The new watchword? Deconvergence — it’s time to separate digital from print

A couple of years ago, when the Seattle Post-Intelligence stopped publishing its newspaper, I suggested that the Seattle Times had a real opportunity to make a serious move into the emerging digital news ecosystem:

First, create geographic-based community sites: Put a pod of jurnos in each of the neighborhoods of Seattle that have a population of about 50,000 people, give or take a few thou. Each pod includes at least two reporters, an ad salesperson, and a community manager. Partner with strong sites that already cover neighborhoods well.  Today, I’d amend that to one jurno and one ad salesperson, and go for neighborhoods with smaller populations. The Times hasn’t done much in this arena except join J-Lab’s Networked Journalism project, in which it provides links to posts from 40 Seattle-area sites. But those links are not on the home page…you have to dip two layers down to find them. [CORRECTION: They ARE on the home page....I completely missed the five links out of the approximately 100 that are on the home page. See Kathy Best's comment, below, that noted the error. My apologies. However, I stand by my next statement, because I believe that integration means that the content from the sites is integrated throughout the Seattle Times site, including the home page, i.e., treated as if they were part of a news organization  network.] That’s not really developing an integrated network; it’s patting them on the head.

Second, topic-based sites: Do a serious competitive analysis of topic-based beats. Abandon the beats that others own (How’s MaxPreps doing in the Seattle area?) Or partner with them, if you’ve got a strong piece of their action. Build out the beats you still own. Education? Transportation? Environment? Health? And create another pod of jurnos for each of those sites. Reporters, ad salesperson, community manager. Today, I’d add issue-based sites. E.g., in addition to a basic health site, a robust sub-section on health reform. When David Boardman, the Seattle Times’ executive editor, stopped by my office while he was in town last week, I showed him our local health site WellCommons. He commented that he thought that a health niche site wouldn’t work in Seattle, because there are hundreds of good health sites already. But I think it’s a perfect opportunity for the Seattle Times to serve as aggregator and curator, as well as begin the necessary transformation to social journalism. Even when we started WellCommons in Lawrence, KS, I thought developing a regional social journalism health site would be much easier in a larger metro area. (We’re above 100K page views a month now…not too shabby for a population base of 115,000 in Lawrence & Douglas County.)

Here's a rough graphic representation of the mini-metro network. Sumopaint's terrific online software, but it can't improve bad art skills. I'll ask my friend and graphics expert Val to fix it up, after folks send in some ideas on how to improve it.

Here’s a rough graphic representation of the mini-metro network.

Third, I envisioned the Times still putting out a newspaper, but suggested that, eventually, it might not appear every day.

Today, I say: Deconverge. Spin off print from digital. Separate management. Separate P&L. Separate buildings. Separate ad and content staff.

A year ago, you never would have heard me suggest that. Clinging to a fatal optimism, I still believed that newspaper culture could grow and change.

But I began heading in the deconvergence direction last year, when we began talking about developing a digital news network. The person to lead that network would need experience in digital ad networks, digital news, mobile and social media, we said. And nobody that person hired would need to come from a print background. We conceived of it as separate, because we didn’t want to “saddle” the organization with the print culture, we said. Hmmm. The word “saddle” should have been a big light in the sky.

My tipping point was on a particular frustrating day, when I watched, for the second time, Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media CEO Clark Gilbert’s presentation to Borrell Associates Local Mobile Advertising conference last September. At the end of the presentation, Gordon Borrell asked Gilbert if he was optimistic about the newspaper industry. “No,” he said. “Not at all.” He paused. “Am I optimistic that there is a path to doing it (making a transition)? Absolutely.”

Gilbert, who has studied companies and industries in transition at Harvard Business School, pointed out this fascinating and very scary fact: of the companies comprising any industry affected by disruptive technologies, only 9 percent survive. And 100 percent of those 9 percent follow a particular pattern. A key is investing in the future. “Do you want to ride this thing down? Or do you want to invest for the future?” he asked.
The cold reality is this: you can’t have  these two different cultures in the same organization anymore. They set up camps. They expend energy fighting each other for the same resources instead of toward creative efforts to improve their organizations. That’s what led to the demise of TBD.com.

Slide from Clark Gilbert presentation

Gilbert provided a list of what the 9 percent of surviving companies do. In case you can’t make out the text in the slide, the items are:

  • Separate physical location
  • Separate P&L
  • Separate direct sales
  • Separate content, product, and technology teams
  • Separate management structures

Does this mean that news organizations could have/should have spun off digital several years ago? Maybe. But it’s likely that approach would have resulted in a rapid disappearance and even more shrinkage of print-based journalism organizations that had served their communities for more than 100 years. Traditional newspaper culture — and tv culture for that matter — still had too strong a hold for organizations to invest as they should have in digital. And, as they started the first big downhill financial slide, the traditional culture would have been likely to set digital free as an entity that did not have the history with the community or the long-held trust, and settled for riding print down. Instead, here we are in 2011 where most traditional news organizations have laid off staff to preserve profits, merged digital and print newsrooms, and many are beginning to develop digital sales staff to capture appropriate ad revenues.

