An interview with John Paton, Chairman of The Independent and The Evening Standard

Interview   –   24 February 2021

Media pioneer turned investor, digital savant and ‘happy warrior’, John Paton, sat down with us to share some wisdom from his illustrious career and charmed us incessantly along the way.

Taking his love of newspapers from his father, John joined Sun Media in Toronto as a Copy Clerk and rose up through the ranks to become Editor-in-Chief. He has subsequently led media companies across the globe including founding Digital First Media, the second largest newspaper company in the US at the time with over $1.2 billion in revenue, where he was CEO until 2015.

He also has quite the skill for spotting the right talent in others. He not only advises start-ups but is a proven investor through IVA ventures – the firm he grew and abbreviated from ‘Incubate, Validate and Accelerate’. And speaking with him, you can see exactly why those words were the ones that hit home for him. Being a natural leader with a commitment to technology and journalism as well as the next generation leading its charge, we felt John was the ideal person to talk to about talent in this arena.

John now finds himself in the UK more than ever, having been appointed Chairman of the Board for the Independent and the Evening Standard newspapers. In a fiscal year, that runs from October to September (a year largely stained with Covid), September 2020 showed revenue was up 12% and profit up 18%. 4 months into the ‘new year’ and revenue is up 29% and profit is up 50%. John also finds the time to advise the Home Office as a Non-Executive Director.

 

John, you describe yourself as a ‘happy warrior’. We’d love to hear more about that phrase.

The ‘happy warrior’ is not meant to be macho in anyway. I think it’s also found in buddhism and it means to be excited about what you’re doing and be able to rise to the challenge with enthusiasm which is ultimately what I try to do.

I think that’s important when you’re rescuing or building companies - and my career has been in both realms.  Newspapers and news organisations, which are my passion, were immensely challenged by the invention of the web browser but it brought with it an enormous amount of opportunities as well and if you don’t have that positive ‘happy warrior’ outlook then you can’t be a truly effective leader.

 

When you were approached about Chairing the Independent, what went through your mind?

Well to be honest it was both a very personal and professional thing. I was approached the same month my father was dying and I had said on the first approach that I wasn’t interested although I admired it massively.

My father had started in newspapers and it was a shared love. I had flown back to Canada to see him and he said to me sitting at the kitchen table ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and I said ‘What do you mean? You know what I do. I invest in companies I’m interested in and sit on Boards’ and he said ‘You’re a newspaper man. You love that. Go do that.’

I came back to Europe and I called them back and said, ‘Is that job still going?’…


And now you’re there, how does it feel? 

I had been yelling into the wilderness for over 15 years that if we did not put all our efforts into digital then we’d die as an industry and I think I proved that right in the UK and US where you see traditional news organisations struggling.

It’s not that I thought you had to undo print, but print was no longer the premium offering, hence Digital First.

The first time I said that at a conference in India in 2008 I said, ‘Digital First’ then I paused and said, ‘Print Last’ and then I was nearly blinded by flash bulbs. 

The Independent had the courage to do exactly that and in their case, they had this stellar brand, started in the 80s, which was all about putting out a truly independent newspaper and its fortunes were up and down, mostly down, as a print product. They took this courageous leap to become smaller to get bigger by going all digital. They did that in March of 2016 and they have been profitable every year since they’ve done that and growing their top line every year.

It’s digital and nimble and people are online more than ever before. That commitment to digital works - if ever there was a group of happy warriors it’s at the Independent.

 

Bearing in mind the talent challenges that face the industry and from what you’ve had to overcome at the Independent. Do you need Journalists first and Digital second or do they need to go hand-in-hand?

I think that’s a really excellent question. The technology without the journalism doesn’t mean anything. The same tech can distribute, analyse and monetise anything. It’s why I don’t use the word ‘content’ if I can help it. Content for me means cargo and there are all sorts of cargo. Some are valuable, some aren’t.

Journalism is an expensive form of cargo if you want to call it that. And there’s a particular commitment involved. What’s important about bringing talent into an organisation like the Independent and indeed any news organisation moving forward, is the understanding of the way that the digital ecosystem works has to be second nature to those journalists and the editors working with the journalists. It has to be in their DNA and then they can focus on the journalism.

