Table Stakes Europe: ‘Going public’ in Lisbon

Shortly before the end of the year, Table Stakes Europe (TSE) participants gathered in Lisbon for their second meeting. The first surprise for Table Stakes architect Doug Smith and the European programme coaches was the increase in the number of attendees (60) compared to the first meeting (45) in Paris.

by Valerie Arnould | February 13, 2020

Indeed, most of the 15 local media companies had brought along more team members. A good sign as it shows more resources being allocated to help them succeed in their challenges. The second surprise was the quality of the work done following the October kickoff session. Of course, the coaches knew about that latter part. But for the first-time attendees, it was really inspiring.

Assessing ‘Assumptions vs knowledge’

For their second meeting, each participant of Table Stakes Europe (a programme supported by the Google News Initiative) had to describe their performance challenge, that is what they intended to do and how they would measure success (the “performance” part of the project).

They also had to name who on the team would own the challenge and what internal and external gaps they would need to solve, using the seven core table stakes.

On top of that, Smith had asked participants to identify the key people in their company who would help them in their challenges, some already motivated but also those they had to win over to the cause and how they could do that (“identify what might be sources of dissatisfaction that might motivate others to support your efforts at change”).

The teams also had to describe the “assumptions vs. knowledge” aspects that are key to their success. What are participants assuming they know about their markets, customer segments and needs, competitors, resources needed, organisation’s capabilities…. What information, data or experiments can help to build knowledge? What steps do the teams plan to take to address the questions quickly and inexpensively?

“These assumptions vs. knowledge assessments need to go on during the project as circumstances change and insight is gained,” – Doug Smith

The performance challenges presented in Lisbon responded to those questions, and in many cases, steps had already been taken by the teams.

As Smith likes to say, all meetings are under “Vegas rules.” For the non-gamblers among us, that means the information and discussions are confidential.

However, if we had to roughly classify the projects that were presented, we could use three main categories that almost any local media company would recognise as being crucial in today’s realities:

  • Give your audiences a reason to read/pay for you every day. Here, the focus of the project is to define, based on a better understanding of the audiences, how the news brand can strengthen its role as the “daily companion” of their readers. We heard teams talk about “feeding passions and being useful,” “improving lives,” “re-creating a community of loyal readers.”
  • Aligning forces within the company. For some of the participants, the key to moving forward in their reader revenue strategy lies in the building of awareness and skills within their organisations. One could say that, in a way, it’s everybody’s task in the TSE group. However, for some, it’s an initial step. We have heard challenge presentations stating “we will be audiences first”; “building a company-wide movement, we will make the newsroom the engine of the future”…
  • A radical transformation. For some participants, print revenue is still so strong that they have to turn the whole organisation upside down as digital still appears for the majority a distant reality. We want to go from a newsroom “currently 95 percent print-focused – to one where we create higher quality, indispensable digital journalism and first-class user experience for local audiences to drive subscriptions,” states one of the projects, very much mirroring the experience of others.

Advice from the FT: Find your North Star

A few years ago, the Financial Times’ digital teams were facing the same existential questions as those of TSE participants today. They have since built an efficient organisation that led them to the one million subscribers announced in 2019 (75 percent being digital subscribers).

Tom Betts, the FT’s Chief Data Officer, was the special guest at the Lisbon TSE meeting. Betts recommendations to the TSE teams started by asking them to find their North Star: a shared goal that everybody in the organisation will follow – which is a direct echo of the TSE challenge-based methodology that also emphasizes North Stars in terms of the core outcome/results being sought. At the FT, for example, there is the conviction that reader engagement (establishing a habit of readership) builds a healthy customer base and revenues follow.

To create that engagement meant adopting a customer-centric approach: “audience-centric data is a starting point,” Betts said. “However, you also need to understand beyond aggregate audience metrics. The better you can segment your customers the more effectively you target them.”

Equipped with this knowledge, it’s possible to build some hypothesis on the best ways to increase reader engagement and what steps are necessary to put those hypotheses /assumptions into action.

“The only way to find out if you are right is to actually experiment and tie metrics in order to measure signs of progress. Experimenting does not have to be expensive: ask what is the lowest possible cost route to proving or disproving the hypothesis,” – Tom Betts, Chief Data Officer, Financial Times

If it does not work (and don’t change your mind in the middle of the experimentation, warns Betts), there’s always something to learn, and in many cases, it has avoided wasting time and resources building the final product.

Responding to a participant’s question about the biggest changes in FT newsroom in recent years, Betts said: “The newsroom was very print-focused in 2009, despite digital growing – the front page was more important than online. And at first it was difficult to change this print-first mindset. There is now a separate print team because even when we decided to have a digital-first newsroom, people still had the paper product in mind.”

“The print team’s responsibility is now to turn the journalism we do into a creative print format,” Betts continued. “There was also the creation of an engagement team that owns data and metrics in the newsroom. It’s like an internal consulting team that helps the different desks to think about the audiences and how and when to better reach them.”