But now, if they don’t spin off the digital versions of themselves, invest in their future, and let print find its own level, they’ll die and take everyone in their organizations down with them.

So, following Gilbert’s list, they can separate the organizations’ P&L, sales staff, tech staff, management and put them in different physical locations. But the crux of the situation is: What to do about content? The tables have turned. For digital to thrive, and print to continue to be profitable while continuing to shrink and find its place in the new news ecosystem, we now have to repurpose web content to print. Print can’t afford the same compliment of writers and photographers parallel to those in the digital organization.

In the digital news organization, jurnos just focus on building and managing their communities, their web and mobile coverage. In the print organization, a distribution desk repurposes digital content for print. Maybe a couple of print-centric staff writers provide Sunday feature stories, but that depends on who the print audience is and what they want. Oh, yeah — it’s important to know who your print audience is, and who your online community is. Spend the money for good market analyses of newspaper and digital sites.

Also, make print a little more digital — more graphics, more photos, don’t force narrative into coverage that doesn’t need it (city council meetings, school closings, etc.) — so that the information that jurnos provide in their digital posts can appear the same in print.

btw, the opposite of converge is diverge. But I didn’t think that “diverge” encompasses the flavor of the situation traditional organizations find themselves in. Hence, deconvergence. Of course, unconvergence would work. Disconvergence could be a word that describes the current dissonant nature of convergence. Any other suggestions?

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25 Responses

  1. and perhaps some news organizations are headed that way.

    But no way will you find anyone to do print-only ad sales.

  2. Ha!!!!! You made my day, Gordon!

  3. Disconverge, diverge, unverge? I have a better name for it, I think. Since the newspaper-online strategy resembled an old guy with a lot of money trying to cling to youth by marrying an attractive 20-something woman …. how about “divorce?”

  4. surprised at how many salespeople are perfectly happy selling print and want nothing to do w

  5. Thanks for the comment, Barry.

    My analysis applies to local print or TV news organizations. It wouldn’t work for an organization like NPR. I’m very interested in maintaining healthy communities of local journalists across this country — they’re the backbone of the national news ecosystem. As many news organizations have cut staff or closed, they’ve left communities without journalists or enough journalists. As we all know, that’s not a good thing for our democratic process or for an informed public. Luckily, entrepreneurial journos are moving in to fill the gap, but in local communities, it can be a slow process to rebuild what was once there.

    I think institutional memory would continue in a scheme where 90 percent of the content would be provided by the digital-first newsroom, and repurposed by a distribution desk in the print organization for the shrinking print edition. Perhaps one or two reporters would remain with print to write Sunday features. This approach can save jobs, it can provide a way for both platforms to grow to be their best without one sucking resources to the detriment of the other, and it can preserve a community’s journalism without interruption.

    Deseret Digital Media has taken an approach like this with their legacy TV station, with great success, so far. Because the Deseret News is still in a JOA with the Tribune, the print aspect hasn’t been worked out completely yet. It’ll be interesting to watch.

  6. [...] a posting back in March titled, The new watchword? Deconvergence — it’s time to separate digital from print, Stevens argued that newspaper companies are struggling with an internal cultural divide that’s [...]

  7. Thanks Jane for a great post.
    This is going to make me sound like an old fogey but what the heck.

    I wonder what deconvergence means for a company’s institutional knowledge and history. Digital does well because of the reputation of the newspaper brand. The brand and the trust associated with it were established over time. By separating the staffs, the digital folks miss the opportunity to understand why the print side does what it does.

    Much of the tension between digital and print is that the print folks are perceived as doing things the same old way. But maybe there’s some important history as to why it’s done that way. Perhaps that same old way is no longer valid but how can anyone be sure without having a conversation?

    If the staffs are segregated the opportunity for dialogue is lost. The opportunity to educate is lost. If a newspaper company loses the ability to tap into its past, then it’s in danger of drifting away from the core values that led to success.

    Excuse me. It’s time to take my Geritol.

  8. Thanks for your kind words, Dickson. We’ll see how all this works out. It’s a very interesting time in media, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

  9. Hi, Meghan. Thanks for your comment. One of the most important functions that a site can provide the members of its community is as a curator. That will always bring people to your site first, even if they head off to a post that you recommend that’s on another site. The BBC learned this early, with their special reports sections. Their community knows that if an issue crops up — such as an earthquake in Japan or conflict in Libya — that the BBC will put together a topic page of all the best content and links, including some that go off their site.

    And re beat reporters….over the last five years, many newsrooms have been laying them off. There are hardly any science reporters, and many fewer restaurant critics, movie critics and health reporters, for example. That trend will continue.

