Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Line of a Media Revolution

Posted on: November 14th, 2016 by Amy Laski

Photo of John Stackhouse speaking about media, via @RotmanEvents

Photo via @RotmanEvents

I was fortunate to have recently taken part in the Disruption Expert Speakers Series at Rotman, featuring former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse. John wrote his book “Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Line of a Media Revolution” following his exit from that post, and prior to starting his current role as senior VP in the office of the CEO at RBC.

As a business person and communications professional, I find myself dually in awe of and scared by the ways in which media are evolving, and in turn, people are getting their information. John brings a unique perspective to this space, since he went from spearheading Canada’s foremost media institution, to working within one of the country’s top financial institutions.

The 10 burdens of legacy

The talk explored how to help independent journalism thrive in today’s day and age. He began with a look at the challenges or “burdens,” as he put it, faced by legacy media companies:

  1. Legacy owners: May bring with them dated mindsets and a reluctance to try new approaches
  2. Legacy corporate structure: Organizations are designed to maintain the status quo. They are built for efficiency but not for disruption;  for generating revenue, but not for seizing opportunity
  3. Legacy technology: Rather than build a platform to suit the current and future business need, traditional media often deal with incremental evolutions in their technology
  4. Legacy revenue models: In the good old days, print newspapers especially received a large portion of their revenue from classified ad sales. Remember those?
  5. Going from the traditional business-to-consumer model to today’s consumer-to-consumer communications model requires a completely different mindset and skill set
  6. Legacy pricing and products: For example, consumers placed great value in — and would pay more for — the inclusion of a TV guide with their newspaper delivery
  7. Legacy staff: When challenged to do what they are passionate about in a different way, some staff are able to adapt while others are unable change
  8. Legacy costs: Such as printing presses and other infrastructure
  9. Legacy rivalries: Newspapers today aren’t just competing with each other for readers. As Stackhouse called it, our “frequency culture” opened up the floodgates on other competitors vying for share of readers
  10. Legacy customers: Loyal customers can be your worst enemy, because in an effort to keep them happy, this potentially vocal and change-averse minority can prevent you from evolving as you need to in order to compete. The challenge, Stackhouse says, is how to take them on the journey with you as you evolve.

Empowered by a blank slate

Several of these legacy media model burdens also apply to traditional bricks and mortar communications agency models. For example, legacy corporate structures, in my experience, are inflexible to the needs of each individual client. And, legacy costs (and habits) such as investing in expensive office space are very difficult to change once in place. When I first started Felicity, I thought more than once about how nice it would have been to have started with templates or existing systems.  After all, it’s human nature to crave the familiar, the tried and true. Instead, I had to harness the opportunity that comes with a blank slate, to build the company in a way that made the most sense, to me, to my team, and most importantly, to our clients. And, we’re creating our own legacy by being flexible as we grow and evolve.

An eye to the future

Looking ahead, Stackhouse marveled at the shift from fact-based to emotion-based journalism. This is due to the fact that we are bombarded with too much information to even absorb, let alone analyze through a factual lens. In other words, given this information overwhelm, we are returning to the “safety of an emotional response.” This “age of emotion” in turn creates a challenge for anyone who is in the business of selling facts, as traditional media are wont to do.

So what does this all mean for the future of journalism? Stackhouse identified some possible emerging revenue models that may help legacy media companies survive and thrive, including:

  • Journalism operating as a non-profit. The Texas Tribune is a trailblazer on this front.
  • Charging subscribers or direct audiences for access to quality content.  With such an abundant supply of content out there, the success of this model is dependent on consumers placing a premium on the quality and integrity of the content. It remains to be seen whether this is a viable proposition.
  • Advertising: News organizations have to get as granular, if not more, than the likes of Facebook in terms of being able to target an advertiser’s audiences.

There may never be a silver bullet for running media companies and the future of independent journalism may resemble  some combination of the above. In the meantime, Stackhouse says, media companies “need patient capital and fresh capital to wait it out until a [viable] new model is established.”

On the heels of events such as the US election, where media — social and traditional — may have played a pivotal role in the result, the one thing we can say for certain is that it is more important than ever for non-partisan journalism to thrive in our society, since it so strongly underpins transparency and accountability.

Do you want to learn more about the future of media?

The contest is now closed. Congratulations to our winners Laura and Barry! Thanks to everyone who entered.