From Legacy Newsrooms to Digital Media Startups, Lessons in Adaptability

We often see the incumbent and entrant pegged against one another, but each has lessons to offer the other about adapting effectively. In this episode of Mastering Innovation on Sirius XM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, guest Jim Brady, CEO & Founder of Spirited Media, discusses his experiences in both traditional print media and startup digital journalism.

Brady’s experience at The Washington Post allowed him to see the evolution of journalism over time, particularly in the ubiquity of news across platforms and times of day. At Spirited Media, Brady focuses on local news coverage for a younger, experience-seeking audience below the age of 40. He recognized the organization’s scaleability limits, seeing its sites as more complementary to international news. Centralizing instead around a specific customer base, Brady describes a different business model from legacy newsrooms, leveraging events and membership instead of advertisements. In outlining the differences between traditional and digital media, Brady notes that the importance is not in one’s relative superiority, but rather, specializing in their respective strengths and recognizing that what works for one might not work for the other.

An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.

Transcript

Jim Brady (CEO & Founder, Spirited Media)

Brady: The only way you can stay innovative is not to do the same things because the world keeps changing on you, and you’ve got to keep doing different things. With any of the jobs I’ve had before, the idea has always been you have to hire people who are flexible. The question I get asked the most, which I always roll my eyes at, is: where is this all going to be in five years? The truth is, obviously, none of us know. If we knew, we wouldn’t also be chasing a business model on the journalism side of things online. We don’t know, but the key is to have people who are curious about that and will shift when something comes. That’s where the legacy newsrooms I’ve worked with sometimes struggle.

That shift is suddenly saying, “You’ve got to produce on a 24/7 basis.” It’s really hard for people who are used to filing a story at 7:00, calling in at 9:00 to make sure there are no questions, and then going ahead with their night. Now, it’s like boom, boom, boom. It’s a real challenge, but it takes a certain type to be able to make that adjustment.

There were lots of people in The Washington Post newsroom when I was there, whether it was Gene Weingarten, Howie Kurtz, or Mike Wilbon, who were willing to try almost anything in this new medium. They wanted to get their name out there. It would be a live discussion, and they would do special videos for us. There were a lot of people who were willing to play ball. Where it got tougher is at the mid-level, where you have the people who are actually putting the paper out every day. It’s a lot harder for them to focus on the internet for long periods of time because they have a deadline. That paper’s got to be in bed by this time, and the internet can publish anytime.

“The key is to have people who are curious and will shift when something comes.” – Jim Brady

Even if you say you’re going to be a digital-first publication, if you have a TV broadcast that has to air at a certain time or a newspaper that has to go to bed at a certain time, you almost can’t be digital first because that’s always going to drive the production schedule, as the legacy product and the internet to fill in around it. The struggle and tension in most of these newsrooms is they should be digital first, but it’s hard because you’d lose tens of thousands of dollars if you run the papers out a half hour late.

Chaudhuri: How do you overcome that tension and break the inertia so that there’s more of a fluid relationship between the two, and they can work in sync?

Brady: The solution has been to create print teams that really focus on the paper and digital teams that really focus on digital, which, ironically, is a return back to the old models. When I was at washingtonpost.com, we had separate newsrooms for the first 13 years of the website. When I was editor, I worked for a publisher who worked for Don Graham, and Len Downie, who was editor of the paper, worked for Don Graham. We weren’t taking orders from the print side, and that was a controversial structure in the industry. Everybody thought the print people should be in charge of the website. But, it worked for us for a long time because we would not have done as interesting work as we did if we were forced to get everything approved by the print newsroom. They didn’t really understand the internet at that point and we did, so why would we be taking orders from them?

Most of my friends over there, who always hated that structure, have since told me, “Thank God that was the structure because we would have screwed it up. We just didn’t understand the medium in the way we do now, 10 years later.” There is a certain separation you have to do, and you have to do it really well. I don’t think you can say, “One team is going to put out print and digital every day, and we will just change roles out.” I just don’t think that works.

Chaudhuri: We think of this as ambidextrous organizations – ones which have these two types and two cultures that are coexisting. The challenge becomes when there’s a relationship, so one is perhaps cannibalizing or influencing the other in some way. That’s when those tensions arise that you’re describing as well.

