Doing a good-not-great job on a project can create a kind of paradox. Modest but solid improvements can be overhyped, leading to criticism that it’s just more of the same, albeit slightly better.

Here’s a recent example. Nintendo, the Japanese multinational consumer electronics and video game company, just announced a new version of its popular Switch game console.

Expectations were high, as some gamers expected an upgraded game console with better hardware, battery life, screen… Turns out the new version has a bigger and better display. That’s it.

Many took to social media to complain. Still, reviewers said the screen is a good update. They just asked if that’s something to justify the upgrade.

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What is your core product? What is creating the value?

In the past couple of months, thanks to some smart people, I kept asking myself a few questions that get often overlooked by media managers: What is the value proposition for your subscription or membership product? Are we communicating it clearly? Do we need to change our messaging? Are we testing the thing enough? What is our core business? Are we investing in the right places?

I can’t stop loving the idea of the newsroom as a profit centre, as opposed to a cost that needs to be trimmed. The first one is a tough one for any media manager to hear. Newsroom means people, which means overhead cost, and that is usually the first thing to get trimmed.

It’s like the quote from first Iron Man movie, when Tony Stark blasts his newest rockets into a mountain and he says: “That’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.”

That line is in some ways genius as it encompasses the habitual behavior of us people. Change is almost never welcome and it’s hard.

If for years there was a notion at the executive level of your organisation that more people means more cost that is going to be hard to change.

First, you will need to prove that more people can mean more paying members or subscribers. Without that you are hardly going to convince anyone.

When the New York Times ex-CEO Mark Thompson was ending his tenure he gave a couple of interviews to which I like to come back from time to time as there is a lot to digest and I always find something new.

In an interview with Beata Balogova, my editor-in-chief to be transparent, at the IPI World Congress in 2020, Thompson was asked about the ratio the Times has for content creation to distribution. The question was aimed at explaining resources and setting priorities.

“We use distribution to bring people to The New York Times, to bring people to our environment. And the most important reason for people to come to our environment is the quality of our journalism. So substance, content matters enormously. And beyond content what matters is not spending a fortune on complicated ways of being on other people’s platforms, is building your own digital product. So after the journalism is making sure that the experience of the journalism for the user is a really rich, rewarding experience,” he said.

What he is saying is that journalism comes first, and right second is making sure the experience of consuming it is excellent. He did not say make sure the website and app are great, and then we can focus on journalism. The other way around.

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The paradox

And here comes the paradox of being a media manager: Your job is making sure the newsroom has the tools, environment and resources (that also means enough staff) to create the best possible journalism. The digital products are important and necessary, but second priority.

A publisher I know has a great explanation for this: A job of a publisher is in many ways against the basic logic of most businesses. The publishers hire an editor-in-chief, a bunch of journalists (possibly the best he or she can get), gives them freedom and stays out of their way. Many times they are writing and saying things the publishers would do in a different way. But a good publisher does not interfere.

Doing good journalism is good business is just a part of the equation. If in an organisation you do not all agree on what is your core business and have a common North Star you are aiming for, it will be hard doing good business or even good journalism for that matter.

As Thompson said, journalism is the main priority and hand in hand goes making sure the consumption of that journalism, the experience of it is excellent.

There are still newsrooms that try to stay out of business and news organisations that keep all departments siloed. In 2021, I think that is a mistake. Good journalism cannot be good business if the journalists do not understand the business.

For years, journalists did not have to worry, they were the gatekeepers and the only places for ads. Then came the Big Tech platforms and took that away, and two decades later news organisations are still going through a business transformation (among other transformations).

Now, the role of a good media manager is also making sure everyone understands the business and keep the priorities in the right order.

If you mix up the order you can get a Ferrari with an old engine and it might leave you stranded in the middle of the highway. Quite a risk, wouldn’t say?

Also, you can get a new Nintento Switch with a very nice display but the same battery and hardware which will keep selling. But I did not tell you in the beginning that Nintento has a big advantage, games like Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda, Animal Crossing and others can gamers play only on Nintendo nowhere else.

If you happen to have such a unique selling point, you might last longer with superficial changes. But if a better console comes with similar games that might just be enough for some gamers to make a change.

I wrote several times it is a paradox to put something you cannot control first. It does not have to be. Listening to your audience and directing that feedback towards your newsroom and processes should create a sustainable loop.

If everything is in the right place, the loop will amplify. If not, you will know you have to change something. There is no one right answer, unfortunately. But if you all agree on what is the core business and what it takes to make it better, that is a first great step.

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