Interview: Alan Webber – Newspaper leaders need to reframe the picture

When given the opportunity to ask Alan M. Webber some questions we did not hesitate. He is an award-winning, editor, author, and columnist – and the founder of amazing magazine Fast Company. He is an inspiring leader and thinker, and knows the ins and outs of the media industry.

Joakim Jardenberg and Olle Lidbom collaborated on the interview performed by mail and here are the complete response sent to us from Mr Webber.

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by Gary Kelly / @issue Interview / vol. 6 no. 2
by Gary Kelly / @issue Interview / vol. 6 no. 2

Thanks for the email with the background on Mindpark–I love the description of Mindpark and its position and mission*.
The short answer to most of the questions you’ve asked, of course, is “I don’t know! Nobody knows!” But that doesn’t stop any of us from thinking out loud, speculating, and offering thoughts, suggestions, and snippets of possibilities that are still only seen dimly, “as through a glass darkly”–as the saying goes!
So here’s my best shot at your questions! Hope you enjoy them and they provide some provocation!

Q1: The news industry is showing clear signs of panic. What rules of thumb would you provide the newspaper CEO. And the same question extended to the owners.

A1: One of my rules says that if you want to see with fresh eyes, you need to reframe the picture. It’s a rule I learned from the late Ted Levitt who was the leading marketing thinker of his generation and a truly wise man. Ted wrote “Marketing Myopia” for the Harvard Business Review and over the years it became HBR’s most widely read article. His argument was that most companies don’t know what business they’re really in: the railroads lost out to airplanes and trucks because they thought they were in the railroad business instead of the transportation business; a manufacturer of tools for do-it-yourselfers thought it was selling drills, but its customers, Ted wrote, were “buying holes.”
The problem with the newspaper industry is its leaders think they’re in the newspaper business–and that is a bad business to be in. The news today is a commodity, available 24/7 on the web; young people are less willing than their parents to sit down and read a newspaper; and the business model is broken, thanks in large part to Craigslist and the web.
So what should leaders in the news business do?
Reframe the picture and see with fresh eyes!
They need to look outside their own narrow world and ask some new questions.
How is a newspaper like a talk show? Why aren’t newspapers using their platform to sponsor discussions, radio and web interviews, YouTube-like video segments, and audience-participation conversations?
How is a newspaper like a credit card? In the old days American Express had a slogan: membership has its privileges. If you paid the fee to carry an American Express credit card, you got certain privileges. Why doesn’t being a subscriber to a newspaper carry certain privileges–and like a credit card with different levels (regular, green, gold, platinum), the more you pay to belong, the more privileges you enjoy? Privileges in this case could mean access to special briefings from your favorite columnist, a dial-in phone number to hear the newspaper’s editor talk about current events, or even a free ticket to a newspaper-sponsored conference on the events of the day.
The core of the idea is that newspapers can’t just be in the news business any more. They need to be in the community-building business, they need to be in the business, not of reporting the news, but of explaining it. Another rule in my book is, “Content isn’t king; context is king.” Most of us will pay for context–for someone who shows us how to make sense out the complicated and challenging events of our time. That’s not a commodity; that’s value-added.

Q2: The burst of the financial bubble in the IT segment in the earliy 2000s was extremely hard for FC and your competitors. Which were the key factors for the magazines that survived?

A2: When the dotcom bubble burst it brought down quite a few magazines that had flourished during the rapid rise of the dotcom era. Fast Company survived and, despite the current global recession, continues to find an audience. I think the difference is attributable to the DNA that my co-founder, Bill Taylor, and I gave the magazine when we started it. Fast Company was never an IT or dotcom magazine. We launched the magazine in 1995, and even put out a “beta” issue in 1993, well before the dotcom revolution. Our vision for the magazine emphasized change, innovation, and the new rules of work, life, and doing business. Our first cover was a manifesto that said: Work is personal, computing is social, knowledge is power, break the rules! Our mission was to help a community of change agents and knowledge workers decode the emerging ideas and best practices that were reshaping the world of work around the world. That DNA is a far cry from most of the dotcom magazines that were founded in the late 1990s. Most of those magazines were mostly just advertising plays–companies saw all the advertising dollars that were being thrown around by venture-backed dotcom startups and quickly launched magazines just to sop up those advertising dollars. They were created simply to grab their share of those ad dollars, and when the ad dollars went away, so did the magazines.