Brady: Yes, and the fate of the brand, the medium. The complaint we heard the most at the Post was, “You guys are hurting the brand. You’re doing frivolous things that are making the brand look silly. This is The Washington Post. You guys are doing these cheeky things.” I just never understood that because have you ever read the paper? There’s plenty of cheeky things in the paper.

Most of the things that we did online were done in print. The technology might have been different, but the journalistic theory behind it wasn’t that different. It always annoyed me when people would suggest that we were trying these crazy things, that we’re going to take the brand down. I don’t think the brand has suffered much from being on the internet. If anything, it’s gotten it to a couple hundred million more people than we’re getting in print because The Washington Post is only physically distributed in the Washington area. This opened the world up to the Post, and I think they’ve done just fine.

“Most of the things that we did online were done in print. The technology might have been different, but the journalistic theory behind it wasn’t that different.” – Jim Brady

Chaudhuri: Absolutely. One of the important pieces you keep mentioning is people. People are clearly important. Are people the solution to remaining innovative and creative over time in managing these challenges? Or are there are other process or organizational aspects that could be adapted?

Brady: I think it’s the largest one. Certainly, people are key. You have to find people to fit into what you’re trying to do. We put such a premium on people getting along with each other, and not all newsrooms think this is a good thing. A lot of people who manage newsrooms think bringing in very divergent personalities and having them battle it out creates this creative tension that makes it a better product. There may be some truth to that, but when you’re doing a startup and you’re only going to have five people, you can’t have all five of them barking at each other all day long.

We had two reporter jobs open at Billy Penn when we launched, and we actually interviewed reporters together in twos because we wanted to see how they reacted to another person in the room. We didn’t want to just have one person over here and then say, “Did you like him/her?” We wanted to see how they would react when they were in there with another job candidate. There were two jobs open, so this wasn’t The Hunger Games or something like that. We watched how some people would get in the room and clam up. They didn’t want to talk about their story in front of another reporter. Then, we had two who came in the room and kept raising the level of the discussion on the story: “You know what you could do? You could pull the data from the government and do this.” “Oh, that’s a great idea.” We just hired both of them, and they were fabulous, both of them. It was such a good way to interview because you got to see how they’d react to other people, which I think is crucial.

Chaudhuri: That makes a lot of sense. In our admissions process for Wharton MBA candidates, we also have group interviews to precisely figure that out because it’s not individuals or stars who really do this. It’s a team that will bring complementary skills to the table.

“‘1+1=3’ should be your management philosophy. If you get ‘1+1=1,’ you’re in a lot of trouble.” – Jim Brady

Brady: Absolutely. “1+1=3” should be your management philosophy. If you get “1+1=1,” you’re in a lot of trouble. Chemistry is everything, and we certainly hired to that everywhere we’ve been. Again, you have to get people who are willing to make a very quick left when the world changes and suddenly you’ve got to go over there and chase this. Those are not that easy to find.

Lest I sound like I’m picking on legacy people, there are plenty of people who got into the digital world early who didn’t want to adapt to mobile, so it’s not just people who come from print to broadcast who can’t make the shift. There are plenty of digital people who didn’t want to keep going along with that transition either. You have to fight it yourself sometimes: “I have to learn another thing?” Every time, I think we’re done with this, and now we’ve got AI and drones. But then, you get over that, and you realize: what are the opportunities to produce better journalism with these tools? There are plenty of them.

About Our Guest

Jim Brady is the CEO of Spirited Media, which operates Billy Penn in Philadelphia, The Incline in Pittsburgh and Denverite in Denver. Before entering the pure startup world, Brady served as Executive Editor of washingtonpost.com, Editor in Chief of Digital First Media, General Manager of TBD and as head of News and Sports for America Online. He also recently completed a two-year term as public editor of ESPN.

During Brady’s tenure at washingtonpost.com, the site won a national Emmy award for its Hurricane Katrina coverage, a Peabody Award for its “Being a Black Man” series, an Editor & Publisher award for Best Overall Newspaper-Affiliated Web Site, two Digital Edge awards for Best Overall News Site, a Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism, two Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Awards, four Edward R. Murrow Awards for Best Non-Broadcast Affiliated Web Site, and more than 100 White House News Photographers video awards.

Mastering Innovation is live on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. ET. Listen to more episodes here.

Somina Lee is a Production Assistant for the Mack Institute’s radio show, Mastering Innovation. She is a senior in the Huntsman Program, concentrating in Finance and Marketing & Operations Management at the Wharton School and majoring in International Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences.

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