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Johnston Press: 'Prove the new to change the old'

22 Jul 2014 |  Lucy Sinclair 
Johnston Press: 'Prove the new to change the old'

With a 300 year print legacy, Johnston Press is undergoing an enormous cultural change as it embraces everything digital has to offer. Here, the publisher's CMO, Lucy Sinclair, shares what they have learned.

The wind of change is forever blowing across the media landscape - it's why people are drawn to this industry. "What next?" is what challenges and drives us. The past 15 years have seen breath-taking acceleration in the pace of change.

It's both exhilarating and entrepreneurial - but can also be paralysing if your business isn't braced for evolution and your teams haven't bought their tickets for the journey.

Simply telling them "change is coming, now go forth and embrace it" will rarely work; human beings are hard-wired to dislike unexplained change. And if the people around you aren't getting it, you can guarantee that your customers won't be either.

The impact of digital has rocked every aspect of our world. Media businesses in particular need a culture that's geared for the quickest possible change that allows digital to be coherently absorbed into the mainstream of business practice.

The role of a 'digital' team is to stay many steps ahead and solve problems which the rest of the business doesn't yet know it has. But it's vital that digital doesn't become a silo. To bring about true transformation we need to make 'mainstream digital' everyone's responsibility.

Finding ways to do that, at the right speed, without overwhelming people, in a business with a 300 year print legacy, is a mammoth task.

The very first Johnston Press title, the Stamford Mercury published back in the 1700s, provided news, information and services for readers and local businesses in its community.

That hasn't changed - we still aim to be the fabric that binds our communities with local businesses - we're just doing it in the digital age. What has changed is the speed of change, so we are constantly having to adapt our culture to meet the 'what next?' challenge.

Language is vital to bring about culture change. My experiences at the BBC and now Johnston Press have taught me that we need to talk in a language that fits the old culture in order to seed ideas to benefit the new one.

I'll give you an example of a language issue I experienced at the BBC when we were launching iPlayer. It's a given that the schedule is very important in the business of linear TV. However, at one point in iPlayer's evolution, the predominantly digital iPlayer team decided to completely ignore the schedule, figuring that because the iPlayer service isn't limited by the time of day, what would be the point of listing it in the order that the programme was originally broadcast?

This challenged every golden rule of traditional TV thinking, so the TV team then over-compensated by trying to force a schedule into what is actually an unconstrained, non-time-based user environment.

In fact neither approach worked for the audience. In both those examples, the tension between the old and the new dominated decisions, and the teams looked inwards and lost their focus on the user, the audience.

Language is vital to bring about culture change. My experiences at the BBC and now Johnston Press have taught me that we need to talk in a language that fits the old culture in order to seed ideas to benefit the new one."

To understand how these tensions crop up, you just need to consider that people who had dedicated long careers to 'scheduling' were suddenly being told by their new digital colleagues that it - and they - just weren't relevant any more. No wonder that creates resistance.

The culture change came when everyone stopped tussling for ownership, focused on the end user, and realised that the underlying audience-need for a schedule remains true, but that it isn't about linear time - it's about cues, signals and curation.

The 9pm slot is a key 'signal' to audiences that the broadcaster thinks this programme is the best thing on that night. 'Scheduling' in the linear world has evolved into 'curating' in a digital world. Changing the language, changes the understanding, which changes the behaviour - and then we're all ready to change the world. Language has never been more important.

A similar example exists right now within Johnston Press. We are working hard to be the number one provider of local news and views to people in our markets. The language we use talks about 'dailies' and 'weeklies' (referring to our printed newspapers).

Yet consider that we are now trying to create 21st century newsrooms, because news happens on any platform and at any time. It will hold us back if we continue to use language that is centred solely on the frequency of the printing press.

We are tackling this with the introduction last year of our editorial board, where our senior group editors come together to create and drive the newsroom transformation. It mustn't be just 'head-office strategy' or management speak - it's owned by the people who live and breathe it on a daily basis; by editorial teams for editorial teams.

It's a similar story of culture change in the commercial side of our business. We need to offer 'marketing services' to our two million SME customers across the UK - a change being sales-people who sell, to marketing-advisors who help.

This is substantial change and we've learned that to help it happen, we need to be a bit humble and listen to people at the front line of our business who deal with our customers day in and day out. By listening and involving them, change becomes organic and will deliver lasting transformation and a culture that is happy to keep adapting.

As a management team focused on driving change, we're faced with decisions that many of our teams feel uncomfortable with, or feel unsettled by - we can't expect to have 2,000 people agree with us just because we tell them to.

So another key part of our culture change strategy is to put great emphasis on data. We now ask "as evidenced by what?" of new ideas and also challenge and stress-test all existing beliefs and practices. This approach frees the business up to grow, and has enabled us to launch new digital services like www.digitalkitbag.com - our online marketing service for SMEs.

The 'what next?' challenge for media businesses is not going away. Our job in transforming the culture of a media business will never be complete, thanks to the incredible pace of change in this brilliant industry. But just like our colleagues three centuries ago, we are blessed and challenged by the nature of the vibrant media world we have chosen to work in.


MediaTel will be hosting a debate on the Future of National Newspapers in September, with panellists including Trinity Mirror's James Wildman, News UK's Abba Newbery and the Independent and Evening Standard's Chris Blackhurst. See our events page for details.

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