Vivian Schiller on Media Innovation, Now and in the Future


As media résumés go, they don’t come more distinguished than Vivian Schiller’s.

After starting as a production assistant at Turner Broadcasting, she climbed the ranks to become head of CNN’s documentary unit in 1998. After running a joint venture of The New York Times and Discovery Communications from 2002 to 2006, Schiller joined The Times as general manager of NYTimes.com, leading the integration of print and online newsrooms and driving journalistic innovation. In 2008, she was named CEO of NPR, where she brought another legacy media brand into the digital age. This preceded her appointment as NBC News’ first chief digital officer in 2011. Two years later, Schiller went to Twitter to head news partnerships for the platform.

Now, as an independent consultant helping brands and media entities thrive in an ever-evolving digital media space, Schiller has one of the most informed perspectives in the business. (Disclosure: Weber Shandwick is one of the companies she has consulted.) She sat down with me to talk about how media is changing, how brands can adapt, the rise of the brand studio within online publishers, the importance of data to journalism, and how to foster innovation in media.

CHRIS PERRY: Vivian, you have seen media from all angles. Now you’re independently consulting with media companies and brands and agencies. What are you seeing that’s interesting in the market these days?

VIVIAN SCHILLER: I’m seeing a tremendous amount of change, and a tremendous amount of uncertainty. Which, actually, I think makes it a very exciting time in media. There’s so much change, and that leads to opportunities. I’m an optimist, so I think this is actually a fantastic time for media. There are so many different ways to reach audiences and so many ways to have an impact.

Which, coming from the world of journalism, that’s what I care about the most.

CP: Yeah, right. There’s clearly a, as you say, just a huge shift that’s happening in the business. Clearly there’s a need to be on the right side of the technology curve these days.

VS: Sure.

CP: So it would be great to maybe talk a little bit about what you experienced on the newsroom side, really getting The New York Times, NBC, NPR, some of these places, oriented towards the digital future, and then maybe what are you seeing even spending some time with these newer digital first publishers?

VS: Right. So it has been an evolution. Most news organizations, by this point in the middle of the second decade of this century, are realizing that they can’t just expect to publish content and broadcast content and expect that people are going to come to them.

Everybody seems to be with the program that you have to go out and reach your audience. What many are struggling with, though — and this was certainly the challenge in every place I’ve worked, from The New York Times to NBC, to NPR — is: How do you hold onto your legacy? How do you hold onto the values of brand and your core legacy platform — whether it’s radio, whether it’s the printed newspaper or NBC Nightly News — but also make sure the values, the journalism, the brand, are reflected in the way that you go out to users — whether it’s on a six second Vine or a Facebook post or a photograph or a listicle — and how do you make sure those brand values translate?

So this is what all news organizations are struggling with. There are many, many success stories out there, and as platforms continue to evolve, we’re seeing a lot of creativity.

CP: Yeah. So this is something that you and I talk about quite a bit, this notion of all kinds of different ways to format the news and really invent new formats in the process. But there’s also the organizational change that’s required to actually allow for that to happen and do it in a meaningful way. What’s your take on what’s happening, again, from a structural and organizational standpoint, even in some of the incumbent businesses, to take advantage of this?

VS: Right. Well, I think that Peter Drucker said it best when he said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

I think that is absolutely true. So the cultural part of this is the hardest. I mean, at this point there are certain principles. There is more or less a roadmap. Not to how necessarily what’s going to be popular in the future, but at least how you think about a world that we live in now, which is about distributed content.

But, like you say, sometimes the organizational structures in the cultures are not set up for it. So the single most important thing that any legacy organization is going to [do is] adapt their culture so that, while they’re not throwing away their legacy revenue and the legacy way they are doing things, they bring in the right people and the right minds and maintain an openness and a willingness to sort of test and learn their way towards a different model.

I think the legacy news organizations are learning from the digital natives — from the Buzzfeeds, the Vices, the Voxes — and I think some of them are very successful at bringing some of those principles onboard.

I see a lot of that happening at The New York Times, for instance. At The Guardian. Ironically, at newspapers. I would point also to The Wall Street Journal and to some of the things that are happening at Gannett. It may be because they experienced disruption earlier than other forms of media, they are learning to adapt.

I think broadcast and cable television is a little bit slower — maybe because their venue model, frankly, is still very strong. But they are going to have their own reckoning. There’s no question it’s coming.

CP: As we go, though, deeper into that point of difference around not everyone can tell a good story and not everyone can build an audience for their stories, there are some major, major blind spots that I see that aren’t being talked about more in a corporate setting and that will have very direct impact on the success of these brand publishing, content publishing programs.

The first is data. So you go into some of these digital-first publishers, and they don’t have armies of reporters and journalists exclusive. They have armies of engineers building product to understand that user behavior and incorporate that user behavior back into what’s being produced and how it’s being optimized.

