Learning to Change: Reports from the Yale Publishing Course
Like many editors, I complain that I don't get out of the office much and I don't have enough time to write. Both gripes explain why I'm only now writing about the weeklong Yale Publishing Course held back in July. But luckily a good education isn't like a banana. It doesn't spoil. And now with a bit of hindsight I'll share what really sank in with me from the Leadership Strategies in Magazine Media course.
With a very busy summer schedule, I was only able to sneak up to New Haven for one day. But this constraint forced me to determine which day would be most valuable to me. My eye was quickly drawn to day two, which featured presentations by, among others, Mary Berner of the MPA, Hearst's vice president of data services Rick McFarland, and Dwell Media's Michela O'Connor Abrams.
You could write a book on what O'Connor Abrams is doing -- and has done -- to transform the Dwell enterprise. Her "Who Moved My Industry?" presentation was everything you'd expect from the dynamic personality: informative, entertaining, and iconoclastic.
McFarland spoke about the fundamentals and imperatives for building a centralized, collaborative data resource. But you can read in-depth about McFarland's efforts in his "Corner Office" interview here.
So that brings us to Mary Berner, who spoke on the transformation media organizations are undergoing. Berner acknowledged that organizational change can be unsettling, disruptive, and scary to employees, but it's necessary nonetheless. Above all, what I took away is that true transformation requires inward and outward changes. Both are important.
Berner hinted at the recent announcement that the MPA is introducing a new metric to measure the impact of magazines. We now know this as Magazine Media 360°, intended to capture actual consumer demand for magazine media by measuring audiences across multiple platforms (print and digital editions, websites, and video). By moving away from basic circulation numbers as the principal vital sign for the industry, the MPA is hoping to extinguish the narrative that magazine media lives and dies by print. It's a definitive response to the fact that the game has changed. One might just wonder, "What took so long?"
For too long magazine publishers have been held to standards that no longer make sense. Way back in 2009 I worked for a magazine media company that was trying to sell clients on marketing campaigns that offered a 360-degree approach to the audience: print, online, video, events, social media, email campaigns. (There was no mobile to speak of then.) But the agencies -- which controlled the narrative -- only cared about astronomical ad impressions and circulation numbers that were unachievable with a niche audience of business and engineering students at the very top tier universities. They cared nothing of impact, nothing of the quality of impressions for what was essentially high-target lead generation for recruitment. Any consultative conversations were cut off before they began. We were held to standards that didn't jive with the realities of contemporary media consumption habits or the needs of the clients.
The MPA made a strong move to control the narrative. That's a change in presentation and change in dialect. The other side of that coin is the inward change that publishers en masse are grappling with. For example, Berner suggested that today magazine media companies need to be more than the conduit-they need to be integrated marketers, brand managers, and digital strategists. New skillsets are required, as is a cultural shift. The alternative -- expecting to maintain the same culture and thrive in the digital age -- is insanity.
Something else Berner said caught my ear: that more companies need to have a culture or people strategy. Everyone has a business strategy, many pronounce that their "employees are their most valuable asset," but few back that up with a culture strategy.
Of the many notes publishing could take from the technology sector, one of the most important might be that if you have awesome culture, you spend less time managing and have better engagement. Berner referred to this phenomenon as culture guiding discretionary behavior. It's what makes startups agile and its dearth in traditional companies explains their lethargy.
Changing culture and talent can be driven in several ways. You can cut out the deadwood, hire the right talent, retrain existing staff, or a combination of all three approaches. Organizations tend to understand the hiring and firing part, but employees in need of retraining are often underserved. Battle cries of "We gotta change!" are not what employees need. New tools and skills and education are.
And that's the mission of the YPC -- to educate the industry on how to change. This is valuable because change requires learning -- and learning about -- new behaviors. Ask yourself: What am I doing to help my employees change -- besides sending "inspiring" emails? Ask yourself: How am I learning to change?
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Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.