Three questions to TS architect Doug Smith after the Lisbon meeting

WAN-IFRA: From an outsider’s point of view, the Lisbon meeting (the second meet-up) seemed like the most important: teams are set, challenges are quite clear, how they will proceed and know success has been announced, the basics of the method are digested. One can wonder what could go wrong now?

Doug SmithDoug SmithDoug Smith: Problem definition is easily more than half of problem solution. Which means challenge definition is more than half of the challenge solution. So, yes, the second meeting is crucial because the teams have put real time and effort into defining the performance challenges.

‘More than half the solution,’ though, does not mean guaranteed success. Bringing about real performance and change in existing news enterprises is hard work demanding focus, persistence and accountability. In that sense, many things can go right – or wrong – in the months following the second meeting.

“This is why we emphasize early wins – especially outcomes or results wins. By using what we call ‘design/do’ – short-term experiments in pursuit of results combined with inviting other folks to participate in such design/do experiments – TS Europe teams can produce the results and participation that build confidence and energy,” – Doug Smith

They can also test their most crucial assumptions about what must go right for success at the challenges – and for closing the most important gaps or shortfalls vis a vis the seven core table stakes.

In contrast, losing focus, falling victim to ‘business as usual,’ failing to grow the number of folks participating in the effort, reverting to activities and planning, flailing about from one magic bullet to another – all cause even the best-defined performance challenge to fall short.

You have spent time explaining the concept of ‘stop doing’ in this session. This is probably the hardest thing to grasp in an industry that loves adding and hates suppressing. How is it best to proceed when you have to go against long habits?

‘Stop doing’ is a discipline for seriously asking what work being done actually adds value in the ways needed for success – as well as what that work costs, and whether the costs are worth the value.

Today’s local news enterprises compete in a tough, competitive market for customers and support. Gone are the days when geographic boundaries defined local news markets in ways that provided local news publishers enormous power – power they could use to dictate the terms of competition, price and customer experience.

In the highly competitive markets now characterising local news, local publishers must pay close attention to scarce resources – and whether or not those resources are producing value for local audiences that can be monetised.

So, yes, in any industry with highly competitive market structures (versus monopoly or oligopoly), participating organisations must have disciplines related to ‘stop doing’ – that is, rigorous, disciplined approaches to identifying work being done that fails to deliver needed value to customers and revenues for the company.

We’ve been through more than a decade of local news enterprises grasping at one new idea after another in the hopes of finding some magic bullet or fairy dust that works. Indeed, in addition to rigorous ‘stop doing’ disciplines, local news folks would be wise to use equally rigorous ‘start doing’ disciplines!

Local journalism has a unique aspect that makes ‘stop doing’ even more important. Journalists rightly believe in the mission and importance of their work. So, while habits are by themselves often hard to break (‘why should we stop doing what we’ve always done?’), those habits can be reinforced by a sense – whether justified or not – that we ‘need to keep doing this because it is important.’

“Instead of ‘importance,’ the better discipline is to define the value of any work being done as well as the cost to do it. If the cost exceeds the value, then there are only three options that must be pursued with rigor: increase the value, lower the cost – or stop doing,” – Doug Smith

Where do we stand in your opinion on the topic of ‘going public’ within this group (communication outside of the challenge team to stakeholders both inside and outside of the organisation)? How vital is it to work on that particular aspect for those who have not started yet?

First, let’s be sure readers know what is meant by ‘going public.’ I drew this idea from when President John F. Kennedy announced that the US would put a person on the moon within a decade.

Kennedy did not have to declare this publicly. He could have simply asked NASA to work toward the goal. Instead, he put his own character – and the character of his administration – on the line.

In doing so, he also put constructive pressure on himself, NASA and all those involved to meet the 10-year goal.

When any of us declare to people beyond ourselves a commitment to some goal and/or result, we similarly put our character on the line in ways that, again constructively, pressure us to pursue that goal.

“When table stakes teams ‘go public’ with their performance challenges and success goals, they commit themselves in ways that go beyond ‘keeping it to themselves,’ ” – Doug Smith

In addition, going public provides crucial opportunities for teams to ask other folks to get involved and help them. This is why we encourage the teams to think about which audiences they wish to go public with – and what will be the ‘ask’; that is, whom will the teams ask to get involved and make commitments to performance results advancing the overall challenge.

The Table Stakes Europe programme for local and regional news organisations is created through a collaboration of WAN-IFRA and Table Stakes architect Doug Smith in partnership with the Google News Initiative.

See our earlier articles about Table Stakes Europe:

Tables Stakes Europe off to enthusiastic start

Stéphane Mayoux: ‘Local news is often what brings communities together’

Alexandra Borchardt: ‘Table Stakes puts quality journalism at the core’

Now in Europe, Table Stakes aims to help local news publishers

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