More technology expertise needed on news media management boards

If you are a hands-on editor or publisher who has come up through the ranks, you take pride in being able to do every job under your responsibility. At the very least, you understand what needs to be done.

But far too often, that experience and understanding does not extend to information technology, and this lack of knowledge leaves executives completely reliant on others for a crucial part of their strategic decisions.

It is not a comfortable position to be in when thousands or even millions of dollars are at stake on decisions about whether the new technology is appropriate, whether other systems better, or how long it will endure before obsolescence.

With so much riding on technology, it is surprising at how few media company boards include expertise in the tech areas. The boards and management teams are often heavy with business school graduates and lawyers, but it is rare to find a board member or manager with sound technical knowledge. This is not to say business leaders are incapable of understanding technology, but they often defer to others when there is a need for deeper knowledge.

The IT people are often thought of as the magicians of media companies. They are called to keep things running. Additionally, their input is often crucial to spending and strategic decision making, but nobody really knows how they do it. CEOs and other executives frequently have to rely on them without clearly understanding the implications or what they are approving.

And if the IT team does not understand journalism — or the needs of the organisation or how non-technical staff will use the tools and systems — the results can be disastrous. IT people might understand how technology is supposed to work, but they approach it with knowledge that is greater than the rest of the organisation. And, they often don’t know how to communicate the value.

News media companies have always been technology heavy: complex printing presses, complex typesetting and plate exposure systems, extensive data-processing systems, and many other tools deliver a completely new product to customers every day. As new tools and processes are introduced in the digitalised newsroom, keeping up has become a permanent challenge.

And the impact of technology is likely to accelerate in future, as new systems and concepts such as AI are incorporated into newsroom operations, and as Big Data and audience management tools help define the news agenda.

At many newspapers today, technology is still viewed primarily as a support function, seen as nothing more than screens, customer relationship management systems, production systems, printers, and the rest. But in truth, technology in today’s environment is a key strategic issue in any digital transformation project, and old-style thinking often leads to bottlenecks.

There is too much at stake, and more consideration to the role of technology is needed. A company may find itself working on projects that originate from external forces (such as GDPR) or from in-house (like innovation migrations, system consolidation, and relaunches). Often, they find themselves with too few system architects, project managers, and developers. So, they get help from external service providers or buy systems that are offered as turnkey solutions.

In practice, many of these turn out to be general frameworks with a high level of customisation and configuration work needed. And the problems can be aggravated by high staff turnover and recruitment bottlenecks. The results are poor implementations and/or delays, which often have a direct impact on the bottom line of the business.

Technology is a strategic factor for any media company. It not only secures daily operations, but it also drives innovation and enables the development of new business areas and sources of income. To fully exploit the potential, it is essential that this specialist area is anchored on the board or in management by someone with sound training and/or solid knowledge and an understanding of trends, potential, and dangers.

So, stop thinking of technology as a support operation and include it at the heart of your strategic planning.

This article was also published on the INMA Media Leaders blog.