While Jim Brady has stepped out of the day-to-day of running local media companies, he’s finding that through his new consulting business he’s still able to help newsrooms evolve.
Brady, who formed Spirited Media in 2014, sold its three sites this year and opted to take the consulting work he was doing as part of Spirited Media to a full-time gig. And it seems to be paying off for both Brady and the media companies he’s working with.
We caught up with Brady to learn more about who he is collaborating with, how it’s going, and hear his current view on the industry. Here’s our interview with him.
First, tell us a little about how your venture in consulting is going and who you are working with.
It’s going great. I think one of the things that makes consulting really enjoyable is your ability to help impact so many newsrooms rather than just one. One of my consulting gigs is with Newspack, a platform that WordPress is building for small- and medium-sized publishers. I’m leading the effort to choose participants and helping integrate them into the program.
We just announced the cohort of 34 sites this week, adding to the 11 we’re already working with. This allows me to impact a ton of newsrooms, and that’s very satisfying. I’m also working with Graham Media Group’s TV stations on improving their digital editorial and product operations, including writing monthly reports assessing the quality of their sites and digital products.
I also recently did a week with WBEZ in Chicago, where we did some digital transformation work. I also write a monthly column for the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, and am helping a few local startups with their launch plans. I’m also in conversations about potentially helping others launch sites smiliar to Billy Penn, The Incline and Denverite, so I have my fingers crossed on that. That’d be fun.
Anything surprising jump out to you about the place media companies are currently at today in their digital evolution?
No. The pace of transformation still isn’t where it needs to be, although I think the reasons are different now. Ten years ago, the pace was slower because there was still a lot of resistance to change (and, honestly, much of that was driven by fear of the unknown).
Now, I think — for the most part — people don’t doubt digital is the future, but most news organizations have far fewer people with which to make the transition. So the reasons have changed, but the result is still largely the same. That’s one of the things I can help with: doing a lot with a little. Billy Penn became a major player in the fourth-largest media market in the U.S. with a newsroom that was never larger than six.
You are doing work in television now. Do they really face the same challenges as newspapers or is their situation totally different, or better?
I think the challenges are the same, but the calendar has been more favorable to television, thanks to retransmission fees, political advertising and the fact TV is still a unique enough medium that digital hasn’t quite hollowed out the business the way it has with newspapers.
That said, the local TV business is showing some softness, so the effort to improving its digital products needs to be happening now. There’s an old line I once heard about newspapers that said when newspapers had the money to change, they didn’t have the will, and by the time they had the will, they didn’t have the money. There’s a lesson there, and companies like Graham realize that you have to start improving your digital products before the real financial trouble starts. Because it’s a process, and you need to make the inevitable mistakes when you still have financial runway.
Are there repeatable lessons that you are seeing in your consulting that everyone in the industry could do a better job with?
Absolutely. I think the main one is completely rethinking the relationship with the consumer. For the most part, newspapers have had a formal, stiff relationship with their readers for the past 30-40 years. That didn’t hurt them for a long time, since just about all the revenue came from advertising, where having large numbers of consumers mattered more than knowing any one of them personally.
But as we move heavily toward reader revenue models — and I’m a big proponent of membership over paywall — the connection with readers has to be deep if you want to get deep into their pocketbooks. So one of the things I hammer on with clients is getting them to write in a way that reminds their customers that they are their neighbors, not someone handing down tablets from some faraway mountain. Use words like “we,” “you” and “us” in headlines and stories. Ask customers to participate in the journalism process. Have events so you can meet them. The customer relationship has been a core thesis of both of my first two Reynolds columns.
I think the other thing that all newsrooms need to pay attention to is culture. The old adage that culture eats strategy for breakfast is true, but doesn’t go far enough. Culture eats everything in its path, and if you can’t create a culture where change is welcome, I don’t know that you’ll ever make the digital turn.
What have you been able to bring to the table from the different parts of your career to consulting? Meaning, what from The Post or TBD or Spirited Media?
Well, I’ve never had two jobs in a row that were remotely similar, so that’s helped me get a wide range of experiences. I’ve worked for newspaper companies, television stations and digital only entities. I’ve been an intrapreneur and an entrepreneur. I’ve let editorial teams, product teams, technology teams and business teams and been a CEO. And that range of experience allows me to bring new perspectives to new jobs.
For example, when I went to AOL in 1999, I was asked to spend time every week with the sales people who repped the channels I was running. I was worried about this, because I’d come from washingtonpost.com, where that was verboten.
But I learned quickly that it was helpful to know how sales saw the products I was working on, and to hear what they were hearing from the marketplace. Before too long, I was meeting with all the other departments that supported the channel: product, finance, tech, etc.
So, by the time I went back to washingtonpost.com to be executive editor, I had learned the importance of not isolating yourself in the newsroom, and that openness to collaboration across all departments helped me be successful in that job. Those kinds of learnings happen when you’re open to them, and when you’re willing to take a wildly different job than the one you just had.