The Corner Office

Now is the Time for Newsrooms to Think Big

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It doesn’t take much to have a negative outlook right now. Times are uncertain, and none of us know exactly how or when the pandemonium will be resolved. But rather than hunker down until the crisis passes, I would encourage you to consider the adage recently popularized by Rahm Emanuel, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

Before we take this thought experiment into the larger scale, reflect on what the COVID-19 pandemic has changed for you. You can probably list more than a few things: remote work, video meetings, new communications channels, kids underfoot, the list goes on. The crisis has forced you to make substantial changes. And while many of us wait for things to “return to normal,” instead I would posit that things will not be returning to “normal,” and that a return to normalcy would not be in your best interest, regardless.

To illustrate the underlying issue here, I recently engaged with partners of a dynamic fitness center. They’re a remarkably forward-thinking duo, and prior to the ongoing public health crisis, they routinely filled their two studios with a dozen daily classes with up to 60 people in each. They employed 40 trainers, had an extensive off-location class system as well as personal training programs. And they did well, even managing to open a second studio this year and build a community around their program and philosophy. Then, March came, and COVID-19 arrived in full force. Their customers suddenly didn’t want to be herded into jam-packed rooms, and then gyms were legally required to close. These were people who had created real community and suddenly had it all collapse. And like a lot of clever, innovative people, they sat back on their heels and had no idea what to make of the situation.

But unlike many people, after the initial shock, they got to work. Their first focus was “keeping the community together and with classes.” Immediately they started free Facebook livestreams and offered virtual classes that bore some resemblance to the original schedule.

They began doing, watching and modifying. This included everything from testing new software, planning new strategies, and just investing in new everything because their old method simply was not going to work in the foreseeable future, if ever again. They very quickly figured the days of packing rooms with people 6 inches apart were not coming back soon. There were hiccups, but through trial and error of digital sign-ins, an application to manage classes and memberships, and other technological shots in the dark, they can now provide their services without packing rooms full of people.

As they were changing, they included their customers in the dialogue. In a newsletter, they essentially told their customers, “We cannot imagine ever going back to the time where we could always fit just one more person into our classes. We’ll have to manage differently, limit attendance, and turn away the person who wants to join a class at the last minute. We may have to charge more, but we are still going to be here for you and our community.”

More than just telling customers the situation, though, they asked for input. These partners also reached out and asked what people liked, if they wanted more video classes, if they wanted classes streamed live, etc. And their numbers right now aren’t what they were six months ago, but they’re staying afloat and positioning themselves to succeed, which is all that any of us can hope for during a crisis.

You might feel tempted to think of this as a temporary stop-gap. Sure, they can go online or limit class sizes for a little while, then they’ll shift back to normal once the crisis has passed. But that just isn’t happening. The public consciousness is not going to forget these events within a business quarter or a calendar year. We will all have to live with these events for years to come, and it’s in your best interest to start thinking of what the new normal will be and how your business fits into it.

My biggest piece of advice is to take this opportunity to undermine yourself. And what I mean by that is: Get in the way of old plans. Do things today that didn’t make sense six months ago. Whatever rules or limitations were holding you back before have officially been suspended, and the only way you’re only going to fit into the new normal if you can make big changes to meet these new needs.

It’s easy to invoke the name of Steve Jobs, but I think one particular moment feels especially poignant today. When Jobs gave the stamp of approval to the iPhone, a lot of his colleagues worried that it offered too many features of their number one seller, the iPod. After all, an iPhone was a strictly better version of an iPod, so why would they voluntarily destroy their most popular product?

As Jobs pointed out: Somebody is going to take the spot of the iPhone, and it may as well be us—and he was absolutely right. If you’re afraid to cannibalize your work, you only give your competitors the chance to do it for you.

That’s the challenge facing managers and owners right now, and it’s one that I hope you’ll find the confidence to rise to. If you need a place to start, try asking yourself what your competitors do that you’ve always envied or wanted to try. Then look for your in. Whether that’s nascent technologies, an innovative marketing campaign, improved brand messaging, or totally new services, you will never find a better time for change than right now.

Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He is also an associate with Grimes, McGovern & Associates, specializing in news media M&A. He can be reached at doug@silverwind.biz.

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