Ian Cohen, CIO at Associated Newspapers, is the antithesis of the newspapers his employers publish. Whereas critics note the Daily Mail for its defeatist stand, Cohen is upbeat and cheerful, despite it being just hours after his beloved Chelsea crashed out of the Champions League to Manchester United.
Its two years since Cohen and CIO sat down together and it’s been a busy period for the north Londoner. Although newspaper sales are sliding, albeit more slowly than rivals to Associated, the group remains in rude health. Its technology strategy has been central to the sustainability of the business in what is a difficult period for national and local newspaper publishers. But the challenge is ongoing and Cohen is keen to explain the processes the Kensington, London-based company has been through and is currently pursuing.
In its recent half-year results, the company reported a five per cent increase in revenues and profits, a piece of positive news that has not often been heard in the newspaper world of late. The Associated Newspapers publishing business contributed to the health of the company, even though its flagship title, the Daily Mail, did see a slight drop in sales. Since the internet became a mainstream information resource on every desktop PC, newspaper companies have struggled to maintain healthy business models as sales and readerships slipped away. Associated Newspapers has not only met the internet challenge head on, but has to be congratulated for injecting new life into the printed newspaper business model. The free local newspapers in London, namely the Metro and London Lite, and now most British cities may not be loved, but the fact is Associated thought beyond the obvious and recreated an existing product by being bold with the distribution of news, simply by making it free, just as the internet has.
Although Cohen comes from the financial sector, the media has become part of his life after leaving the Financial Times before coming to Associated. As a result, Cohen is a passionate communicator about the newspaper business, both about its products and how technology is reshaping it for the better.
“Newspapers are relevant. I do not subscribe to the view of them as dead. Yes it’s changing, but coming from financial services, I see how the banks have been through the multi-channel world. People are now consuming the media in lots of channels,” he says of the way a newspaper must print, be online and even broadcast the information it has. “The challenge is to engage with the reader in the channel that they want to engage with.”
Technology is driving this multi-channel change, not only because companies like Associated have to publish a story in their newspaper and onto their various online platforms, but also the way the story arrives infront of readers. “There is a level of interactivity which means that part of the message can get a life of its own,” he says referring to social media and its ability to parse a part of a story and share with a community beyond the control of his company. “But this doesn’t mean people will stop reading.”
He describes the difference between a newspaper and an online resource as disparate states: online readers know what they don’t know so search for it and subscribe to products that can fill the knowledge void they know exists. Whereas reading through a newspaper is an experience of not knowing what you don’t know.
Cohen’s career has been one of multi-channel transformation, he joined Associated in January 2006 from the Financial Times, where he was CTO of FT.com before becoming group IT director for the combined operation. Prior to joining the media, he’d been at Lloyds TSB. He describes his tenure at FT.com as a “mini-integration” project. The difference between turning the FT into a successful online business and the Associated titles is stark. “The FT was a burning platform,” he says of the early difficulties the pink paper had as more and more financial news became freely available. It responded with a strong paid-for online package and saw off the threat. “One of the nice things of the FT was it was easy to do radical things. In a successful organisation like this its harder to make changes.”
Fortunately for Cohen, Associated has not been shy in making changes to its business and as a result, has remained successful. “When we choose to move we move very quickly, so your IT has to be able to react,” Cohen says. “I have an enlightened CEO,” he adds with a smile.
Cohen is realistic about the level of transformation he and his team have achieved – a lot, “but we are not exploiting the multi-channel abilities enough. The next big thing is to look at the digital assets.” Associated, and its local newspaper arm Northcliffe Media, has a mass of information assets that can be exploited for future revenues and improved products. Digitial asset management is one example of the role of IT in a modern publishing company: improving processes and pushing the product and revenue further. “The standards are there, the IT has to work, then you can talk about what it can do.” Currently Cohen and his team are rolling out a system that will enable its stories to be written once and then re-formatted for the different media products it owns without labour-intensive processes to change for each one.
David Henderson, IT director at Northcliffe Media, the local newspaper division of Daily Mail & General Trust, parent to both companies, says the FT and financial background that Cohen has given the company “a level of rigour, and a good level of business service delivery.” Both executives felt that this was lacking in the newspaper company before they joined.