  10. [...] daily print newspaper to an online-only publication with a greatly reduced staff – Stevens posted “The new watchword? Deconvergence — it’s time to separate digital from print,” which builds on the proposed model outlined in “A Modest Proposal” but takes her argument a [...]

  11. Your website is an amazing resource for up-and-coming journalists. Thanks for all the work you have put into it.

    I agree with your prediction regarding the future for newspapers who try to ride out the storm without changing course. I’m afraid, indeed, that as soon as it looks the new bottom has finally arrived, the hole gets a little deeper. I’m in agreement, too, that newspapers need to think about producing print and digital products that take vastly different forms. I’m not sold, however, on the idea of spinning off one side from the other. I think we need to get away – as much as possible, anyway – from the trap of repurposing content. I guess I’d like to see print editions survive for as long as they can all while way more emphasis is put on creating a Web product that truly reflects what the digital audience, which I think is generally different from the print, is looking for. At least regarding the papers I’ve been involved with, that seems like the best strategy.

  12. Fascinating post and a lot of good ideas about how separating web from traditional editorial is not only worthwhile but crucial to survival.

    I am surprised by your suggestion that traditional publications consider abandoning beats where competitive entities are ‘out reporting’ them. Even if you aggregate their content, isn’t that telling readers they should go elsewhere for their news or sports or traffic (whatever the beat)?

    And what to do with those employees whose beat reporting is no longer needed in-house? You suggest the publication could reassign the reporters to the beats the paper plans to beef up on. But how realistic is that move? From my experience in newsrooms, most beat reporters are covering their topic for a reason–out of experience, interest or connections. To reassign them is not only asking they change their skill set, but that they cover something they likely won’t be as interested in or connected to. I wonder if there anyway to avoid that managerial nightmare?

  13. Thanks, Ken. The next five years will be more mind-bending than the last five, and traditional news organizations that don’t move quickly will be left by the wayside.

  14. Excellent article. The TBD.com experiment and takeover is an excellent example of sinking the digital boat at the pier in favor of the corporate, short-term revenue yacht. Your proposal for hyper-specific content on hyperlocal sites is intriguing. I’m interested to see how this pans out and if Patch and The Daily Caller pick up on your insights.

  15. [...] which is dedicated to discussing the rethinking of journalism in the digital age. In this piece, The new watchword? Deconvergence—its time to separate digital from print. Stevens, former [...]

  16. [...] The new watchword … deconvergence … it’s time to separate digital from print. [...]

  17. I agree, and yet you’d be surprised at how many salespeople are perfectly happy selling print and want nothing to do with digital. You can find them in any print-centric news organization’s ad department.

  18. [...] al meglio le risorse. Tra questi Jane Stevens, esperto del mondo della comunicazione, che nel suo blog dichiara di essere arrivato alla conclusione che la scelta più corretta sia quella di imprimere un [...]

  19. [...] The new watchword? Deconvergence — it’s time to separate digital from print « ReJurno of the companies comprising any industry affected by disruptive technologies, only 9 percent survive. And 100 percent of those 9 percent follow a particular pattern. A key is investing in the future. “Do you want to ride this thing down? Or do you want to invest for the future?” he asked. The cold reality is this: you can’t have these two different cultures in the same organization anymore. They set up camps. They expend energy fighting each other for the same resources instead of toward creative efforts to improve their organizations. (tags: deconvergence convergence print newsroom) [...]

  20. Andria, that’s an interesting point you made. No one wants to work solely in print production anymore? Really? I’m not sure that’s the case. Then again, maybe I’m not understanding you correcting. By print “production,” what do you mean exactly?

  21. What if the message is not the medium here?

    What if the message is the community?

    If so … we need synthesis, not separation, if we are to meet community members where they are.

  22. Thanks for the correction, Kathy. See amended paragraph in the post.

    Andria — I agree, and yet you’d be surprised at how many salespeople are perfectly happy selling print and want nothing to do with digital. You can find them in any print-centric news organization’s ad department.

  23. One flaw:

    No one in their right mind wants to work solely in print production anymore.

    So sure, you could hire a bunch of button pushers without engaged brains to be print production, and perhaps some news organizations are headed that way.

    But no way will you find anyone to do print-only ad sales.

  24. I’d like to correct an error in this post. The Seattle Times links to its local news partners from the home page every day. (Check the local news block @ http://www.seattletimes.com) As a matter of fact, we have used stories and photos from our partners as centerpieces on our home page.
    What distinguishes our approach from other news organizations is that it’s a hell of a lot more than “patting on the head.” It’s a news partnership based on mutual respect.
    Moreover, we are partnering not only with the best local news sites we can find, but also with the best local topic-based sites.

  25. [...] He now says print and digital journalism ventures should be separate. [...]

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