incumbency in law firmsOver the long weekend I had a chance to catch up on some reading. At the top of the stack I found the Innovation Report from the New York Times – this is the internal strategic assessment prepared by a team of Times’ staffers under the leadership Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, the publisher heir apparent. This really makes for fascinating reading, particularly if you have an interest in the future of the news business.  A copy of the full report is available here.

If nothing else it demonstrates the high quality of the Times’ reporters that they can put together such a clear-eyed account of their own company’s painful missteps. It’s not so much a report on innovation as a chronicle of a decade of corporate ineptitude and botched initiatives. And it’s not as if the Times hasn’t had fine people involved along the way nor have they spared any expense in throwing resources at the problem — with a team of 30 people in digital design, and 120 in product development, 30 in analytics and 445 tech developers at their disposal. And yet the good old Gray Lady finds herself continually chasing after the likes of BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post when it comes to capturing the eyeballs of newsreaders online. The Times breaks major stories only to watch HuffPo garner 4 or 5 times more traffic with a 2-paragraph rehash of the same item.

Inasmuch as the Report tries to identify the major cause of the Times’ ongoing problems in the digital realm, it points to the editorial department’s continuing intransigence and insistence on treating the newspaper as the primary focus of the news gathering and reporting operation. Instead, the Report promotes an agenda that encourages the company to think digital first. This seems to have become something of a rallying cry for the digerati within the organization who want to shift away from a newspaper-centric view of the world – think digital first! “That means aggressively questioning many of our print-based traditions and their demands on our time, and determining which can be abandoned to free up resources for digital work.” (see the Report at p. 82)

So now it’s come to this. Even the most cherished notion of preserving editorial independence by maintaining a strict separation of new gathering and publishing activities has been called into question by the Innovation Report’s authors who blandly observe: “The very first step should be a deliberate push to abandon our current metaphors of choice — ‘The Wall’ and ‘Church and State’ — which project an enduring need for division. Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence.” (see the Report at p. 61)

This strikes me as a stunning volte-face and remarkable evidence of the perils of incumbency in the digital age. Given the turmoil and uncertainty in today’s business environment, even the editorial operation that stands unrivaled as the crown jewel of American journalism can begin to feel as cumbersome as an albatross hanging around the neck.

Later this week we’ll look at the issue of incumbency in the legal market where law firms face similar challenges as they try to extend their franchises into the digital realm.  Based on what we’ve gleaned from the latest Altman Weil survey we’ll consider how large law firms are holding up under the pressures of digital transformation.

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