AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   June/July 2008

Belo's Change Agent   

By Roxana Hadadi

When it comes to innovation, Laura Gordon subscribes to the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup method.

"You never knew chocolate and peanut butter taste good together, and it's an entirely different thing from when they're separate," Gordon says. "And that concept is similar to how I like to bring things together internally. It's not any one idea, it is how they come together to make something new."

That theory of bringing various components together to form new, unique things is the way Gordon, recently named chief innovation officer of the Dallas Morning News, looks at her career. She clocked in time as vice president of marketing and product development at Paris Presents, which produces and distributes its own cosmetics. She managed various brands at Unilever Home and Personal Care, the company responsible for Pond's, Slim Fast, Vaseline and other products.

But her formal introduction into the newspaper industry came in 2002, when she signed on with the Morning News as managing director of new product development. Dallas and the newspaper world were not completely new to her, though. Her grandfather, Sam Bloom, was an ad executive at the Dallas Times Herald before starting his own agency; he was posthumously named to the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1990. Her father, Robert Bloom, is the retired U.S. chairman of the global marketing agency Publicis; and her brother, also Sam Bloom, is with Camelot Communications in Dallas.

Now, six years later – with a number of successful offshoot Web sites, tabloids and publications for the paper under her belt – Gordon will oversee collaborations between the News and its two sister Belo newspapers, the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California, and the Providence Journal, guiding them through ways to analyze their audiences and reach untapped readership. The role gives her a new staff, new responsibilities and a new vision.

For Gordon, working with the other newspapers is the part of the job she's most looking forward to. "The exciting part of the job, to me, is that this new role allows me to interact more with the other two newspaper properties, and I think that there will be a lot of learning as we share ideas, because we have very different talents, skill sets and markets," Gordon says. "But in some ways, we all have a consistent set of issues that, if we can put our heads together, we can make some solutions."

Gordon also retains her title as senior vice president of marketing for the News, a job that overlaps with the chief innovation officer position in "the area of audience and branding solutions for those audiences," she says. However, the two jobs also have a number of differences – as vice president of marketing, she will continue focusing strictly on the News and how it can expand to meet its readers' needs. As chief innovation officer, Gordon will oversee a team that will figure out how to connect with readers in Dallas, Riverside and Providence, each a market with its own audience specifics.

"We may have a team of people, for example, looking at the opportunity for Hispanic readers, so my role there would be to make sure that we've done a segmentation of the market that identifies not only the consumer responsibilities but also the advertiser responsibilities; looking to see what else exists in the market from a competitive standpoint; and making sure some member of the innovation team would be partnered with whatever part of the organization that would be most likely to take this from an implementation standpoint to investment," Gordon explains.

The innovation team is a "cross-functional" group of staffers that will focus on reaching out to readers and advertisers with whom the News or other papers haven't yet connected, Gordon says.

It may seem complicated, News Publisher Jim Moroney says, but the need to connect with new audiences is imperative.

"Any business that finds itself in a mature stage – a mature life stage – needs innovation, and I think the ink-on-paper business is clearly in the mature part of its life cycle," he says. "The industry needs to be focused on innovation as a way to extend the life and vitality of a company.... And I think we're just taking a page out of what many companies have done successfully, which is really to create more of an innovation culture in the company."

Since arriving at the News, Gordon has helped launch F!D luxe, a monthly high-end fashion publication; Quick, a daily tabloid geared toward 18-to-34-year-olds (launched in just 12 days); and Neighborsgo, a community news- centered publication available both online and in print at Starbucks locations in the Dallas area.

The News has also reached out to Dallas' large Hispanic community with Al Día, a daily newspaper printed entirely in Spanish that launched in 2003. Moroney is quick to point out that Al Día is "not a translated copy of the Dallas Morning News, but a paper that originates much of its own content."

In the future, Gordon plans to tap into the senior market, launch more products for the Hispanic community and conduct more "experimenting," such as creating a Morning News blog that connects local foodies with restaurants that serve locally grown products.

Creating that "innovation culture" means busy days for Gordon, who reports directly to Moroney as "another way of saying to our company that this is a very, very high priority, and an important part of who we are and who we have to be," he says.

Each week, Gordon meets with the innovation team and various content teams, such as business or arts and entertainment, which focus on figuring out how to reach those markets. Gordon also talks with Riverside and Providence regularly to "understand what those folks are working on," she says. And she's not against dropping in – she's already visited Riverside and will go to Providence soon. But even during hours spent away from the office – when she enjoys reading, cooking and spending time with her children – Gordon often finds herself unable to stop thinking about interesting ways to reach new readers.

"I have two kids, 5 and 13, so when you talk about free time, there is no such thing," Gordon says. "But I would say there is a great deal of energy in this building around change, and I go home and I'm thinking about what happened during the day and it's hard to turn it off, because I think this is very exciting."

And she's ready to tackle the job. "You ask the question 'What is the philosophy of innovation?' and I think if we were to characterize that for you, what I would say [is] it's a way of taking what we do well, but through a process of doing it more often and more focused on customer needs, and I think that's the challenge that Jim has given me," Gordon says. "To bring that kind of process not only into the specific projects that the innovation team will be working on, but to try and begin and turn the whole organization around that process, even on our existing products. And I think that focus, on the customer's needs, is a very important part of that."

And what does Moroney say to those who may label the role of chief innovation officer as nothing more than a glorified marketing director?

"I think what's really critical and important to this is that you have a person like a Laura Gordon, who has experience outside of the newspaper industry in terms of launching new products. Though she had never worked in the newspaper business, she brought to us the same successful processes that are used in the consumer products world, such as relying on good, solid audience research to launch new products," Moroney says. "I think that's really important for newspaper companies to bring some of that outside experience.

"And in that way, I think it has to be a cultural transformation of the process, to embrace the value of innovation, and if you can't get the whole organization to embrace that idea, you probably won't really get the kind of results that you would otherwise get."

Roxana Hadadi (rhadadi@ajr.umd.edu) wrote about the new Web site The Root in AJR's April/May issue.