Talented journalists with digital in their DNA from the outset will be thinking about how a story will be presented because it’s all digital. For example, the interactive maps and the beautiful work the New York Times has done with covid maps. Those sorts of things are designed and implemented by journalists where digital is second nature.

Where most of the industry is now – leveraging an old model into a new model just doesn’t work.

 

For people coming into the industry where ‘digital is in their DNA’…. Where does that come from? Is it just that someone has grown up with that or do they need to do something active?

It’s twofold. You don’t expect every journalist who is currently working and who is less digitally savvy to not be able to do their job. There are multiple platforms for them.

The old-fashioned way to think about this is the ‘train the trainers’ model. Hire in those experts who embue the company and management teams with the particular set of skills required and the way of thinking. You then need to offer a huge amount of training and retraining to get that embedded and so you can see this with the Independent. When they went digital it wasn’t steeped in digital skills, it was a company that had been slowly building out its digital proposition to the point where they felt they could take the risk.

Making that transformation, the smaller set of staff that were left were the very best people in digital.

 

Going forwards, what can you see the people challenges being?

We talk a lot about this and ‘do we have the right skills and what new skills do we need?’.

For example, advertising is growing every year but the portion of the pie that news organisations live on is actually shrinking. Ecommerce has fast become the big thing and we are looking at driving people from our website to another and getting commercial wins from that. It’s a fine line but there are a bunch of commercial skills needed to be successful in that.

What we are speaking about more is the mindset and culture of the people we bring in. If you are working in a digital company then it’s important to realise change is constant. People have often said to me ‘you’re so up for change’. A lot of people say that they are because they feel they must but they’re not actually comfortable with it.

Print, during my 40-year career has moved almost not at all – the basic technology remains the same. But even in the next 5 years, digital will completely change - as it always does.

I meet a lot of people when I’m investing who are very open to change. X isn’t working so let’s pivot to Y. You don’t find that a lot in established corporate structures. It’s about bringing in the people who are extremely comfortable with a fluid situation because it is about to become even more fluid in our industry for sure.

 

Do you need to get everything in one person – do you need to have that commercial edge even as a journalist?

Not at the start but eventually you need that person to have everything. You bring in good talent for a reason and eventually they need to have those skills.

Most of my time as a journalist, editor and then EIC – I really had to understand how production and distribution worked. For example, when I was in Canada, you kind of knew it was hard to put your newspaper out without the hockey score of the home team that night. You knew that if that game went into overtime, you’re pushing your deadline and you knew you’d have to start rearranging trucks to go furthest out first so that you had fewer papers with no score printed and most papers with the score printed.

And all those things you had to know but we didn’t talk about it, we just got on with it.

So you might be a journalist first and foremost but it was just a given you knew the distribution system and the commercial implications surrounding story decisions.

 

What would be your advice to the next generation of talent coming into media organisations?

Be your own brand.

In my day it was very difficult to be your own brand and stand out because the means of production were held by newspapers or broadcasters but that’s not true anymore.

If I was going into it today, I’d ensure my brand was as big as the company I worked for or eventually as big as the place I worked because I would then have the freedom to pursue my work on my own terms as much as possible.

Up and coming talent that I know, who understand technology and how audiences are created and monetised are not going to put up with poorly run companies because they have high expectations from a modern-day organisation.

If you work somewhere where your leader isn’t happy to come in every day and convince a Board or group of shareholders to invest more in journalism or technological change then get the hell out of there because it doesn’t have a future.

Media has always been about the future. We’re always talking about what happened today or yesterday and if you’re good at it the impact being beyond yesterday and today. Work with people and a company with the same sort of attitude.

It goes towards how I feel about talent and bringing in talent. Almost every company is just a collection of people - there are certain core assets and resources but mostly companies are people. If that collection of people isn’t the right mix and are not up to the challenge with heavy doses of future facing enthusiasm, then you don’t have a company.

In my field of investing in ventures as well – I’m always looking at the teams beyond the technology. Technology can always be challenged, built or not built, but it’s all about the resilience of the team.

 

What does the future hold for you, John?

I come to things to make them better and then I look for the next great challenge - so for me I want to explore how media informs and adds value to every company. Every company has the ability to become a media company because of the ability to mass publish by themselves, so understanding the data implications of that is fascinating to me.

The core business of media is always going to be my passion, but I’m interested in how that affects very large corporations that aren’t media companies because they now know that they have to have that understanding of media and data in this day and age.

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