Bulletin photos by Kareya Saleh

‘You can’t win unless you believe you can. My encouragement to you is to experiment, to be bold, and to take the big bets, because that’s how you’re going to win.’

-- Steve Hills,
Former president, general manager,
Washington Post

NENPA convention opening keynoter
Hills advises papers to go
all-in on experimentation

By Amanda Hoover
Bulletin Staff

In the age of a well-documented newspaper industry decline, some publications are playing it safe. But that’s one of the biggest mistakes they can make, according to Steve Hills, former president and general manager of The Washington Post.

Hills recently retired after a lengthy career at the Post, which was named the most innovative media company in the world by Fast Company in 2015. In his keynote speech Friday, Feb. 19, kicking off the New England Newspaper and Press Association winter convention at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, Hills noted that although he comes from one of the country’s leading and most prestigious newspapers, the problems plaguing the industry aren’t so different for small and large publications, and the best opportunities for each lie in taking risks.

“This is the kind of thing about focusing on threats rather than opportunities,” Hills said.

He noted that a pessimistic outlook on the future of the industry has the potential to hinder growth and evolution.

Hills said that kind of outlook prompts comments like: “‘There’s no solution, this is doom and gloom. The question is, How are we going to perish?’”

“We don’t actually view it that way,” he said.

Hills said it’s important for newspapers to commit to a strategy to thrive in the shifting industry. The options most readily available are focusing primarily on a print product, dividing resources between print and digital based on where profits fall today, or throwing a disproportionate amount of focus on digital content, he said.

“I’m not breaking news here by telling you that (the industry is shrinking.) In a declining marketplace, you have to focus. You can’t do it all,” Hills said. “It can be daunting to say I’m going to do this disproportionately. It doesn’t feel right.”

But taking risks and narrowing focus in the current media market is important, he said.

The Washington Post worked to identify trends, such as mobile readership growth, analyzing big data, and growth through platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and experimented within those trends to see what worked, Hills said. By exploring those evolving, uncharted territories, they reached new readers and increased engagement, passing The New York Times in readership for three consecutive months.

“Choose a path. Only the middle one, I think, is the wrong one,” Hill said. “If you focus roughly proportionately on where the money comes from today, you’re going to focus very little resources on digital. It’s going to take money away, it’s going to take attention away, and it’s not going to succeed.”

Although the declining industry has disproportionately shuttered small, local newspapers, many strategies can be applied to newspapers of varying sizes, Hills said.

“It’s not just about some big monolithic paper; it’s about trying to make a business work,” he said.

Large publications can easily attract top talent, achieve a dominant digital presence, and form partnerships with big players such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook, but smaller papers have the ability to create unique content that consumers might be more likely to purchase while remaining under the radar of media giants. Each can find opportunities within their respective assets, he said.

Although some publications shy away from partnerships, it’s important to embrace them as opportunities rather than threats, Hills said. Facebook and Google news might pull readers toward competing publications, but forming partnerships with such players can draw in new readers and provide all with a better consumer experience.

“There is a new audience of people looking at news in new ways,” he said. “That’s (a) huge opportunity.”

Hills said personalizing online content using location-based recommendations is a powerful tool local publications could use to meet their customers in the middle through other platforms.

“Ultimately, if your content is good enough, they will find a way back to you,” he said.

Hills said all of the Washington Post’s digital growth came from using a meter strategy. Although it’s imperative for newspapers to inform themselves with their ratings, that doesn’t mean that ratings should drive the content — listicles and social media content might draw readers momentarily, but they aren’t sustainable editorial models alone, he said.

“It’s really a false choice; of course we’re going to cover something important,” Hills said.

He noted that there’s a balance between hard-hitting, investigative journalism and content that attracts readers and brings them to the table.

“If people aren’t reading you, you can’t be important. The big mistake is to ignore the metrics,” he said.

Even for the Washington Post, taking those initial risks seemed like a staggering move. Although the Post had the tools to grow in the digital marketplace, its strategic action languished until it finally got the push from owner Jeff Bezos, who is also the founder and chief executive officer of Amazon, Hills said.

“Our returns happened so fast we exceeded wildly our goals,” Hills said. “We just didn’t have the sort of guts to put our neck out there and make those investments.”

For other newspapers struggling to find their place in the evolving industry, success can be achieved by securing a strategy and doubling experimentation, which in turn will double invention, Hills said.

“You can’t win unless you believe you can,” Hills said. “My encouragement to you is to experiment, to be bold, and to take the big bets, because that’s how you’re going to win.”

‘I’m not breaking news here by telling you that (the industry is shrinking.) In a declining marketplace, you have to focus. You can’t do it all. It can be daunting to say I’m going to do this disproportionately. It doesn’t feel right.’

-- Steve Hills

 


POSTED 2/19/16


 



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