The digital transformation ripples through all sectors, but within an editorial context everything is even more complex. During an interesting and inspiring Go & See session at Mediahuis on 10 March, six (board) members of this leading media company talked about their own challenges and how they deal with them.
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CEO Koen Verwee is straight to the point. The future is digital. Whereas ten years ago people were already saying 'print is dead', today there are still a lot of paper newspapers being printed. Yet, Verwee believes, they will disappear in time. However, this will happen more slowly than initially expected. It is something he has noticed in his career, also previously at Telenet: 'When it comes to technology, we tend to overestimate the short-term effects and underestimate the long-term ones. It is a steady process: decline in print, growth in digital.
In the digitalisation of news media, one of the biggest challenges has been to generate income. In the beginning, all news was offered for free on the site, and yet people tried to sell digital subscriptions. Sales & Care director Koen Meeusen puts it aptly: 'it is like trying to sell sand on the beach'. The only reason why people would pay for a subscription is for quality journalism. People want to know and understand what is going on in the world and they rely on journalistic sources for their information. Providing quality journalism is therefore a major social responsibility that they take seriously at Mediahuis. Despite the fact that news flows are becoming faster and faster, I now have more people who can work longer on in-depth pieces,' says Liesbeth Van Impe, editor-in-chief of Het Nieuwsblad.
Digital change in a news context is like trying to change a tyre when you are racing down the motorway at 200 kilometres an hour,' says Van Impe. You have to change, but the newspaper also has to be there every day. And this while the deadlines are now continuous, where we used to have only one a day.
This new daily routine is just one of the many changes that come with such a digital transformation. There are also many new jobs, new products to generate income as print sales are steadily declining, new publishing strategies and, last but not least, a new mindset. This cultural change is crucial, agrees Jessice Bulthé, business partner of the Data & Insights team at Mediahuis. You have to reassure people that they will not lose their jobs to AI and algorithms. You just have to point out the advantages: an algorithm can take over part of their job, so they have more time to concentrate on their core business.'
And this cultural change is not limited to your employees. The support of your C-level is decisive in this respect. With an HR director like the flamboyant Martine Vandezande, Mediahuis has got it right. Vandezande soon realised that skill sets are losing their relevance ever faster, because everything is constantly changing. It's a continuous learning process,' she says. That is why we consider skills less important in recruitment. You can train on skills. What is more important in your search for the right people, is the right attitude. That they have a fit with the organisation and can feel good in your company. Something like that is much less makeable.' In 2015, Mediahuis launched De Academie, where their employees are given the opportunity to undergo further training. What's more, in doing so they mainly call on their own expertise: three quarters of the training is given by their own people.
Internal mobility at Mediahuis is around 25%. We do not do forced mobility, but we do want to give people as many opportunities as possible to follow training courses, so that they can broaden their horizons within the company,' says Vandezande. If employees indicate that they have other interests, this is fully exploited, regardless of their background. A long time ago, we once had a journalist who was interested in IT. He wanted to make a career switch and become a business analyst. We had to resuscitate our chief editor (laughs). I first had to convince him: having someone with knowledge of this side on the other side is super interesting, isn't it? On the IT side too, they were sceptical at first. But look, now years later that journalist has already made three steps forward within IT and he is the head of a product team.
But how do you create support for such courses among people who are not waiting for this digital change? There is no point in making it mandatory. What we see is that the most enthusiastic people register for such training courses. They then tell their colleagues about it and they start thinking: maybe that's interesting. And so it spreads organically, like an oil slick.
Business and IT are the two legs on which digital change rests, as Kurt Minnen, digital director at Mediahuis, knows better than anyone. Business says: build the right thing. IT says: build the thing right. The two are extremely important and cannot exist without each other. Jessica Bulthé also experiences this symbiosis. Data is tech, you need the right tools to get the right insights out of your data. The Data & Insights team is like siamese twins, we can't do without each other.
Bulthé also talked about digital maturity. There are many models for measuring it, but Bulthé chose the tiered model where the value of the data insights is directly proportional to the difficulty of the analysis. The model goes from descriptive analysis, where you use data to observe, to prescriptive analysis, where you use data to think several steps ahead and make predictions. The mistake that many people make is that they want to go straight to prescriptive analysis,' says Bulthé. But first of all, it is important to go through all the steps and give your business the chance to grow. Secondly, it is not always desirable to go that far in data analysis. My ultimate tip? Adjust the digital maturity of each process to what you want to achieve with it. Sometimes descriptive analysis is even better than prescriptive analysis. To give an example: we do not want an algorithm to determine the home page of our newspaper. Because then what would happen? You'd get a clickbait site. And as a newspaper, we have a social responsibility to provide quality and clarity, even if it doesn't generate the most conversions.
Do you know the digital maturity of your company? This question was also asked by some 80 companies last year. They participated in the research of Fastfwd and McKinsey. Curious how our Belgian companies fared? Read the report here.
Do you also want to be inspired by digital leaders? Register now for one of the upcoming Go & See sessions. It's free, but places are limited, so be quick.