The website manager of a US TV network best known for children’s programmes like Sesame Street is at first glance a surprising choice as new editor-in-chief of Britain’s best-selling broadsheet newspaper.
There is a lot more to Jason Seiken's CV than his six years at PBS (more details here) but it is here that he has established his credentials as a digital visionary capable of reinventing a heritage big-media brand for the modern age.
His appointment underlines Telegraph Media Group’s determination not to stake its future on a core print product which is in seemingly irreversible decline.
That determination has not been in doubt in recent years as the publisher has dispensed with hundreds of journalists whose skills were seen as being print-focused and hired for new digital positions.
The search for a new editor-in-chief and content director began in March this year when TMG announced 80 out of 550 journalists were being made redundant and that 50 new digital positions were being created.
An address Seiken delivered at a TED conference in Washington last October gives an idea of the pitch he might have given TMG chief executive Murdoch MacLennan in his interview for the Telegraph "chief content officer" job.
Speaking about the challenge he faced at PBS, Seiken said: “Almost all programmes have been on the air for more than a quarter century. How do we take a corporate culture committed to excellence but not used to change?”
Emblematic of the change he brought to PBS was an auto-tuned remix of much-loved US children's TV stalwart Mister Rogers singing a dance tune called Garden of Your Mind from beyond the grave.
The Telegraph equivalent might be Bill Deedes brought back to life singing along to Fatboy Slim.
It quickly became the most viewed video on Youtube after going live in June 2012 and it has now been watched more than nine million times.
Seiken said the online reaction ranged from “I can’t believe I cried man tears over this” to “I can’t believe this is an official PBC production”.
He joins the Telegraph next month at a time when it remains one of the most profitable UK national newspapers. It reported operating profit of £58.4m for 2012 on turnover of £327.5m.
Print sales are falling at a lower rate than its rivals (down 4.6 per cent to 557,536 on the Daily Telegraph in August). But online the Telegraph is well behind the two UK market leaders, with 2.7m daily browsers worldwide compared with 4.8m for Guardian.co.uk and 8.8m for Mail Online.
Both those titles have staked their digital future on global growth. And Seiken’s press release statement hints that may be the way he is also leaning:
The Telegraph is an iconic global media brand, renowned for its quality and its innovation. I look forward to joining next month and working to make the Telegraph a fully integrated, entrepreneurial multimedia news organisation providing the best English language journalism and content in the world.”
His first challenge will be over whether to continue with a metered paywall launched by Telegraph.co.uk in April of this year which has slowed, but not halted, the growth of the website while attracting an as yet undisclosed number of new paying subscribers.
So what can the Telegraph’s 520-odd journalists expect from their new editor-in-chief?
Describing the principles he employed at PBS, he told last year’s TED conference: “We wanted to have a start-up mojo…Be faster moving, take risks, be creative.”
He said: “I sat the team down in a conference room and said we are changing your annual performance review, we are adding a new metric. A failure metric. A failure metric with a twist.
“If you don’t fail enough times over the coming year you get downgraded.
“The intial reaction was a lot of nervous laughter, especially from the engineers.
“After a couple of years it led us to a place where we were able to autotune Mister Rogers.”
He said: “In order to change an organisation you have to be both radical and incremental.
“Start not with a revolution but with an insurrection. We went radical by rewriting the PBS interactive mission statement to two words: Reinvent PBS. It doesn’t get much more radical than that.”
Beyond all the management speak (Seiken describes himself on LinkedIn as a “diplomatic change agent") there have been tangible results for PBS.
Online video views on PBS are said to have risen 7,700 per cent in the space of three years and Seiken said last year that 40 per cent of all website videos watched by children in the US were on PBS.
Speaking at another conference last year, Seiken used the example of Kodak (the now bankrupt photographic company) to explain the change he wanted to bring about at PBS.
“Kodak invented the digital camera….Kodak sat on its hands worried that the digital camera would cannibalise its high-margin film business.
“Rather than invent the Kodak of tomorrow the company chose to protect what worked today.”
The Telegraph is a similarly a market-leading old media brand which was a digital innovator but which has failed to reap all the benefits which its early innovation could have brought. Electronic Telegraph was one of the first newspaper websites in the world in 1994.
Under Will Lewis from 2006 to 2010 (the last journalist to hold the title of Telegraph editor-in-chief) Telegraph.co.uk briefly overtook Guardian.co.uk to become the most read UK newspaper website. His time in charge was characterised as a digital revolution with huge emphasis placed on web content, and video in particular.
Speaking in 2012, Seiken spoke of a two to five-year land grab for the riches made possible by online video and he predicted “a future where the technology revolution, so disorientating and unsettling today, enables us to create a golden age. A golden age of mission and of sustainability.”
It's been a long time since anyone talked about a golden future for newspapers. With the ongoing pressure on print, Seiken's Telegraph bosses might just settle for a sustainable one.