What are you seeing there in terms of, again, legacy or incumbent businesses making that shift to data, and how big a deal is that from what you’ve experienced in your travels?

VS: It’s a very, very big deal. The results among legacy media companies right now are very mixed. Everywhere you go, every legacy company goes, “Oh, data. We need data. We believe in data.” It has almost become a cliché. So there is a lot of data coming into these organizations, but honestly not a lot of insights that I see being extracted.

That is beginning to change. You are beginning to see some publishers understanding and experimenting with data in order to create more compelling product experiences. At the end of the day it’s about creating a more compelling product experience.

There’s a fear in journalism world that, “Oh, if we have this data and we know what’s popular and you give it to the reporters, the reporters are going to see that and they are going to want to stop reporting about ISIS in Syria, and they are only going to want to do cat videos.” That’s nonsense, first of all. I would give journalists a little bit more credit than that. But also, that’s not really where the data is that useful. The data is most useful, again, [in] creating better product user experiences.

CP: Right, and I think translating that for our clients and even a lot of our staff that’s really engaged in this work, it’s not so much data that’s up here, but data that’s down here.

VS: Yes. Actionable data.

CP: So the more that you can put the data in the hands of the people making the content, so to speak, and make that content better, the better ROI you’re going to get from that. I still see a major disconnect between big data from a decision-making, from an executive level standpoint, so to speak, and more about, “How do you bring that and equip people to do better work?”

VS: There’s no question. In the world of publishers, as a general rule, the digital native companies are doing a much, much better job at this.

There’s no such thing as, “That’s not the way we do things.” A lot of the legacy companies just haven’t had that data. You don’t know how many people are reading your story in the newspaper. I mean, you can sort of extrapolate from circulation and single copy sales. For broadcasts you get a Nielsen rating. It’s not the kind of data that you can use to make decisions to improve your product. It’s much more longitudinal.

As a result, those cultures have grown up with a sense that, well, since we don’t really know, we’re going to do what we think is the right thing, and have done very well with it. The digital native companies don’t have that legacy. They have been hungry for this information and use it and turn it around to make their products better.

You see this happening in a big way. I would put Buzzfeed and Vox really at the top of the list of knowing how to make their data very actionable to make a better product.

CP: So the other piece that, again, maybe not so much of a blind spot, but is just the very fast rise of the brand studio inside of the publishing houses.

VS: Yes. Right.

CP: Through maybe one perspective it seems obvious. Who better to create content for the publication or the publication’s digital environment than the publishers themselves? Opens up a lot of questions about separation between church and state, but I think we’re past that.

In my mind the bigger issue is, how do brand-side clients take advantage of that when they are dealing with their own change management issues and the complexities that go with thinking about content in a different way?

What’s your take on the rise of the brand studio and what it’s going to take to really see that pay off for the publishers that are investing in it?

VS: Right. Well, I think for publishers, since legacy revenue is declining and you need to find new revenue streams, I actually think it is among the most promising new revenue streams for publishers for exactly the reason that you say.

It taps into a core competency of a news organization, which is largely my perspective. We know how to tell stories. We know how to take pictures. A lot of them know how to do very good data visualizations [and] package this in a way that is compelling to audiences.

I can understand why publishers want to do it and I can understand why brands want to go through these publishers, because it makes sense. But it’s only part of the picture.

What is necessary for a brand to become truly a publisher is not just tying into a good content creator. That’s great. But to really take a deep look at their business, to understand the cultural change that is necessary, if you’re a brand, to get yourself into the publishing mindset and to think about how you structure your organization, how you think about multiple revenue streams, how you think about that balance between what they are used to, which is directly selling or pitching a product, to more directly… Or selling to an audience that has an affinity to that product. That’s a much more complicated process.

I don’t know that the publishers are quite there yet. They can create the content, but in terms of that full 360 view I think it’s more complicated than that. So you’re seeing that entire economy begin to evolve.

CP: Yeah. It’s a whole new economy that doesn’t necessarily squarely fit into any legacy approach, whether that’s coming at it through an agency, a media buyer, a publisher. There’s got to be a negotiation to make this work.

VS: And all of those disciplines are converging, right? So what used to be very separately, “This is what we go to an agency for, to do the creative for this particular campaign, this is our comms messaging, these are the stories are want to tell,”… All of these things are beginning to converge.

Good news organizations, it has to be said, are still extremely mindful […] You obviously don’t want your brands and your advertisers and your sponsors to influence the pure editorial content you’re doing. But with a few exceptions and a few errors that we see pop up in the news, the good ones are keeping that separate in the right away.

