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Future of News Media Operations

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In our second edition of FirstVoice, Grant Whitmore, a consumer media professional and strategic advisor to Firstsource chats with Ashish Chawla, who heads the Digital Media practice for Firstsource, on the “Future of News Media Operations.”

Grant: How do we view the state of the news industry today, and specifically, what are the existential challenges and opportunities as you see them?

Ashish: Thanks, Grant. Very interesting question. People are consuming more news than they have consumed in the history of mankind and that number is going up dramatically every second of every day of every week of every year. They’re not consuming news from traditional channels. All our lives when we were growing up there were the newspapers and then television news, broadcast news, et cetera. Today, there are so many non-traditional channels which are offering news. My kids get the news maybe from TikTok or Instagram. While news is being consumed it’s being consumed and talked about, the channels have become very different and that is almost existential for traditional news companies because they first need to get– or they first need to adapt to these channels, and two, they need to be relevant in this market.

Grant: What I’m curious about this morning is how Firstsource is able to help a traditional organization which might, by the way, even be like a Web 1.0 company at this point, adapt in those different manners.

Ashish: One of the key messages that we are taking to our partners or our clients is focus on your core. The problem is most organizations are not clear about what their core is. Conceptually they are, but when it comes to operations, they believe that everything they’re doing is core to them. Whereas if you look at the hyperscalers they were the first to move to what was their core and just scale it in a very rapid fashion. One of the first initiatives is to look at the operating models and come up with structures where we are able to redefine their core or at least define their core in some places. If I take a newspaper for an example, getting the right news to the right audience in an experiential fashion or with a great reading experience is their core. Everything else that they do, whether it’s setting up large finance operations or large bodies of people sitting in offices doing activities which are not directly leading to getting that news to that audience is non-core for them.

It’s very difficult to take that message to them because newspapers or news organizations and for that matter most organizations were built as these brick-and-mortar monoliths where they wanted to do everything themselves. We’ve been successful in some places. One of the largest newspapers in UK their challenge was they wanted to get to a million subscribers. We said we can help you get that. You focus on what is good for you, what is core for you, which is getting the right news out there, create news experience for people. What we’ll do is we’ll reach out to people and give the message on your behalf, and we did that well and they are well on their way to reach that target. Similarly, you spoke to MTRs at The Baltimore Banner.

The good thing with the Banner is, because there was no legacy, we were able to construct the operating model right from the beginning in a way where we decided what is core and what is context. All these surround operations can be delivered in a very efficient fashion whereas they focus on a great newsroom. You and I have both been to the Banner newsroom.

They have an exciting newsroom in Baltimore and they’re focusing on what is code, which is great stories, relevant stories, bringing them to the community that enriches from those stories. Everything else around that can actually be delivered by partners such as us because we specialize in that. We don’t specialize in building news or creating news or writing news for that matter, but we specialize in that. A hybrid operating model like this, I believe, can succeed very well. It has been successful in the past, it’s succeeded in other industries. There is no reason why it can’t work in the news media business.

Grant: As we think about those lessons, what would you say that the digital media industry can learn from other industries that rely on subscription and ad revenue? What are the parallels that can we draw between those that have gone before media, which tends to be a little bit slow and a little bit perhaps overreactive in adopting these differing hybrid operating models as you’ve described them.

Ashish: Yes. Wonderful point. You and I both have gone through this inflection point when we’ve dealt with media organizations. Now, couple of things stand out, Grant. One is the– you talked about it, but the relationship with their audience. The problem was most news companies did not have a direct relationship with their audience. When the inflection happened, the first thing they should have moved towards was to build that relationship in a more substantive way. The best way to build that relationship is give the audience what they want, which is a news experience or experiential news, whichever way you want to put it. Instead, as you pointed out, the newsroom was cut and everyone thought that if I can go to Silicon Valley and hire five smart programmers who don’t dress in suits, I’ll become the next Google.

Grant: [chuckles] Yes, I remember.

Ashish: Yes. Suddenly, they were neither a great news organization nor were they a technology company because you can’t convert a news organization into a technology company. The second thing is they started competing with the likes of Google and Facebook. It was too late in the game to do that. Once you start competing with the hyper scalers, you’ve lost the battle because these companies have got immense power when it comes to the number of dollars they have, the resources they have at their disposal to build stuff.

The good thing is they are leaving a lot of space for news organizations to not just exist but to thrive. The hyper scalers are platforms and there is a lot of opportunity to write those platforms, to partner with those platforms, to use that platform for your benefit.

That’s something that it’s not late, but that’s something most news organizations could benefit from. They’ve started doing that. We’ve seen multiple examples where news organizations, rather than thinking about competing with the Google, they’re saying, “Okay, Google is a great platform, I’ll use it. I’ll use all the belt and whistles that the platform has, but I’ll use it to deliver that experience to my audience.” That is the core. The ones who are doing that have started doing well. The ones who are coming up and thinking of doing that will do well, at least in my opinion. There are enough private equity type players who will come, who’ll squeeze every penny out of you and leave you high and dry.

Stay tuned for our next edition of FirstVoice …

About FirstVoice – Firstsource’s Fireside Chat Series 2022

FirstVoice is a thought leadership series of fireside chats and informal discussions with some of the most fascinating visionaries, entrepreneurs and game-changers reimagining the leading edges of business process innovation and customer experience. These explorations – organic, unscripted and sometimes personal – are dedicated to inspiring new ways of simplifying complex business processes, nurturing richer customer engagement and creating powerful new sources of business value across sectors and industries.

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