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Telegraph's Seiken: 'I've changed an iconic institution before'

Telegraph Media Group's new editor in chief and chief content officer, Jason Seiken, further outlined his vision for the group and hailed a "golden age of journalism" at Newsworks' Shift conference yesterday.

Telegraph's Seiken: 'We are actually entering a golden age of journalism'

Telegraph's Seiken: 'We are actually entering a golden age of journalism'

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Building on comments made at Advertising Week Europe last week, Telegraph’s editorial leader delivered his manifesto on the future of the content business to more than 200 media leaders and press planners and buyers.

Jason Seiken's speech in full...

 

A few months ago, just before I took this job, I heard a story that I think you’ll enjoy.  A British newspaper editor is walking on the beach at Bournemouth when he stumbles on a lamp in the sand.  So of course he gives it a rub and, of course, out pops a genie.
 
And the genie offers any wish the editor’s heart desires. The editor says, "I’m desperate to attend the World Cup but I hate to fly and I get seasick. Build me a highway to Brazil."

The genie is outraged. "You know how hard it would be for me to sink all those pilings across the Atlantic? How much concrete and asphalt I’d need to cover 6,000 miles? How long it would take to get environmental approval from Brussels?
 
"Ok, forget it," the editor says. "Instead, I’d like to know how to transform the newspaper industry for the digital age."  
 
And the genie looks at him and says, "About that highway…did you want two lanes or four?"   

Golden age for journalism and audiences

Yes, the joke writers and the pessimists say these are desperate times for the newspaper industry. I take a contrarian view. We are actually entering a golden age of journalism.

Our industry is being disrupted by technology – and disruption almost always leads to more and better choices. Without a doubt, we are entering a golden age for the audience, with new and immersive ways to experience news.
 
In a few minutes, I will demonstrate one of these, using the glories of virtual reality.  We also are entering a golden age for journalists, with new reporting tools that make me wish I were a young reporter again. In just a few minutes, we will fly one of those tools over your heads. Literally.  
 
And perhaps – if we continue having the courage to change – we are even entering a golden age both for newspaper companies and for the advertisers who make journalism viable.  I can’t imagine – I wouldn’t want to imagine  – a world without newspaper companies – a world without our investigative reporting, breadth of coverage, and depth of expertise.
 
And I hope you can’t either. I don't want to live in a world where my friends rely on Google to keep them informed about whether the government is spying on them.

A world where parents depend on Facebook to sort through conflicting research about how to raise healthy children. A world where voters rely on Buzzfeed to name the MPs who were fiddling their expenses. A world without a tradition of journalistic excellence, without the core values that newspapers have developed over decades and even centuries of covering the world in all of its complexity.

Being good is not a viable business model

That's not the kind of world I imagine for my children. But here’s the problem: Being the good guys isn’t exactly a viable business model. So what do I envision when I say we’re entering a golden age for audiences, journalists, and advertisers?    
In the old world, the job of putting out a great newspaper was fairly straightforward: One product per day on one platform with well-defined boundaries – the printed page – and a geographically limited audience. Excellence meant reporting, writing, editing, and pictures.

The rules of the road were clear – editorial on one side, commercial on the other. Revenue streams were equally well-defined: advertising and subscriptions. And competition was limited – other UK newspapers – and measured each day by who beat whom on which story, and each month by circulation numbers.
 
That was then. Today’s world is one of multiple and multiplying formats for presenting news  –  text, pictures, video, audio, interactive graphics, searchable databases, lists, shareable social media, and so forth.
 
A world of new reporting methods, from data mining to camera-equipped drones, from tweet analysis to live blogging. It’s a world where audiences are served on an ever-growing number of screens and platforms.
 
Amidst all this upheaval and complexity and change, no wonder the pessimists obsess about newspapers.The pessimists fret about newspaper readership declining as audiences fragment across countless digital news and entertainment sites.
The truth is just the opposite.

Online growth beyond our dreams

Last month, 72 million unique browsers visited telegraph.co.uk, a growth rate of 29 per cent year-on-year. Those are numbers we could only have dreamed of during the so-called glory days of newspapers. And this growth will continue – because in times of audience fragmentation, trusted brands attract quality audiences. The pessimists talk about changing demographics.
 
