The delicate balance of ROI

BalanceofROII’m one of those journalistic idealists enamored of the promise of Vox Media and Re/code. When Vox’s acquisition of Re/code was announced this past week, I focused on the strategic aspects in terms of content and competencies.

But then, Brown fired back in an email:

What do you think about all the VC money Vox has taken? I’m a little torn about how much money these sites are getting. It’s great — but what does it mean for the long haul?

RecodeShe pointed me to a Fortune piece by Mathew Ingram that raises valid questions of the journalist-as-brand myth. Can big-name journalists such as Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher really make it on their own, without the big media backing? Or, as Brown pointed out, without the VC funding?

Part of thinking strategically requires a pragmatic focus on the bottom line: What kind of return on investment (ROI) are you providing for your shareholders, whether you are a publicly traded company or a privately held firm funded by venture capitalists? (Ken Doctor does an excellent job evaluating the deal’s economics at Nieman Journalism Lab and sees the Re/code deal as part of a wave of coming acquisitions.)

Years ago, as a business reporter in Arkansas, I wrote a series of stories about the possible acquisition of one of the state’s largest bank-holding companies. The stock price had begun moving, and the company had issued a boilerplate press release that noted the possibility of selling. As I wrote analysis pieces about the strategic implications of a sale, the CEO reminded me of his primary imperative: to maximize shareholder value.

When I analyze company strategies, I extend that question out: Are you trying to maximize value over the long term? I’m driven by Michael Porter’s distinction between operational effectiveness (trimming costs and running an efficient organization) and strategic positioning (providing a unique product/service in the marketplace that differentiates your organization).

Pixar ran at a loss for years before figuring out a business model that worked. People scratched their heads initially at Google’s $1.65 billion purchase of YouTube, wondering how it would turn that asset into something profitable. Amazon had its bumps before becoming the Web’s department store. But in each case, key executives believed in the quality of the idea and invested the time and resources to develop the competencies to make their companies profitable.

In the case of publicly traded companies, it’s tempting — and  demanded in many corners — to focus on the quarterly results, on that short-term stock-price gain. But consistent cuts and layoffs that may appease the markets can have disastrous long-term implications at the levels of culture and innovation.

Employees become frustrated, and burnout rises. They become skeptical of the Next Big Initiative (e.g. Gannett’s regular cycle of re-creating its newsrooms with new configurations and job titles), especially when people are consistently asked to do more with less. And they are less willing to take risks — especially ones that don’t guarantee a large return on investment.

For innovation to thrive, it requires investing in research and development, and accepting a certain degree of risk. The challenge for media companies — especially the threatened mid-sized ones Ingram highlights — is that there often isn’t enough left for substantial investment in risky new ideas.