Q3: Business mags on it/tech tend to just preach for the converted. How did you deal with that, i.e to make FC a relevant magazine outside the tech company world?

A3: Two fundamental ideas helped shape the way Fast Company thought about and wrote about technology when I was there. The first was that technology is never an end in itself; it’s an enabler of work, a connecter of people, and a digital tool that redefines how we work, how we communicate, and what we’re able to do. I learned about technology (although I am far from being a “techie”) when I went to Japan in 1989 as a fellow from the Japan Society of New York. The digital revolution was just coming out of the labs in Japan at that time, and when I came home from that trip, I told everyone I met that the future was going to be portable, personal, and digital. But I never fell in love with the technology for technology’s sake. That attitude was core to the way Fast Company wrote about technology. The second idea was that any discipline or function in business is useful in so far as it gets outside of its own silo and connects with other disciplines and functions. IT by itself is useless; but connect it to marketing or finance or operations management or HR, and all of a sudden it becomes a powerful tool. Of course, by the same token, all the other disciplines and functions have to connect with IT–and with each other. So Fast Company from the beginning saw the power and importance of integrative thinking that cuts across the boundaries of companies.

Q4: Pay wall online for newspaper/magazines – a great idea or a stupid idea?

A4: Pay for content on the web is still in its experimental phase–don’t forget how early in the game we are when it comes to learning how to change from print to web, not only in terms of performance, but also in terms of business models. Today people pay for things they never expected to be willing to pay for: HBO in the US is “pay TV”–which many predicted no one would be willing to spring for! Why pay for TV when there are all those free channels? Today HBO has established the idea that quality content is something that people will pay for.

Q5: Facebook recently announced some black figures, but most social networks are struggling. Is there a viable business model for social media? And what about ”Company of Friends”, is it still a good idea, if it ever was one?

A5: Company of Friends was a great idea when we started it at Fast Company, it’s still a great idea–and frankly I don’t know why Fast Company’s current leaders have allowed it to atrophy and why other publications haven’t started their own versions. Great publications, at their core, define a community. In today’s atomized world, where there is a lot of communication but precious little contact, a publication that can offer its community a way to connect with each other–not just virtually but also viscerally–can play an important and valuable role. And it can monetize those connections in conferences, live events, and a variety of other products and services. Look at the phenomenon that TED has become–it is selling an opportunity for people around the world to belong to a club where “the cool kids” can meet, not only at global summits, but also at their own local TED X gathering. One of my rules says that we’ve moved from an either/or world to a both/and world. Having a virtual presence but no visceral presence is an either/or choice–and we live in a both/and world.

Q6: Would you launch a business magazine on paper today?

A6: When it comes to the world of publishing, I’ve become a believer in verbs, not nouns. I don’t know what will happen to “magazines” but I think the world still needs “magazining.” That means people still want collections of ideas and practices, people and projects that present a coherent and engaging view of how the world works. Whether you do it on the web first, and then add some kind of a paper version, or you have both a web and a paper version, or you start with a conference and then publish a paper and web product that captures what went on at the conference, in addition to posting videos and podcasts–well, that’s all about your own strategy and what makes sense for the kind of community you’re calling together and the way you want to reach that community. But there’s no one right answer.

Great food for thought and crew and supporters of Mindpark would like to thank Alan for his time and effort. Check out Alan’s book and follow @alanmwebber on twitter. He will be in Sweden on September 30, in time to lauch his book The Rules of Thumb in swedish.

*And for the curious ones out there, this is the description of Mindpark that Alan referred to:

Mindpark is a powerhouse of thoughts and ideas within the Swedish branch of ”all things media”. Centered around a collaborative blog, +45 of the best, most provocative, inspiring people strive to push innovation – and evolution.

2 thoughts on “Interview: Alan Webber – Newspaper leaders need to reframe the picture”

  1. Nyfikenheten är självklar efter att ha läst det här. Spännande tankar, kloka också för den delen. Skulle vara kul att lyssna på honom live; jag gillar i regel inte fråga-svar-intervjuer men den här känns ovanligt givande.


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