Yes, the average age of a Telegraph newspaper reader is now over 50, but young audiences still love newspaper brands. In just one year, we’ve grown our Facebook followers from 100,000 to 1.1 million. And the ages of the most engaged visitors to our main Facebook page? Would you believe 18-24? Followed by 25-34? In fact, a full 64 per cent are between 18 and 34.        

British press: A glorious petri dish of business models

The pessimists talk about newspapers being too rigid to cope with changing business models. Yet the truth is that the UK newspaper industry has become a glorious petri dish of business models.

Fleet Street is testing and trying new strategies and tactics, experimenting and changing, pushing beyond our traditional limits. The Guardian, The Times, the Mail, the FT, and the Telegraph – are all trying different models – and I wish each of them nothing but success with their various approaches.We newspapers come from different traditions and legacies, and we all have loyal audiences.

There’s room for all of us. In fact, I rejoice in the successes of all newspapers because today our most dangerous competitors reside far from Fleet Street.

The pessimists talk about technology moving at light speed  –  they predict that the winners in this brave new world will not be traditional news companies that are learning to build technologies, but, rather, technology companies that are learning to cover the news.    

Again I’m the contrarian. The evidence is clear: The Telegraph and other newspaper companies – while continuing to publish iconic newspapers – are already moving to the cutting edge of digital technology. Some day soon we’ll be able to offer news and entertainment in exciting and immersive new ways, with experiences that will put audiences at the centre of the story, at the side of our journalists, experiencing the same sights and sounds [In a few minutes, I’ll show some examples].

The pessimists say we’re doomed because serious journalism no longer sells. After all, who wants to read about the Chancellor’s budget when you could be reading this: "Man in banana suit at large after attacking man in gorilla suit."

So the pessimists say we’re descending into a world dominated by journalistic empty calories –  that audiences have fallen in love with clickbait and listicles.    

Are audiences really dumbing down?

But is the sky really falling? Are audiences really dumbing down? The truth is that throughout the ages, the news business has always had its equivalent of the listicle.
 
Almost from the beginning of time, tabloid journalism has outsold quality journalism. For certain audiences, clickbait sells. Always has, always will. For these audiences, there is no doubt that we’re entering a golden age of 21st century digital sensationalism.
 
But I believe we’re also entering a golden age of serious journalism – with quality newspapers, as always, in the lead. As long as newspapers are around – in whatever form, on whatever platform – serious journalists will harness new reporting technologies.    
 
Serious journalists also will perfect exciting new ways to present news and information – from data visualisation to virtual reality goggles.    
 
Now, I may be optimistic but I don’t view the world through rose-coloured Google Glass. In an era that demands constant transformation, reinvention and dexterity, there’s a case to be made that newspaper companies can't change quickly enough.

Need to adopt a truly digital-native culture

Years from now, when we look back on the media companies that thrived, those that merely survived, and those that perished, the defining difference will be this: Who among us was bold enough to adopt a true digital-native culture?  
 
At the Telegraph, we’re in the midst of that transformation, creating a culture that is digitally native in practice as well as theory.  And what does that mean?  
 
For us, a digital-native culture starts by putting our audience at the centre of everything. That means we’re interacting with the audience non-stop – using data to explore and understand what they want, how they want it, when they want it – and how they’re using it.
 
These days, we know not just when a headline gets clicked, but also if the person doing the clicking goes on to read 20 words or 200. We know more about today’s customer than ever before.
 
If you aren’t using data to listen to your customers, your competitors are. By definition, this approach means turning newspaper tradition on its head. When I got into the news business a few hundred years ago, the editor was King. He ran the show.
 
He decided what was important, what should be covered, what should be published. He had an intuitive idea of what the audience wanted and each day was a zero-sum game to put out that day’s newspaper, go home, and do it again the next day.    
 
Now, I’ll admit that I’d like nothing better than to go back in time and be that guy. It’s an enviable job description. But in the digital age, it just doesn’t work.
 
A top-down, command-and-control style can’t grow today’s newspaper because no one person has the skills in print, audio, video, interactives, data, text, mobile, social, SEO, analytics, infographics, blogging, clickthrough rates, click-to-open rates, conversion rates, subscriber rates, bounce rates, time spent, revenue per page, yields, lifetime value, latency, cost of acquisition, content syndication deals, apps, native advertising, acquisition opportunities, computers, phones, tablets, TV monitors, wearable computers, virtual reality goggles, and … the Apple iCerebellum brain implant or whatever technology is coming next.  
 
