I’ve attended many journalism conferences over the years, but our industry offers nothing like the event I attended this week. As many of you might know, my primary job these days is running a theme park news website that I founded nearly a decade ago. So this week I drove up to Las Vegas for the theme park industry’s largest annual event, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions’ Expo.
What does this have to do with journalism, you ask? Nothing.
Which is everything. (Hang with me, okay?)
Wednesday afternoon, a source I’ve had a good relationship with introduced me to several former Walt Disney Co. employees who are now legends within the theme park industry. Each worked with Walt Disney himself, and had gathered for a panel discussion about Walt’s management style. The question they were to answer was… what could Walt Disney’s approach toward management teach today’s industry leaders?
Plenty. And not just in the amusement business. Walt Disney’s management philosophy contrasts sharply with contemporary management practices in the news industry, especially within “legacy” media companies. Might I suggest that difference in long-standing management tradition helps explain the sharp contrast between the recent financial performance of the Walt Disney Company and the newspaper industry? Disney today enjoys a market capitalization of nearly $55 billion, and its share price is up 13% over the past five years.
How many newspaper companies can report that?
So let’s look at how Walt did things, and compare that with how things are done in the news business. (Full disclosure: My first full-time job was with the Walt Disney Co., and my mother, sister and wife have worked for Disney in the past, though none of us do now.)
Harrison ‘Buzz’ Price, the consultant who suggested that Walt build Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. and Walt Disney World south of Orlando, Fla., described the difference between responding to an employee suggestion with a “No, because…” and a “Yes, if….”
Walt was a “Yes, if…” type of manager, Price said. Walt wouldn’t shoot down anyone’s idea with an immediate dismissal, but would challenge that employee to improve upon his idea.
Richard Sherman, the composer who, with his brother, wrote many of the Disney Co.’s most famous tunes, including “It’s a Small World After All,” told a story about a studio executive who disapproved of a gag in a movie the studio was making. The criticism made Walt furious, Sherman recalled.
“‘I don’t care if you don’t like it,’ Walt said. ‘Tell me what we can do to make it better.’”
Walt created an environment where his employees (“cast members” in Disney lingo) felt welcomed, and empowered, to speak freely – to Walt and to co-workers. “You were one of the members of the team and were free to talk,” Sherman said.
Ideas – the lifeblood of a creative business – could come from anyone in the company. And Walt often challenged employees to perform in areas where they’d had little or no formal training.
“You never know what you might find when you give someone an opportunity,” said Marty Sklar, the UCLA journalism student Walt hired to write a newspaper for distribution in the Disneyland who ended up becoming president of Walt Disney Imagineering, the design company that oversees the development of Disney’s theme park attractions.
There is no Walt Disney managing today’s legacy news businesses. (Yes, ABC News is part of the Disney Co., but Disney acquired it long after Walt’s death, and the news division does not share the same management tradition as the other divisions of the company which once reported to Walt.) Disney’s management style has nothing to do with today’s news business. Which I see as a huge problem for us.
Walt’s management style empowered the company to cultivate fresh ideas. Yet management practice within today’s news business has smothered creativity.
As a newspaper online producer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I’m quite familiar with the “No, because…” speech, especially on projects relating to editorial coverage and social media. Newspapers blew millions on new products designed to replicate print advertising models online (“Bona Fide Classifieds” anyone?), but actively kept employees from pursuing truly innovate online models, ones that engaged readers as active participants in online communities. To many legacy news managers today, “social media” means little more than flame wars in poorly designed and managed comments sections, appended to news articles that were republished from a print edition.
How many online news pioneers have left newspaper companies, either to work for online giants such as Yahoo! or to strike out on their own? Anthony Moor today spends his last day at the Dallas Morning News before leaving for Yahoo!, becoming the latest in a long line of pioneers to depart legacy media companies.
Consider Walt’s amazing reaction to that critical studio executive. Rather than indulge the employee’s negativity, Walt challenged him to do better. I’ve worked with too many editors who equated managing with dishing out abuse. Walt showed that a more positive management style didn’t have to gloss over flaws. It simply demanded focus on what could be done better in the future, rather than looking back to place blame.
For the past decade, legacy news managers have indulged in the blame game. First, it was parasitic bloggers, then thieving search engines. But it was always someone else’s fault that revenue was tanking and readers were finding alternate sources for information. The only time most news industry managers look to the future is to envision a way to bring back the past – with its information monopolies and fat profit margins.
“The one thing that [Walt] never let is forget was it is all about the audience,” Sklar said. Yet following discussions within the industry today I hear much talk about the industry’s bottom-line needs.
The audience doesn’t care about saving newsroom jobs or keeping journalists in journalism. Nor should it. The people who provide true value to the audience will be the ones who will be able to earn money from that audience. That was true in Walt’s day and remains true today. If people won’t pay for your content online, maybe that should tell you the content you’re delivering doesn’t provide enough value to the audience.
Cutting back on producing better content won’t make them more likely to pay, either. (The Disney Co. strayed from its traditional philosophy tried that approach in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and, ultimately, it cost then-CEO Michael Eisner his job.)
Losing money with a negative approach, and cutting back to preserve the bottom line in response has put the legacy news industry into a death spiral. And it can’t find its way out, in part because managers never learned to see beyond defined models and roles. Newspapers segregated online staffs from their print reporters for nearly a decade, too rarely allowing employees to develop into the multi-talented programmer/reporters and journalist/entrepreneurs who power today’s online news start-ups. By waiting too late to unleash their reporters as online community leaders, legacy news managers squandered their employer’s market power in the new medium.
So… can legacy news organizations survive?
Well, I wouldn’t be a very good follower of Walt’s philosophy if I answered “no,” would I?
Can legacy news organizations thrive online? Yes… if:
They diversify. The consolidation of the news industry has left it in the hands of too few managers – many of whom are simply too rich, and too near retirement, to feel the desperate need to do something creative that their former employees now feel. News companies should raise cash by selling many of their titles to new, local owners. With more owners in the industry, we have a better chance of finding innovative managers who can provide leadership to all.
New owners reconnect with the industry’s pioneers. The news industry doesn’t need to discover how to profit from social media. Or how to better use online publishing tools to crowdsource reports from within a community. Plenty of individuals have figured out those, and other, problems. Many of those successful publishers once worked for legacy news outfits. It’s past time to call them home, and work together to find creative new models for journalism, the way Walt worked with his employees and contacts to build a new industry (with theme parks).
They put the audience’s needs above all. It’s tough to hear… but no one cares about us. It’s our job to care about them, though. If we can find ways to deliver news and cultivate communities that engage, inspire and inform readers, they will find real value in spending their time and attention with us. And when value is delivered, value is received, whether that be through subscriptions, advertising, event admissions, donations or other forms.
I can’t stress this enough: the economic model of journalism is not broken. What is broken is current news managers’ perception of the value that they’re delivering to the public.
Refocus on the audience – reconnect with them through all the available tools online, and managers once again can enjoy an accurate view of what their audience is getting, and how well they value it.
That’s what Walt would do. That’s what we need to do, as well.