Gideon Spanier: Jason Seiken brings a radical vision to the conservative Telegraph Media Group. But who’s buying into it?
Every newspaper group is struggling with the biggest communications revolution since the invention of the printing press
Monday 16 September 2013
Executives at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph recently received an internal questionnaire on 20 key issues. It made for slightly bewildering reading for print veterans.
Among the questions were: “What times of day do you publish? What works best at a particular time of day? What kind of new metabolism will your department develop? If 20 page impressions are free, how do you tempt a visitor to pay for the 21st [the Telegraph introduced a metered paywall earlier this year]? What types of video work best in your area? What could you do with your star performers and a camera?”
Other questions asked about how to improve the use of data and graphics, to make more money from areas such as sponsorship and events, and to ensure that an increasing focus on digital did not undermine a commitment to print.
Most of these seem eminently sensible, apart from the bizarre reference to metabolism. Every newspaper group is struggling with the biggest communications revolution since the invention of the printing press, so Telegraph Media Group (TMG) deserve credit for tackling it head-on and appealing for ideas from their lieutenants. Few within the industry would claim to have all the answers but some other rival groups show little sign of even asking the right questions – let alone much urgency.
The “20 Questions” memo puts into context last week’s surprise appointment of Jason Seiken as TMG’s new chief content officer and editor-in-chief. Mr Seiken comes from America and is steeped in digital. A dual US-UK citizen, his role for the last six years has been general manager of digital for Public Broadcasting Service – better known as PBS and the closest thing to the BBC in the US. Before that, he worked for AOL in London and was editor-in-chief of washingtonpost.com.
The announcement about his appointment promised a “root and branch restructuring of TMG’s editorial operations to complete its transition to a fully integrated digital business”, adding the newsroom must develop “a dynamic, entrepreneurial culture with digital products at its core”. Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of TMG, emphasised Mr Seiken’s “pioneering track record of delivering radical, durable change” and “completing profound business transformations”.
TMG declined to comment further, but among journalists, there is trepidation and optimism. Insiders worry that Mr Seiken will bring in his own team, even though the editors of The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, who will report to him, are said to be safe. There has already been a lot of change at TMG. In March, there were 80 redundancies as the company became more “digitally-focused”. With 54 million worldwide users, the Telegraph is the third biggest UK newspaper website, although it is still the biggest quality in print, with a daily sale of close to 560,000.
Considering its Torygraph image, TMG has been surprisingly radical. It became the first UK newspaper group to introduce a single, integrated print-and-digital editorial operation in 2006, with a much-imitated “hub-and-spoke” newsroom layout. Yet my understanding is that some at the top of TMG feel many of its journalists are still stuck in a print mindset. With print revenues falling across the industry and, in the Telegraph’s case, an older readership, there are reasons to worry, even though TMG is rare among quality papers as it makes handsome profits – £57.2m last year on sales of £327.5m.
The status quo won’t last with Mr Seiken, judging by an speech he gave at PBS last year. He talked about how most people dream of being inventors but fear change, and cited the example of camera firm Kodak, which resisted digital and went bankrupt. His solution was to create more online video and locally-tailored content, aimed at every community in the US. Internal culture was crucial. Every staff member of should feel “they are entreprenuers” who “favour action, over discussion” and “pivot fast”. The mantra should be: “Act, learn, build, repeat.”
To that end, Mr Seiken launched PBS Digital Studios to make original, online TV shows and won a hatful of awards. Video views on the PBS site rose 100-fold to 225m a month in the last four years, according to the Digiday industry website. How Mr Seiken applies such thinking to the Telegraph’s journalism is not yet clear. He certainly promises radical change, if he can win over the newsroom.
Bring on a new generation of risk-takers
Richard Desmond made a good point when he warned that many senior figures in British media were risk-averse. “If I had gone to one of these great universities, I wonder if I would be speaking here today?” the owner of Channel 5 and the Daily Express told an industry audience at Cambridge University. “I worry that this kind of structured education means you become structured in your thinking. And that affects how you approach taking risks.”
It is hard to think of many successful digital media companies that have emerged from British universities in recent times – certainly when compared to, say, Stanford in Silicon Valley, in the United States, where venture capitalists mix with professors in campus cafes and every other person wants to create the next Google, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.
However, that could change: the new generation of undergraduates who are heading off to UK universities are digitally-savvy customers paying big tuition fees.
They got their A-level results electronically, were wooed by their university by e-mail, and some have been meeting fellow students through Facebook, even before they get to their halls of residence.
It brings a whole new meaning to media studies. And there’s nothing like finishing university with £27,000 of debt to encourage some entrepreneurial spirit.
Bauer acts for its own greater good
As Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, was about to begin on Friday, media giant Bauer finally bowed to months of protests and shut Der Landser, a magazine accused of glorifying German Second World War soldiers.
Bauer has been under pressure thanks to a campaign by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. In Britain, Ofcom is being pressed to investigate whether Bauer, owner of radio stations Kiss and Magic and magazines Grazia and Heat, is a “fit and proper” broadcaster.
That is no small matter when the company needs regulatory approval for its takeover of Absolute Radio. Bauer says Der Landser did not glorify National Socialism and complied with German law. But it does not take long for a crisis to escalate in the digital age when social media amplifies protests and advertisers can get the jitters.
The Der Landser saga shows media companies will act quickly once their wider commercial interests are under threat.
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