The choices are too broad and complex, and the expertise required in each discipline is too deep. Over my career, at the Washington Post and elsewhere, I’ve worked with my share of brilliant top-down leaders, and I have no doubt that, if they were working in today’s complex world, they would be leading the charge to build a digital-native culture in their newsrooms.  
 
A culture where the editor sets the vision, hires world-class experts across a broad range of disciplines, and creates the environment for them to do their best work. A culture where intuition still matters, but data matters more.    
 
A culture that’s less top-down and more about empowering journalists and holding them accountable for the results. A culture where staff in their 20s and 30s rise more rapidly than ever – because in areas such as social media, they are the true digital natives, the real experts.    
 
A culture where old rules and ways of doing business are challenged and tested through rapid experimentation. And … perhaps most disorienting for those of us who grew up in print newsrooms, a culture that is comfortable with small failures.

Take risks and fail fast

Because any true digital organisation knows the key to innovation lies in taking risks, failing fast, and learning from those failures. Facebook’s motto is "Move fast and break things." They paint it in huge letters on the walls of their headquarters.
 
At my previous job, I created a "failure goal" that penalised staff who didn’t fail often enough – because it meant they weren’t challenging themselves.

This is the culture of innovation at our digital competitors – and at the Telegraph it is the digital-native culture we embrace. And yet that’s not the end of the change.    
 
Today’s editor-in-chief has one other new and critical role. As we’ve painfully seen during the past 15 years, without healthy business models, there is no journalism.
 
Following the profound disruption in the industry, the editor-in-chief must bridge the once-sacred divide between editorial and publishing.  
 
Today’s editor must live at the heart of the business, helping devise new revenue streams, nurturing and developing relationships with advertisers and partners – but always ensuring and protecting the editorial integrity of the institution and its journalism.
 
Of course, all the culture change and new technologies are pointless if they don’t result in more compelling journalism for our audiences. The Telegraph always will be about news.
 
But the 21st Century, the Telegraph is equally about using new technologies to help our audiences make sense of our increasingly complex world -- and to help them make the best decisions for themselves and their families.    
 
Now, I’ll stop droning on and swap in a drone of another kind – a real drone – one of many technologies that are unleashing this golden age for audiences, journalists, and advertisers.  
 
My first hire at The Telegraph was Lewis Whyld – a former divorce lawyer who now builds drones and uses them to pretty much go where no journalist has gone before.  Let’s take a look. [Lewis, if you wouldn’t mind, shows us how it’s done].

Now let’s take a look at a technology that is a bit more futuristic but eventually will be an even bigger game-changer in how we present news and information. [We have a brave volunteer, Emma Cranston, investment director at Manning Gottlieb OMD, has kindly agreed to fly with us].
 
[Demo of VR goggles]    
 
By the way, anyone in the audience who is interested in actually taking these technologies for a test run, we have these and other toys such as Google Glass available for hands-on demonstrations in the experience room at the Telegraph.

Changing an iconic institution is no cakewalk, but I've done it before

So let me close by putting myself in the genie’s slippers and explaining why we won’t need him to build that bridge. Changing an iconic institution is no cakewalk. But I know it can be done; because I’ve done it before.
 
What I found in leading the transformation of America’s public television network – a challenge not unlike the current one – was that changing an old-media organisation to a digital native culture is not impossible – and it works.
 
PBS is the definition of a cautious organisation. Almost all of its primetime programs have been on the air for more than a quarter-century. Yet, I was able to create an entirely new culture.

The results? We grew video views from 2 million a month to a quarter-billion a month. PBS.org came out of nowhere to become the most popular network TV website in America. So yes, it can be done. And the best journalists jump at the challenge.    
 
Our approach to continuing to transform the Telegraph for the digital age rests on two fundamental principles:  The first is one we've had all along – the principle that our most valuable asset is the iconic Telegraph brand. A brand that stands for integrity, honesty, reliability, and trust.
 
Regardless of how the technologies change, these are immutable and non-negotiable, and that brand is our biggest asset, both in print and digital.
 
The second principle is this: We will create a culture where, bucking the weight of 159 years of tradition, the only commandments chiselled is in stone will be those core values of integrity, honesty, reliability, and trust. Everything else is open for experimentation and change as we disrupt ourselves into the new golden age.

Jason Seiken is editor in chief and chief content officer at Telegraph Media Group.

This article was first published on mediaweek.co.uk

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