How the Media Are Getting Their Groove Back

The challenges are great, but media executives are finding new opportunities to revitalize the industry. Don’t write the media off just yet.

Eveyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” That famous quote has been on everyone’s lips over the past year, as media organizations work harder than ever to separate fact from “fake news.” It was repeated by Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, when he visited IESE’s New York campus to discuss the challenges facing his industry :“Some material online that is speculative or based on opinion is being traded as fact, and that’s dangerous,” he said. And it was echoed by Arianna Huffington, founder of her eponymous media group, when she attended a Leadership Forum as part of IESE’s Advanced Management Program in Media and Entertainment (Media AMP): “I think it’s important for journalistic enterprises to have a viewpoint – but it’s important that that viewpoint is based on facts.”

Seeing the world in polarized left-right terms “is becoming obsolete,” Huffington told a group of media executives following a day spent discussing the Digital Economy. “What we say at the Huffington Post is to see beyond left and right.” Whether war or inequality, to address “the biggest issues of our time” in binary left-right terms “completely marginalizes” those issues and does nothing to actually resolve them, she said.

The media and entertainment industry used to know this, investing large sums and dedicating considerable resources to produce in-depth, balanced reports that gave their brands credibility around the globe.

Another regular Media AMP guest speaker, Frank A. Bennack, Jr., executive vice chairman and former CEO of Hearst Corporation, refers to this as “the soul” of the business – the unique value that is hard, if not impossible, for others to replicate. In making the transition to digital, print media have to remain faithful to the soul of their brand; otherwise, they risk losing their unique positioning and consequently their competitive advantage.

Unfortunately, this is what has happened to many media brands. In trying to compete with the Facebooks, BuzzFeeds and Twitters of the world, many media companies have compromised their soul: newsrooms have cut staff, stories are reduced to 280-character sound bites, headlines are mere clickbait, success is measured in likes. The situation has executives scratching their heads: how do I conquer this new media age?

Shared Challenges

This is a question that IESE has been helping executives explore since 2011, running Media AMP modules out of its New York campus; in Los Angeles in collaboration with UCLA, and finishing off in Barcelona. Blending real-life case studies, lively classroom debates, behind-the-scenes company visits and personal access to leading industry players, participants gather from around the world to grapple with shared challenges and figure out how to harness their core strengths in this new context. Eduardo Ruiz, president and general manager of A&E Networks Latin America, describes his experience: “Our media and entertainment industry is in the middle of a massive shift, particularly in how people consume our products and in how we produce them. The Media AMP has helped me think through this challenge and how I, my team and our organization need to change in order to adapt and grow.”

Toke Alex Ibru, executive director of the Nigerian Guardian, adds: “The program offers insights into the growing trends of my industry, providing practical tools to position our organization ahead of the competition and any potential disruption.”

Csaba Csetényi, founder of HG Media in Hungary, talks about coming away with “an exercise book full of new ideas, a LinkedIn page on fire, and an energy never known before.” Ruiz agrees: “It’s not just the professors; it’s also the amazing group of professionals from Madrid, Nairobi, Cape Town, Rio, Budapest, Cologne and many more places who are going through similar challenges and who add enormous value to the experience. We begin as strangers but end up as friends for life.”

Bill Baker, the distinguished professor of media and entertainment at IESE, went through the program himself. As someone who has worked in media for more than a half century, what surprised the veteran broadcaster was “just how much I didn’t know.”

A Change of Tide

The landscape has changed, and legacy media like the New York Times are currently making a successful transition to digital. “Certainly, the business is different now from how it was 20 years ago, but in many ways it is better –
richer, deeper, more real,” remarked the New York Times’ CEO Mark Thompson in a Media AMP Leadership Forum moderated by Prof. Baker.

Indeed, many commentators have noted that the travails occasioned by digital disruption and the rise of “fake news” may, in fact, be the kick needed to revitalize the industry. For example, despite Donald Trump’s barrages against the “failing” news media, most are reporting record gains in new viewers, subscribers and advertisers.

And just as this revitalization is happening among legacy media, new media disruptors like Google and Facebook are starting to realize that they, too, have to raise their game. They need some of the traditional gatekeepers that their tech-based business models had enabled them to bypass. Old and new media alike have reached an inflection point.

Steve Capus, executive producer of CBS Evening News and executive editor of CBS News, sums up the situation: “If we have any hopes of growing our businesses, we have to stay relevant. If you don’t have people who are dedicated to delivering smart, quality content that is relevant to people’s lives, then you have to ask yourself: why have you cut those areas? I’m really interested in watching the companies that can grow by positioning in a smart way. Everything they do – their editorial sensibility, the people they hire, the way they market themselves, how they reinforce those messages – is about enhancement. Those are the companies that I think are going to stand out – because they stand for something.”

This article first appeared in IESE Alumni Magazine, num. 148

This post is also available in: Spanish

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