How publishers can accelerate digital transformation

Anita Zielina is just starting her new role as Director of Innovation and Leadership at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY), but she will be back in Europe in early April to talk about accelerating digital transformation in media organisations at the Digital Media Europe conference.

by Valerie Arnould | February 4, 2019

At CUNY, she is founding a leadership program together with Jeff Jarvis and Sarah Bartlett.

To that task she brings years of experience, most recently at Switzerland’s NZZ Media Group, where she was chief product officer and a member of the executive management board. Before working at NZZ, Zielina worked at Stern magazine in Germany and Der Standard daily in Austria.

WAN-IFRA’s Valérie Arnould interviewed her ahead of Digital Media Europe, which takes place 1-2 April in Vienna.

WAN-IFRA: Digital transformation and leadership: how do you link those topics?

Anita Zielina: My previous jobs were all about that connection. I was confronted with this challenge: ‘Make us all digital and help us change.’ That was always the task, both at Stern as digital editor in chief and at NZZ as chief product officer.

News organisations need to re-invent themselves – both on the product side with new products, paywalls, and new forms of monetisation; and on the culture side, becoming more innovative, finding new ways to collaborate, finding new ways to experiment – creating a culture that allows that.

“We can build hundreds of new products, we can develop new apps, we can do whatever, but ultimately all those new products are not going to help us if we don’t get into a new mindset as organisations – if we don’t tackle the core culture issues: the leadership style, the collaboration, how we engage with the readers, but also how we engage with one another in the organisation.” – Anita Zielina

Many companies feel they are stuck in their transformation strategies. Do you think the changes should be implemented more decisively?

You have to find the right balance. Sometimes you just have to be tough and say, ‘This is not optional. This is a decision we made and we have to do it to survive.’ But then also at some point it’s not enough to just force people.

You also have to include them and give them the feeling that they are part of the change process and that they also have a say. You don’t want to freak people out. It’s not helpful, because then they’re in shock and you can’t move, and the mood becomes terrible.

In many cases, digital innovation is delegated to a small group of young collaborators, working on their own on some of the most important strategic topics for the future of the company, right?

Yes, that is true. There was a trend a few years ago when The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, NZZ Media Group and others all started labs or innovation labs or something like that, as a separate thing that was very far from the daily operation.

Of course, that has one advantage: Those people can really freely innovate and build things, and they are not slowed down by the big organisation. They don’t have to fight for the things they do. So they are pretty independent.

“The downside is that very often they are not aligned with the strategy, so they just build things and there are no questions such as, ‘Why do we build those things? How does it eventually play into our core business? How are we eventually going to generate revenue with it? How are we going to be integrated into our organisation?”

So very often it remains this ‘bubble’ somewhere outside that does things, but no one really knows exactly what it does. The big challenge is to be able to rapidly re-integrate those ‘bubbles’ and bring the change back to the core business.

In news organisations, if you don’t change the workflows, the culture, the conversation you have, the team and the hierarchies in the newsroom, then all the change you induce is just going to stay in the outskirts of the organisation.

Does that work better if you make sure that management is included in those innovation teams very early?

“What really helps is doing things together. Even people who are skeptical at first will reconsider their attitudes if you actively bring them in and create interdisciplinary teams, or even just smaller projects where for one day or half a day people of different teams, different cultures, different ages work together.”

That is extremely helpful, because when people feel they are not in the driver’s seat of change and can’t influence how changes are happening, they just feel threatened and build up a wall against all new ideas – and they don’t want to be part of it.

There is a very broad set of people in every news organisation who may not be the frontrunners in digital but are also not the pessimistic types. Those are the people you need to take with you and convince to really get that movement going.

Another way to signal change is by creating new roles, new job descriptions. You see that happening a lot now at large publishers.

I think it helps. But you need to make sure you explain very well what this person does and why he or she is doing it, and how this change fits with the strategy that you have for the organisation.

For example, when I came to NZZ, I started the storytelling team for everything that was not text. I spent a lot of time explaining to journalists and to the head of the team what his role was, why it is important to create a great digital experience every day for paying subscribers, and how this new team could help us achieve those goals.

