Ian Burrell's lessons for leaders from 20 years covering the media

Ian Burrell

Over nearly 20 years of covering the media for the Independent, and more recently i, Ian Burrell has met many of the leading figures in the business. Here he shares what he has learned about what it takes for media industry leaders to succeed. 

During a face-to-face interview with Bill Gates in a sky-scraping office in Times Square, my eyes were drawn to the sight of his foot, nervously jackhammering away under his chair as he spoke, like a drummer beating time.

And hanging out with an 81-year-old Sir Harold Evans at a London hotel, I was struck by the sight of his white running shoes, which had just propelled him on a power walk around the city streets.

Journalists enjoy the privilege of meeting luminary figures up close and seeing what makes them tick. For media correspondents that means spending time with those who have excelled at our trade and those who are shaping our industry’s destiny.

For the past 20 years of digital upheaval I have been talking to these leaders and, along with some lasting visual images, they have passed on secrets, insights and prophecies. The recurrent theme of recent times has been the survival of news itself. These are some lessons I have learned.

1) Welcome the future

Gates has become every conspiracy theorist’s favourite hate figure but he foresaw the opportunities of this new information age.

Back in 2006 he was predicting how our lives would “come together” on a “very, very, thin – we don’t have it yet today – very inexpensive, high-bandwidth wireless device”. Sir Harold, while publishing memoirs of a matchless career, was “very, very optimistic” about the long-term prospects of journalism and celebrated “unparalleled access to information on a scale never known before”.

Deborah Turness, the Brit who runs NBC News International, told me that broadcast news is transformed by mobile journalists (mojos) on smartphones. “Our correspondents aren’t perfectly made-up and standing in front of a camera on a riser with a light and a cable and a satellite truck – they’re on their iPhones and they will take us with them.”

2) News is not dying

Despite the dire curses of social media trolls and the scepticism of some advertising industry trendies, it’s clear to me that numerous news organisations have plotted viable courses across the treacherous waters of digital transition. As Will Lewis, former CEO of Dow Jones, told me over a lunch in 2016: “You can get print advertising, digital advertising, subscriptions, you can sell data packages, you can sell custom content, which is booming, you can put on live events… It’s harder than it was but it’s definitely fine – there’s a proven way forward to monetise professional journalism.”

3) Silicon Valley will always win the scale game

Despite regulators around the world putting pressure on Facebook and Google, it’s hard to see those companies giving up much advertising cake without the US government wanting to cut them down to size. As Jon Slade, chief commercial officer of the Financial Times, points out: “Of all the pages on the internet less than one per cent of them are from newspapers – the vast majority of time spent is with social channels and they are always going to be much bigger than you are – so if you’re trying to play a game of scale then you’re going to lose.”

4) So concentrate on audience quality over quantity

The Guardian is no longer focused on sheer reach but on relationships with readers that induce them to pay – even when the journalism is available for free. Raw traffic figures “breed complacency”, I was told by David Pemsel, former Guardian Media Group CEO, when he announced 800,000 paying readers in 2017. “Some of the most atrocious content companies in the world can be big, it doesn’t mean that you are being read or making an impact on the world… it just means you are big.” Similarly, Nick Hugh, CEO at the Telegraph, says the paper is focused on its signed-in readers. “Your registrants are your future subscribers. Our entire strategy is centred on that.”

5) Different strokes for different folks

When only 7 per cent of Britons pay for news and 50 per cent say “nothing” could induce them to do so, a business opportunity remains for ad-supported news publishers. But only if the product is distinctive. The Mail and Independent appeal to global audiences because their editorial offerings are not found elsewhere. The Sun looks to home soil. “We have come to the conclusion that we should focus really heavily on the UK first of all,” said David Dinsmore, News UK’s COO in 2016.

6) Don’t cut flagship journalism

Andrew Marr, one of my former editors at The Independent, stressed the need for “funding digging journalists” amid the proliferation of online comment. “Anyone can produce words but you need a system which pays journalists to spend time to find stuff out.” John Humphrys, the leading political interviewer of his generation, once summoned me to his west London home so he could denounce plans for across-the-board cuts at the BBC. “The Today programme is easily the most important programme that the BBC does,” he said, suggesting BBC3 and BBC4 should be sacrificed to preserve it.

7) Experiment with different platforms

Who would have imagined that email could generate newsletters, a digital equivalent of a daily paper delivery? “The first thing I do every morning is not pick up the newspaper, I go to my email and pull up my five top newsletters,” says Sebastian Tomich, head of advertising at the New York Times. He also believes in the power of smart speakers and podcasting. “The opportunity with voice is huge, there is no question in my mind, that voice is going to become the front door to frankly everything that we will experience.”

8) Beware fads

I remember interviewing MySpace founder Chris DeWolfe. Even Rupert Murdoch believed in that gateway to youth but where is it now? CNN’s virtual reality chief Jason Farkas told me four years ago: “This format has arrived”. I’m not sure it has, even now.

9) Legacy players still dominate

For all the years of disruption, start-up news organisations in the UK have made little headway. “There’s a real genuine sense that we might just be figuring out the future of journalism over here,” said Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed News UK in 2016. Sadly that newsroom has closed down. I hope Tortoise survives.

10) Love journalism

David Simon is best known as creator of the TV drama The Wire but at heart he’s an inky-fingered former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun and a passionate observer of the travails of the news industry over the past generation. “Our own leaders had not been chosen from the newsroom,” he reflected in 2009. “The people running our industry had contempt for the product, they saw the news and the production of news as a cost, and they saw the advertising as the purpose.” If those who run the news industry really believe in the value of news, then news will thrive.

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