by John Kenyon
CEDAR RAPIDS – Chuck Peters uses the analogy of a young man seeking the affections of an attractive woman when discussing the rather radical changes his media company is undergoing.
“It’s like saying, ‘I like that girl over there, I’ll just watch how somebody makes an approach and then will do it myself,’” he said. “But then, the relationship is gone.”
In this case, the tentative suitor is a typical media company, while the comely lass is the ever-eroding audience. Many in media, newspapers in particular, are waiting for someone else to come up with the model that will recover readers and viewers who have been fleeing in droves over the past decade.
Mr. Peters instead wants to be that bold young man who wins the maiden’s hand. The announcement last week that his company was rebranding itself from Gazette Communications to SourceMedia Group Inc. is the most public indication of an evolutionary process under way for a few years.
Actually, said Mr. Peters, president and CEO, the effort began 13 years ago when the company underwent a strategic planning process. A couple hundred people participated and came up with a mission statement that Mr. Peters said was forward thinking for the time: “To be the information provider of choice through a dynamic mix of innovative products and services.”
“They didn’t mention any products,” he said.
Four years ago, discussions about making significant changes to the company began. By the spring of 2008, some were ready for implementation, but then the June flood hit.
“I kept saying that just because we had a flood doesn’t mean we have to get distracted, but we got distracted,” Mr. Peters said.
Finally, about a year ago, functional changes were made in the company that involved severing content from products. The news team is responsible for creating news independently. It is then picked up by the company’s products. Gazette readers might notice a byline from a KCRG reporter, while KCRG viewers increasingly see Gazette writers on air, for example.
New web sites also were created to provide more topic-specific products for readers. These include Eastern IowaSportsandRec.com, Eastern IowaOutdoors.com and EasternIowa Life.com.
Things changed on the sales side as well, with one general sales team responsible for selling advertising in all of the products rather than each having a dedicated force.
The rebranding that led to the new corporate name came out of challenges created by that change, Mr. Peters said.
“Pretty quickly, the information creators and sales force said, ‘We need a way to identify ourselves that is not tied to product,’” he said. “Gazette Communications connotes a newspaper, and it connotes one-way communication. We were trying to get something beyond the product, and a multi-faceted approach.”
The ultimate goal for the company, he said, is to “get to a network where each individual can get exactly what they want, where they want and when they want.
“That’s not taking anything away from our existing products, because a lot of people like those experiences as they are,” he added. “But if you’re on an iPhone or Blackberry or Droid or iPad, and that device knows who you are, where you are and what your intent is, you ought to be able to get what you want.”
In the company’s new logo, the “me” in “media” is highlighted to reflect that personalization. At the same time, a figurative representation of a person in the logo has a speech bubble over its head to represent the multi-way conversation the company hopes to have with its audience.
Mr. Peters said the response internally and externally has varied. From customers, it has ranged along a spectrum from “‘this is really exciting and forward looking and I really want to participate,’ to ‘whatever you do, don’t take my paper away,’” he said. “And somewhere in between, I would say that people want to understand how to be engaged.”
Part of the rebranding effort will involve educating customers about the changes. He said the primary changes will be that they will interact with information gatherers and sales representatives that serve multiple products.
“You’ll also be able to contribute about an event or an issue or a policy, whatever it is, and know that it is going to be in a product-agnostic content repository,” he said. “You’re not just writing a letter to the editor of the Gazette or writing a comment on the KCRG site. This is an information network, and products are nodes on the network.”
Tim McDougall, SourceMedia Group vice president of marketing, said the new brand serves as an umbrella for all of the company’s products, and it will be used in the same way Gazette Communications was in the past.
“We’ll start integrating it into everything we do,” he said. “We won’t have a big splashy roll out because when you do that, people say, ‘I get it, now what do you want me to do differently?’”
Instead, its deployment will be more organic. Most people saw it for the first time on sponsor banners at the Freedom Festival in Cedar Rapids, with Gazette and KCRG logos now including the line “powered by SourceMedia Group Inc.”
“We’re picking out places in the online pubs and publications to start seeding it in,” he said. “We’ve been going through that change in an evolutionary way internally for the last nine months to a year.”
Anyone searching for “SourceMedia Group” on Google will find a handful of other businesses with the name. Mr. Peters said there is no worry about confusion or problems arising from that because those other companies are doing different things in different places.
“How many Gazettes are there in the world?” he said.
He said that while the effort is at the beginning of the public phase, he is pleased with the work that was done internally and through consultants like local firm Henry Russell Bruce to reach that stage.
“I feel very good about the thoughtfulness that got us to this point,” he said.
“This point” is one that few if any other media companies have approached. While there is a tremendous amount of discussion of these issues in journalism and media circles, few have taken the steps SourceMedia Group has.
“Oh yeah, there’s no question,” Mr. Peters said. “If there is somebody who is doing this, I’d really like to meet them. There are a lot of people who are trying to create new experiences for the iPad, but they’re still like you’re taking existing products and mashing them together on the iPad. They’re not trying to rethink local information creation and distribution.”
Being on the bleeding edge of change can be seen as risky, but Mr. Peters said this is actually the less-risky path.
“The attitudes and the skill sets required are not easily acquired,” he said. “The common accountant’s response would be, let somebody else figure it out and then copy them.”
But Mr. Peters isn’t content to wait in the wings while someone else figures it out. Instead, others in the media world will be watching to see if the company’s new strategy works; will it get the girl?