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Innovate or die: Why upskilling and training are essential for media professionals


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

There is no conclusive view on just how much a CEO’s input can affect the performance of a company. Studies flip-flop between huge impact (50% of revenue) and almost no impact at all. Given the number of variables that go into such studies, and across so many industries, it’s understandable that conclusions will vary.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

We do know that leadership matters – when we get it wrong it can be disastrous (see SA politics for all but a few years and more recently our vaccine policy) and when we get it right it can be a game-changer (Jeff Bezos at Amazon).

When looking at building innovative, robust and thriving media companies, we are focusing on the ability of leadership teams to guide those organisations. Failure to innovate is a failure of leadership. It is the responsibility of leaders to build a culture and requisite frameworks to keep delivering new editorial products and revenue streams. The media industry, under the guise of oligopolistic channel protection, assumed profits equated to a job well done – until the great digital disruption dragged the tide out, leaving many naked swimmers on the shore. Media companies experienced such extended periods of financial success that many thought they had a special exemption from the disruption that inevitably comes for every company.

The only thing special about it was the fact that it came for an entire industry, across the globe, in the space of a decade. In the meantime, budget and skills for innovation were nonexistent and when the reality of the situation transpired, media executives found themselves in a death spiral with leaky pockets, unable to come up with new ideas or the talent to execute them.

The thing that made media so successful was the very thing holding back its digital transformation. Success and profits of the legacy operations consumed budgets and headspace. Why support the thing that threatened to cook the golden goose (but that readers wanted)? A classic case of the Innovator’s Dilemma, as coined by Prof Clay Christensen. To adequately solve this, and other innovation challenges, requires a skill set and training that few media executives have been lucky to acquire. They are complex and necessitate brave and visionary leadership to design organisations and allocate resources that invest in potentially unprofitable avenues. To reduce the risks associated with innovation and experimentation, organisations need to migrate to a mindset and culture of product design thinking – and that includes the newsroom. Data-driven audience-centricity will be key to how journalism evolves into its level of public service, seeking out the intersection of the organisation’s wants and the audience’s needs. Mission-driven newsrooms will find their journalistic sweet spot, and success, in this space.

To design a company culture and resource a media organisation to fulfil its innovation mandate, new skills and functions will need to be added to the mix. Consumer marketing, product, data science, user experience, e-commerce, audience development, editorial analytics will soon become table stakes skills for media seeking to remain relevant and sustainable. Journalists and editors will also need to improve their skills beyond words, as data and audience needs inform strategic and editorial decision-making.

But to action this, we first need leaders to know what the future looks like for journalism. And for them to know, we need CEOs and editors to be upskilled in innovation and leadership training. Some journalism schools in the US are responding to this need by creating new courses aimed at this cohort. But this will take time to become normalised, and time is one thing we don’t have.

We need to find ways to incentivise the training and development of all media professionals, but especially our leadership teams. While the Covid-19 pandemic has made online learning more accessible than ever, and affordable, we can go one step further by making specific funds available for professional development (if the idea of a media support fund ever takes hold), and we can push for tax breaks relating to professional development and training. The time to start upskilling was yesterday, and with the armour of controlled channel protection no longer available to us, our reality is clear: “innovate, or die”. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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