Those new roles – especially the product roles, in data, in design, in visual storytelling and project management – are becoming more and more important and help facilitate that change.

“I think ideally you have to hire some ‘change makers,’ but you also need to build up the change makers in the organisation.”

It’s a big opportunity for journalists because every journalist knows that now, or in five or 10 years, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for him or her if the only skill he/she has is writing.

Where would you start if today you had to lead a digital transformation project in an ‘old media’ organisation?

I would take three steps. First, figure out why you are special to your readers or users: what your brand stands for, what they want from you, what they see in you, what your role is – which means engaging with your users, going out there and talking and listening.

If you’re starting a process like this, that is an essential first step. You need to find your unique selling proposition and identify that together with the users.

Number two, discuss and develop a strategy after you decide what your strengths and weaknesses are. Plan for the future.

Strategy places some bets – there is always a leap of faith in it – but start with that and communicate it clearly within the organisation, to make sure that everyone knows the goal we have as an organisation, what we focus on.

And number three, follow that strategy very strictly. When the first small headwinds come, don’t say, ‘Oh, it didn’t work. We have to turn around and do it completely differently.’

“Once you decide on a strategy, really follow it – even if one or two things don’t work as planned.”

And by sticking with the strategy, I mean saying ‘no’ to temptations. If your strategy is not built on visual journalism, don’t invest in a video team or a visual storytelling team, even if everyone else does.

Really try to align your execution of the strategy and try to not get deterred and confused if everyone else says, for example, ‘Oh my God, we have to be on Snapchat,’ or ‘Oh my God, we have to build a blockchain application.’ If you feel that is not a good fit with your strategy, you don’t have to.

The industry is focused on digital subscriptions/paid content. Is that going to work for everybody?

The situation today is that unless you are one of the very biggest players in the market – the number-one or maybe number-two player – reach alone will not allow you to sustainably finance quality journalism.

Is a paywall the only alternative? Not necessarily. We see some approaches where events can become a big part of the calculation. We see some approaches where paid-for newsletters, briefings, in-depth analysis, consulting, or an intelligence unit can pay part of the bills.

“There are different ways to get money from people for your brand, and every organisation has to figure out how people are going to pay for the kind of journalism they do. But I do think that is essential.”

Does that apply to local publishers as well?

I think it does. I think for local it’s going to be much more difficult to focus just on reader revenue. I know this is a controversial topic, but I think for a lot of local publishers, there will be a need for some kind of financial support from the state or the city or the country.

I’m not a big fan of subsidising everything with public money, but I think with local we’ll see a certain need for foundations and companies but also national governments, cities and ecosystems to step in to support local news.

That is because it’s going to be much more difficult to reach a certain number of paying subscribers or club members or whatever you call them, or donations, and say, ‘this is the only income we have.’

I think local organisations will need different pillars and different kinds of income. And hopefully if you combine donations, foundation money, public subsidies, reader revenue, and maybe events and advertising, you can build a very strong business model.

Where do you think publishers should put their energy and investment this year?

If you’re in a publishing company, the one thing you have realised in 2019 is that there is not one big thing that is going to save us. What will ultimately decide is how strong your strategy is and how well you are executing it. How do you lead and attract talented people?

“If there is one thing I would invest in for the future, it’s building expertise in digital marketing: a team that knows how to price, sell and market products on digital platforms.”

That includes building a great UX team. The user experience offered by many publishing houses is still very painful compared to other digital companies. You lose a lot of customers because of that. I would add expertise about various revenue models, from paywall to memberships to donations, and so on.

One thing I learned from driving innovation in news organisations for more than 10 years is that re-inventing the core business is a painful, time-consuming process, and there is always the temptation to look for more glamorous projects, like building a Snapchat team, launching a new soccer app, or whatever.

“Innovation is great, but at the back of your mind must always be the focus on learning things that will help you re-invent your business.”

Zielina will speak at Digital Media Europe about “Making changes and driving transformation”:
DME 2019 in Vienna

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