Publications on the shelf
Why is the transition to digital going so badly for most journalism companies? There’s plenty of knowledge out there about how to do good digital journalism, and growing bodies of evidence about how you can derive revenue from it. Yet, most companies are still struggling – or even exiting traditional journalism entirely as many of the B2B publishers seem to be doing.

The answer, of course, is that change is hard. Really hard.

Politics for Misery and Loss

As Kevin Charman-Anderson put it in a recent post:

The politics are fierce. Even when it is in an organisation’s best interest, even when it is an organisation’s stated interest to embrace digital, winning the political and cultural battles is hard, thankless work. I know people who stayed and fought these battles inside organisations, and I have deep respect for them and learn from them whenever possible. When I return to working for an organisation, hopefully soon, I will take lessons that I’ve learned from these friends.

The fundamental problem here is that people continually agitating for necessary change become irritants and eventually enemies of those who like things just as they are. And publishing seems to have attracted a lot of people who like that. Even if they’re not just small “c” conservative in nature, they’re unwilling to let digital champions ride the new wave to become promotion threats. If you become enough of an irritant, it becomes ever easier to edge you out in the latest round of redundancies. And that has happened again and again and again. The number of the people who were doing the key digital change training, implementation and thinking in the mid-2000s within traditional publishers who have been pushed out at some point over the last decade is staggering. I remember remarking to a friend a few months back that there was only one real survivor, and heard that they’d gone within a few weeks of that conversation.

Change is hard – and brutally hard on the people implementing it.

Losers in the change battle

This goes a long way to explaining Peter Kirwan’s observation that it’s the core implementers who are being made redundant – often repeatedly.

Arguably, the people you want to keep in a situation like this are the ones who really know – or stand a chance of understanding — how to manage digital transition. People like this are mostly found below board level: they’re the managers who form a human connection between strategy and tactics. Managers like this know their markets. They should have a feeling for what readers and advertisers might pay for.

However, middle managers of this kind arguably find themselves living a life that’s more precarious than ever.

He’s primarily talking about people at publisher level, which originally led me to view the article with some cynicism – I’ve met a very few publishers who really get the digital transition (but those I have met tend to be very good indeed). I suspect some of the people Kirwan is talking about have somewhat inflated ideas of their own digital savvy, leading to the rapid exit from the business as this is discovered. Indeed, I’ve seen this happen first hand.

The Natural Political Situation

There’s plenty of politics at work here, though, giving Kirwan’s piece more strength than I first credited it with. I’ve seen senior people work change through more disposable proxies, rather than put their own jobs on the line. I’ve seen more honest versions of the same, where senior people bring in consultants to say the things that they politically can’t (and, indeed, I have profited from this…). I’ve seen people who fought change every step of the way step in and take over a project once it’s proved successful, pushing the people who championed it out – and then go on to claim public credit for being a visionary. I’ve seen people talking at conferences making it appear that they were in charge of a project that I know for sure someone else led.

This is natural. People are fighting for survival in a shrinking business, and are looking for ways of preserving their livelihood and feeding their families. It’s not nice, useful or healthy – but it’s natural.

But it needs to stop, or this industry will be left entirely in the hands of insurgent pure-play digital businesses. The only organisations that will make this transition successfully will be those run by strong, insightful leadership that has the courage to give the change agents down in middle-management the freedom they need to get the job done, the awareness to be close to people that far down the hierarchy, and the skill to stop the fierce politics sidelining the genuinely skilled in favour of the politically ruthless.

Anyone know any companies like that?