As the newspaper industry becomes increasingly complex, so does the role of CIO at a newspaper publisher. In April the group selected CA to supply business service management (BSM) systems. The selection of this technology ties in with Cohen’s views on the role of technology and the CIO in an organisation, which is to deliver world-class service. “Taking a service-based view means you can have impact. As we get more and more automated you need tools that look into the systems and the organisation. Also, you need a really robust process around technology and how you provide it.” He says BSM tools allow him to provide “visibility” to his customers; “Things break and failures happen; what they [customers] care about is when it will be back up”. BSM tools are essential because the systems Cohen is responsible for do more than just print a newspaper every night. “We have systems that have multi-million pound revenues going through them and we have hundreds of suppliers; it is hard to make it simple.”
Cohen’s recent career in the media has seen changes in the industry’s attitudes towards technology. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the delivery of its staple product – news. “Two and half years ago there was an active non-archiving online debate, for fear it would cannibalise the newspapers,” Cohen says. Now the agenda has changed and all the content from the Evening Standard, for example, is availabe online. It harks back to Cohen’s belief in different user experiences. “The web is content driven, it has depth and breadth and context that a newspaper cannot do.” Flagship title the Mail has recently had an online overhaul to become a site dominated by large pictures; it goes against the trend by retaining a very deep site that requires users to scroll downwards. To achieve this multi-channel strategy Asssociated has introduced page editing tools that allow the journalists to build online pages, but most importantly, it has meant a change in culture. Recent ABCe ratings figures revealed increasing traffic for the Daily Mail online, with 46 million page views and 18,039,943 unique users.
“Changing the culture of an organisation takes a lot more time and is more important,” he says of the importance of behaviour over technology. He describes the company as now having a “collegiate” behaviour.
Henderson at Northcliffe concurs. “There has been resistance from the business, not from technology.” Luckily, both for the duo and for the company, Cohen and Henderson struck and immediate rapport. “Both of us arrived in the same month, which was luck rather than judgement, and we had no baggage or politics, so we had a meeting of minds,” Henderson says. As a result the two companies have been able to successfully collaborate on email, infrastructure and storage technology implementations. Northcliffe piloted Microsoft Sharepoint Server for the entire organisation, whilst Associated pioneered storage area networks, which have now been adopted across the business. “We have sped up the process of delivering systems and we can leverage their R&D,” Henderson says.
Although passionate about news and newspapers, Cohen is first and foremost a businessman. His role as CIO means he is responsible for IT across the entire company. “If there is one word on my lips, it’s collaboration. I have three jobs: group IT of nationals, CIO and I sit on the risk committee.” He sits on the last not because he is a CIO, but as an operations and process consultant; he is also on the digital forum, which looks at how the group co-operates. Cohen clearly relishes this wide-ranging remit and from our discussion I see it has given him a unique insight into the Associated business and its market. “Most CIOs don’t get to do all those things.” The people, the business and the product are what Cohen talks of with the most animation. He clearly knows his technology, but the triumvirate of people, business and product is the greatest challenge, and success. “CIOs have to be very good at reading the climate.”
On dealing with the business, you get a glimpse of the passionate Chelsea supporter. His views are solid and unmovable and not to be questioned. “If I hear someone say ‘business-IT alignment…’,” he tails off, reining in the penalty shoot-out tension. “Why are we still talking about this? As soon as you say alignment, you reinforce the separation. If you know the organisation, technology is the business, business is technology. Then you can start to do something interesting,” he says with more reservation. “You never get CFOs aligning, the only difference is that you are as good as your last failure. You have to deliver world-class service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is the job you are in.” Once a CIO is delivering world-class service the CIO can begin to be creative, “You can do things that no one else can do because no one else looks horizontally.” It’s enough to prevent Cohen from desiring to move up the greasy pole. “If I can do all this stuff as CIO, why would I want to be MD?”
When Cohen meets with his peers he talks yield, margin, reach and circulation. “They are the things that my customers live and breathe.” To meet the demands of yield, margin et al, Cohen says: “Flexibility has to be part of your vocabulary. You are a service provider, there is nothing wrong with this. Aknowledge what you do and bring value. Delivering bullet-proof service is part and parcel of the CI in CIO.”