The world of journalism rarely provides lessons in business leadership. Then came tronc.
In case you missed this news, that will be the new name of Tribune Publishing Co., which produces the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and several other newspapers.
We’ve seen a cable TV company roll out Xfinity, a consultant decide to call itself Accenture and a cigarette maker become Altria, but all of these will be moving down the rankings of worst new business names to make room for tronc at the top.
But it’s not the new name that will be material for the business school case studies, it’s the muddled strategic thinking behind it. This company, as it turns out, will now become what the re-branding news release called “a content curation and monetization company focused on creating and distributing premium, verified content across all channels.”
There is a chance that the executive who approved that description knows exactly what it was supposed to mean. There is no chance anyone else does.
That’s not the worst of that news release, however, as the quote attributed to board Chairman Michael Ferro, who became a principal shareholder of the Chicago-based company earlier this year, was also a stunner:
“Our transformation strategy — which has attracted over $114 million in growth capital — is focused on leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the user experience and better monetize our world-class content in order to deliver personalized content to our 60 million monthly users and drive value for all of our stakeholders.”
That’s a 52-word sentence. And to be fair, not even half of them were buzzwords.
Even Ferro’s harshest critics would have to concede to him that fresh thinking is welcome in newspaper publishing, with most publishers including Tribune Publishing still seeing consistent declines in annual revenue.
Ferro’s big idea is all about using technology, as described in coverage by Bloomberg and others, to make a printed newspaper far more appealing to readers. The machine learning part of his statement apparently refers to technology that a reader would use to more or less scan the printed product and promptly bring to life related audio and video.
As best can be determined, glancing at a news article about the Stanley Cup playoffs would spark up moving images of the goal that won a game in overtime, complete with the sound of the roaring crowd.
If that kind of capability in a newspaper seems a little familiar, that’s probably because you’ve read the Harry Potter books and remember the fully animated photographs that appeared in the Daily Prophet newspaper.
The teenage wizarding student Harry Potter didn’t need any innovative technology to see moving pictures, of course, as he was a novelist’s fictional character living in a magical world.
How tronc’s semi-magical technology would be broadly marketed, how much it would cost the consumer who wanted to use it and whether there would be any willing to pay for it are among the unknowns.
As innovative as this may sound, using a device on a printed page to quickly reach other information online has been tried, as media industry analyst Ken Doctor recalled in a blog post. He was referring to a gadget from the early days of the consumer internet called the CueCat, used to scan a printed bar code to open a website.
A big regional media company was among the investors that poured millions of dollars into the company that developed this device — which came in at No. 20 on a PCWorld ranking of the 25 worst technology products of all time.
There is a suspicion in the media industry that Ferro can’t be serious about any of this, that the re-branding and the stream of jargon about technology were all designed to make it easier to justify refusing a takeover offer for Tribune from the rival Gannett Co.
It is true that one way to mask an agenda is to issue a news release that really isn’t intended to make any sense. After all, as the English writer George Orwell once wrote, “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”
This line came in the same essay that included Orwell’s famous translation of a well-known verse from the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, the one that observed “that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.”
Orwell turned that into “objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity …”
Orwell argued that people increasingly failed to make themselves clear by using complex words with Latin roots, technical jargon and worn-out metaphors. More importantly, bad writing couldn’t be separated from bad thinking.
Our language, Orwell wrote, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
So it’s possible Ferro firmly believes in his turnaround plan for Tribune Publishing, and that’s why he signed off on a string of words about artificial intelligence and monetizing content.
Executives need to be much clearer about the value of the product they intend to provide the customer, if for no other reason than it will show that they understand why their business is still in business.
And maybe this sounds old-fashioned, but well-run businesses don’t “monetize.” What they do is offer products that customers value enough to pay real money to buy, hopefully enough money for the business to make a profit.
Figuring out how best to keep paying customers as a publisher reinvents itself for digital distribution isn’t easy, for Ferro or anyone else. But saying you are “leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning” to “better monetize our world-class content” doesn’t help.
In fact, it’s foolish.