Survival of the real brands: New York Times global COO on winners and losers in the digital revolution

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Dr James Slezak tells the story of how the New York Times has thrived and other brands have suffered in the face of digital disruption.

Barely six months ago, Uber was riding high. Bill O’Reilly dominated cable news. Donald Trump had just won an unwinnable election. And the New York Times – according to him – was “failing”.

Today, Uber faces boycotts and declining market share. O’Reilly is out. Donald Trump faces a special prosecutor. And the New York Times has added more subscribers than ever before.

What the digital revolution disrupts, it can disrupt again. But are broader trends emerging to shape who wins and loses?

Today’s super-charged information environment seems to be allowing the true values and priorities of organisations to surface more easily than before.

Authenticity is becoming harder to fake.

United Airlines has told the world it’s the ‘Friendly Skies’ since the 1960s, but today, passengers with smartphones can show the story behind involuntary ‘re-accommodation’.

Uber asks us for trust as it rewires transport systems and waves off regulator concerns, but when employees write blog posts and drivers share videos that go viral, we know how top management actually thinks and behaves.

On the positive side, years of playing nicer with drivers and cities are starting to pay off for competitor Lyft, now winning market share from Uber in all 20 top US markets, according to founder John Zimmer. Users seem to like what they’re on about, despite their smaller network. Briefly, in January, downloads even surpassed Uber’s, when Lyft pledged $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union to fight discrimination.

Meanwhile, community backlash forced Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to back out of Trump’s advisory council.

For the New York Times, after spending years optimising paywall rules, pricing and social policies, the greatest leap in subscriptions came from none of these optimisations. Instead, it came from explaining more clearly why the work it does is important to the world and showing it through actions by standing up to a President who declared the press an enemy.

Readers came together as a community, inspired by a common purpose, and more than 600,000 signed up for new digital subscriptions in the six months since the election—four times the previous year’s rate of growth.

So what does this mean? With data flowing at an unprecedented pace, organisations increasingly have to be real to succeed. Leaders must manage substance, not just perception. If my call is really a priority, customer service would answer the phone. If the real priority is saving costs in the call centre, I’ll find out from a torrent of review site data, blogs and social media.

For marketing teams, the firehose of data from online interactions must now be harnessed to solve problems and improve services, not just optimise messaging. Top brands and even government agencies are repurposing social media accounts to manage relationships and help people. When I tweeted last year about problems with their pre-check service, the US Transport Security Administration solved them with me over direct message.

It also means that corporate governance, previously about as interesting to the digital innovation crowd as plumbing, is increasingly sexy.

The New York Times places great weight on its mission because its board is controlled by a trust dedicated to journalism, despite the stock being traded publicly. Decades ago, publisher Punch Sulzberger famously pushed back against cuts that could compromise that mission: “in lean times, it is best to avoid the temptation to thin the broth, and instead put more tomatoes in the soup”.

His persistent investments led directly to the prominence the publication now enjoys.

Resisting financial short-termism is difficult when managers have no counterweight in the boardroom to the market’s demands. Companies exposed to full sharemarket control, like Australia’s Fairfax Media, know top teams will be replaced if stock prices go low enough. Resistance is futile.

That’s why some of the biggest technology players, including Google and Facebook, now have top-level governance that looks more like the Times, keeping control in the hands of early owners with longer-term accountability and buy-in to the founding mission. Snapchat’s IPO this March offered no voting rights at all to the market. Twitter even considered a resolution to become a user-controlled co-op last month. Etsy, Kickstarter and others are now structured as B Corps, a form of corporation that commits the team meaningfully to a clear social mission.

No breakthrough in technology or organisational structure can change the fact that human institutions represent compromises of one kind or another. But as people increasingly have the means to demand that organisations they interact reflect their values as people, their operations, marketing and governance are flexing in response.

Amongst all the disruption and fake news, what increasingly may matter most is keeping it real.

This article first appeared in www.marketingmag.com.au

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Dr James Slezak

Dr James Slezak is COO of NYT Global.

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