VS: Again, you can’t just put your content out there and assume it’s going to find the right audience. You need a very targeted, strategic approach that’s rooted in [asking], “Who are we trying to reach? What do we want to be known for? What does our brand stand for? How are we set up to create content for each of those platforms, for each of those demographics, at what time of day and making sure you have a very targeted approach to therefore how you distribute the content on those platforms to reach those audiences?”

So this is not rocket science.

Well, there is a little rocket science, actually.

CP: Yeah.

VS: Yeah. There’s a little rocket science involved in this. But it’s important stuff.

I’m pleased to see that many publishers are coming along and understanding it. But we’re a long way from there being sort of the deep capabilities from many of these organizations.

CP: Even if the notion of brands as publishers isn’t the right way of thinking about it… It’s more brands as programmers. So you really need to be thinking about not only what is that story you want to tell, [but also] the formats that best tell the story, the time slots where it’s going to make the most sense for that content to resonate. And that really borrows from the world of TV.

VS: Right, that’s true. Well, to be a publisher is to be a programmer now. I mean, again, if the theme of this conversation is all the worlds are converging…

CP: It’s all coming together. Yeah.

VS: Exactly. You can’t just create the content and cross your fingers. You have to program it. It’s absolutely right. I mean, this is something that television has known for a long time. I think a lot of television organizations are still struggling with then how to convert that programming core competence into other platforms because it’s a different kind of programming.

But absolutely. I would say that publishing and programming are one in the same. Of course, the quality of the content matters. But it won’t add up to a hill of beans if you’re not getting it in front of the right people.

CP: So we still have lots of people that are very interested in the world of journalism. Clearly the world has never been in greater need of… It really provides more opportunity to go and tell some amazing stories through all the ways that we have been talking about.

But if you’re a student going into J-school, how do you think about it and what do you think is going to come out in terms of opportunity?

VS: [There] has been a sea change in journalism schools in the last 10 years, where it used to be that you would go in and you would major in magazine writing or broadcast reporting. Students now […] You’ve got to become a master of all trades.

So the advice that I would have is: Do it all. Learn how to shoot. Learn how to edit. Learn how to be on camera, even if you have to do it yourself, by holding your camera up in front of you. Learn how to write long form. Learn how to write short form.

Learn how to code. You don’t have to be an expert coder. But you need to understand the fundamental technology, and you need to be able to speak a language so that, when you’re working with technologists in whatever you do, you’re able to move together to create great products.

Understand the business side. Of course, underlying all of that is you need to understand the fundamental tenants of journalism. What makes for good journalism? Good, impartial, compelling storytelling.

But beyond that you need to understand the entire spectrum of the business. I am thrilled that there is still such deep interest in journalism. I think the generation of journalists that are coming of age now, they are going to crack the code and figure out what the models are that are going to keep this industry alive and thriving for generations.

CP: So the résumé. CNN. New York Times. NBC. NPR. Twitter. All in a digital — and, more deeply, a change management — role.

How are you able to have that great a look at so many organizations and really foster a culture of innovation that clearly has created a nice, sustainable view and an impact that you can have more broadly in the media business?

VS: Well, I think there’s a few principles that help foster change in an organization. One is to make people feel like they are in a safe space. That they can make mistakes and they are not going to get punished for it.

One of the most important things to create change is a culture of test and learn. That you could test something, and if it’s not working… If it works, great. You iterate.

That’s wonderful. The whole concept of the minimally viable product, I think, is extensible to every industry. But also, if it’s not working, it was well-intended. Let’s shut it down. Let’s celebrate. Let’s figure out what we learned from it and move it. So people feel safe to innovate. They are not going to be punished for it.

That breeds innovation. Innovation breeds innovation. That sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. If people in an organization see others are stretching their wings, they are going to want to do it too.

Sometimes you need to make changes in leadership so that you’ve got the right culture flowing downhill. But these kind of small steps begin to create a culture then that breeds innovation.

The other ting that I found is very valuable, and it’s one of the great ironies of our time. Never has it been easier for people to connect at great distances, but never has it been more important for people to come together face-to-face.

So the idea of co-location and not siloing organizations, making sure the technologists are sitting in the newsroom, are part of the conversation from the get-go, that social media is something you think about from the beginning of the content creation process and not at the end… Like, “Oh, can you slice me off a little of that internet for the story we just did?” All of those things make a huge difference.

CP: Okay. So out of all of that culture shifting and change management, what are you most prod of, looking back on some of the places you were at?

VS: I have fallen in love with every organization that I’ve ever worked at. I have this problem, which is, even when I talk about a place like CNN, which I left in 2002, when I talk about CNN I still say “we”. I just cared about it so deeply.

I’m just always mostly proud of the kind of stories and the kind of journalism that we told, and the ability to have an impact and to have people a little more informed or inspired throughout their day. That has not changed. The means to reach people has changed, but that core idea that we’re telling stories that are going to impact people’s lives — that, to me, is eternal.

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