marketing. In my announcement – leaked in several places but most reliably here – I said my reasons for leaving were professional and personal:

On the professional side, after more than 20 years with newspapers – 15 of them on the interactive side – I would like to explore the broader interactive world. There is a lot of innovation happening in the interactive space – some in newspapers, some outside. I want to see what’s outside without viewing it through a familiar lens.

On the personal side, I’ve put my work ahead of my wife and family for much too long, and found I had a little too much in common with George Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air” – counting my miles and not my blessings. It’s time to see less of the world alone from an aisle seat, rental car and hotel room.

One year later, I think it’s fair to ask, “So, how’s that working out?”

Very, very well. The personal side is not for this blog, except to say that living with your wife – and not 900 miles away – is a good thing. And being able to walk a kindergartner to school is its own stock option.

On the professional side, the journey to see beyond newspapers began with baseball, and the game continues to be the best metaphor for what’s happening in digital media.

Immediately after leaving, my wife and I spent much of March 2010 in the Grapefruit Leagues. Nothing clears my head more than watching baseball. The games don’t count statistically or in league rank, so it’s easy to let go of team loyalties and become immersed in the game itself – the athletics, strategies and pure Americana-ness of it all.

You see baseball at its core. Its fundamentals.

That’s what I’ve tried to do since leaving Scripps: Focus on the fundamentals of digital media. Outside the din of budget constraints, restructuring and the tyranny of the urgent, the signal gets stronger.

So when we formed the consultancy, we established it on three fundamentals of digital media: Participatory, Profitable and Mobile. And we’ve applied those fundamentals to work with national public-media companies, agile startups, storied foundations and universities.

Fundamental 1: Participation. In working with a client focused on Florida public policy, we started with the bad news: In the past two years, the number of reporters in Tallahassee informing Floridians about what state government is doing has decreased by 70 percent. Florida isn’t unique. There’s been a rapture of people holding elected officials accountable in every state.

That doesn’t mean that discussion of issues has ceased. It’s become more democratized and more horizontal. It’s happening on blogs, on Twitter, in social media and in comment streams. But how do you prioritize policy issues and uncover agendas in the roar?

Our approach is to use social-media monitoring tools to create listening posts that track topics, people and trends across the spectrum of digital media. By actively listening to inputs from mainstream media, blogs, comments, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and others, we’ve been able to track conversations throughout the state.

A combination of tools allows us to see who is driving topical conversations, which entities are pushing agendas, how buzz farmers can skew a standpoint and how all of this digital/social interaction translates to real-life action – and where it doesn’t.

It’s taught us that using social-media tools and then applying analysis to that active listening could reshape the way news organizations structure bureaus, foundations and for-profits structure communication policies and, most importantly, how citizens can be better informed.

Fundamental 2: Profitable. We’ve been able to see inside dozens of news start-up sites, from neighborhood news sites to large statewide initiatives. Our work has ranged from creating networks of news entrepreneurs, leading management training sessions on behalf of the Knight Digital Media Center and helping design the first meeting of these local news entrepreneurs at the Block by Block conference in Chicago.

The largest theme in all venues has been sustainability. How do you make local journalism pay for itself? Which is a coincidence, because show me a mainstream media company – for-profit and public – that doesn’t say the same thing.

In past months, I’ve rewritten business plans for mainstream media companies wanting to get serious about digital revenue, worked with public media companies seeking alternatives to government funding and helped entrepreneurs write their first business plans. (Clue: A grant proposal is not a business plan.) All have one thing in common:

Sustainability is about focus and execution.

Ask John Paton as he works to make Journal Register Company digital first. Ask Clark Gilbert, who recently told publishers how he completely reworked The Deseret News into a multifaceted, multimedia company.  Ask MinnPost, which blends grants, sponsors, members and underwriting to create a break-even business.

But don’t ask the folks at Allbritton. Allowing the panda to roll over and smother the next generation is not a sign of sustainable genetics.

Fundamental 3: Mobile. The research on mobile’s steep rise is relentless, the graphs terrifyingly steep, the numbers mind-boggling. But all of them are saying something fundamental: Mobile is as disruptive to the desktop as the Internet was to newspapers.

Yet many media companies continue to dabble in the space – throwing up apps without a plan to monetize it, shopping for the cheapest vendor, using mobile as another RSS dump. You know who you are.

Our approach has been to help companies see past the ways many industries – but mostly newspapers – got the Internet wrong, and to help them avoid that path when it comes to mobile. The early wrong was not giving content away for free. The early wrongs were that newspaper companies allowed a thousand flowers to bloom – they built one-off CMS platforms, did not build a scalable infrastructure and did not diversify digital revenue streams soon enough. (“Add an assumptive 20-cent digital upcharge to each classified ad and call it profitable.”)

One startup client, Spreed, has discussed its vision of a “stack” in which the content, revenue and data all align, rather than a system involving disparate pieces of software cobbled together. It’s the smart play. It’s obvious.

But only if you focus on the fundamentals.

But back to baseball.

It’s a year later. This year, we’re back at the park for the Grapefruit League, watching the starters play a few innings and then trot to the dugout, watching the rookies bust it to get the coach’s attention, watching base coaches size up who can outrun the throw from the plate.

It’s a simple game. As Skip says in “Bull Durham,” “You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball.”

So easy to forget. So good to remember.