Just Ask Your 9-year-old: Media Outlets Need to Redefine Themselves

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I was looking up a story from that day's New York Times on the Web when my 9-year-old wandered in and peered over my shoulder.

"Hey, Dad, are you reading your newspaper online?"


"That makes sense," he said. "It's a lot easier than sitting there turning pages."

Son, you've just hit the rawest nerve in the publishing business.

But, wait, let's not get carried away. This was, after all, coming from the mouth of a boy who just hours earlier had walked around a playground with his jacket on upside down. Then again, maybe his words carry more weight because of his age; my kids are all readers, but they spend the majority of their media time with screens.

I parsed his sentence for hopeful signs. He did call The Times "your newspaper." That means he understands on some level my sense of ownership as a reader. And he didn't think it unusual to find the same logo he sees outside the door in the morning slapped across the top of a Web page. Why would he? Nickelodeon is not a cable channel to him; it's a promise of a certain type of entertainment experience -- on TV, in print, on film, online and in video games.

So this was a good thing for those of us who define what we do by putting the mission, and our audience, at the center of the model rather than a distribution mechanism. Or so I told myself.

It's not easy, this business of redefining yourself, but it is fun. That's also something I've told myself because it's the most crucial part of my new role as associate publisher of the Ad Age Group. We don't see Ad Age or our sibling Creativity as magazines or newspapers; each is a brand that exists in print, online and in various digital formats, and at events.

Most smart publishers view themselves that way. Jack Kliger insists he didn't kill Elle Girl so much as transition it to an online platform where its high-turnover model makes more sense. Five years ago, such a statement would have been seen as spin designed to mask failure; today, it sounds credible.

It's one thing for any publishing company, ours included, to say we're not going to define our brands by how they're distributed; it's another, far more difficult task, to follow through. I see three phases to the transition: change the mind-set; change the model; change the perception.

Shifting internal thinking means viewing new products as extensions of the brand mission, not spin-offs. Changing the business model requires putting revenue at risk, and rethinking staffing, titles and organizational structures. Shifting the external view is crucial in a business where perception is reality.

The impact of digital technologies and consumer control on communications has been an unofficial theme of this column for the last several years. Now I want to make it the official theme, using this space for provocative interviews and case studies on how the companies we cover are reinventing themselves. I will even turn the spotlight periodically on Ad Age, sharing glimpses of what we're doing right and wrong as we evolve the brand.

Just last week, we introduced a new Web site that lets us better showcase our text, video and audio content, and gives users more ways to weigh in. The redesign was an instant hit with our community, but a bit of a tech nightmare. In the first few days we had server crashes and discovered bugs we hadn't found during testing. They were unavoidable early glitches, but still we fretted nervously and begged forgiveness and patience from users who hit problems. This week, a bigger test: I'm working up the nerve to show it to my 9-year-old.
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