Is the media industry too insular for its own good?

“The auto companies are historically insular, which is a big part of the reason they’ve stumbled so badly,” wrote Joe Nocera in the 5/23/09 New York Times, pg. 5. “Bill Ford, the previous CEO had spent his life in the family business; he new some of these things needed to be done, but he could never bring himself to pull the trigger.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/23/business/23nocera.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=ford’s%20cheerleader&st=cse

I’ve been thinking this exact concept about the media/publishing industry for a few years. We are at crucial juncture of enormous change in consumer demand and the advertising-supported business model. Business-school basics tell us that today’s giants literally can’t change gears to tear themselves apart and build models for new realities.

Part of this reality in media, I believe, is due to not bringing in enough new talent from other industries. We think this industry so different from others that we shun the idea altogether. Instead, we could learn so much from how other industries approach and solve similar problems.

What are some examples that you think fit?

Also, media companies historically are not big recruiters at MBA programs. In the late 1990s I applied to and visited three top-ranked MBA programs at universities with top-ranked j-schools: Northwestern, NYU and Columbia. Each time I asked about media companies that recruit, and each responded with a blank stare. This was particularly dumbfounding at NYU, where Condé Nast’s then-CEO, Steven Florio, got his MBA.

That’s because companies tend to put too much focus on having experience in the industry. Not that we want everyone in the company to have zero industry experience, but a healthy balance is needed to avoid groupthink.

Here is a review of execs from select media/news companies, based on the companies’ websites. It’s a work in progress that I will continue to update. The evidence so far suggests minimal outside experience.

New York Times Company (5/26/2009)
* Chairman/Publisher: Arthur Sulzberger – No outside experience listed; Poly sci undergrad, Management program-Harvard
* President/CEO: Janet Robinson – School teacher before 1983; English undergrad, Management program-Dartmouth
* Vice Chairman/President/COO: No outside experience listed; Undergrad major unknown, MA in English-Lehigh, MA in journalism-Missouri, MBA-Emory
* Sr VP/CFO: James Follo – CPA firm before 1994; Accounting undergrad, CPA
* Sr VP Corp Dev: James Lessersohn – No outside experience listed; Government undergrad, MBA-Harvard
* Sr VP Corp Communications: Catherine Mathis – Shipholding and paper companies before 1997; Business undergrad, MBA-Minnesota
* Sr VP Digital Ops: Martin Nisenholtz – Content and advertising roles for telecom and advertising before 1995; Psych undergrad, MA in communication-UPenn

Gannett

Tribune (6/1/2009)
* Chairman, President, CEO: Sam Zell – Real estate scion; Undergrad major unknown, JD-Michigan
* COO: Randy Michaels – Broadcast TV and Radio prior to 2007; Undergrad major unknown
* Exec VP, Chief Admin Office: Gerald Spector – Real estate prior to 2007; Business undergrad
* SVP, Chief Innovation Office: Lee Abrams – Radio prior to 2008; Undergrad unknown
* CFO: Chandler Bigelow – Investor relations prior to 1998; Undergrad major unknown; MBA-Wisconsin
* Pres/Tribune Interactive: Marc Chase – Gov’t, eBay and radio prior to 2008;Undergrad unknown
* EVP, General Counsel: Don Liebentritt – Real estate prior to 2008; Undergrad unknown, JD-Chicago
* SVP Corp Relations: Gary Weitman – PR and broadcast journalism prior to 2008; History undergrad, MA in journalism-Northwestern
* Pres/Tribune Broadcasting: Ed Wilson – No outside experience listed; Undergrad major unknown

McClatchy

Dow Jones

Time Inc.

Hearst

Meredith

Penton

Advanstar

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Our issue with issues

Deep in the psyche of media/publishing veterans is an assumption that is not discussed often: Our issue with issues. There’s a lot of talk about the failing advertising-reliant business model for magazines and newspapers, and about the transition away from print to all sorts of digital distribution.

With print, we’re literally bound to packaging, distributing and marketing content in editions. You don’t see single articles – or hourly updates – from Sports Illustrated or the Kansas City Star on the newsstand, unlike their Web counterparts.

Issues have a special place in readers’ minds. Think about the annual fashion, swimsuit and “list” issues. Edit and sales teams alike love this because it helps to organize their work, at least making it seem easier.

This concept of issues is also paramount to the circulation-auditing business and to advertising. Each audit statement is based on the publication’s “analyzed” issue for that time period. Also, the adds and drops for each issue are presented, hanging out to dry the circulator’s dirty laundry.

On the ad front, marketers buy display space in issues and get discounts on frequency. In magazines we even talk about shelf life of an ad because people save their copies and supposedly look at old issues. (This one even I have trouble with since it’s hard enough sometimes to get through current issues.)

Issues are nice because they provide a tidy way for editors to package the day’s, week’s or month’s stories. Looking ahead, though, I won’t care so much about the March issue of blah-blah magazine. If new packaging, distribution and marketing paradigms are more exciting, convenient and efficient, I’ll forget all about my issues. This is one reason I see replica, digital issues of magazines and newspapers as a transition point.

I still want an organized package of what to read that does replicate the value currently handled by editors – especially the goal of showing me what to read/understand so I’m a well-rounded member of society. But our future with (non-print) newspapers and magazines will be sans issue.

If the Kindle or similar has any chance of lasting into the news-reading future, it will have to accommodate a Web-like fluid, self-updating presentation of articles and data, plus more (and more) social interaction.

Instead of reading articles from a specified time period, we could have our cake and eat it, too. Online, articles are just sitting in a database, tagged and waiting to be sorted/filtered to your heart’s content. Show me not only the editor’s top articles for right now, but also (1) by date so I can catch up from previous days; (2) by reader popularity; and (3) by my social networks’ popularity.