Restructuring The Times

So The New York Times Company is now worth less than it paid for the disastrous Boston Globe. It has cut its dividend to save cash, which – PR protestations aside – could lead to a family revolt, a la Wall Street Journal, LA Times, and Orange County Register.

The Times Company – just like GM – has to undergo a radical restructuring and fast. That’s heresy in both cases. Both are Institutions. They were presumed to be immutable and eternal, even holy. They’re not.

In the current credit market, taking the company private – though cheap at $900 million market cap plus existing debt – is difficult if not unlikely. Sale? Simon Cast has wondered whether Guardian Media Group – backed by the Scott Trust – should buy The Times Company. I fear that the ballast of The Times could bring down the good ship Guardian. Selling off assets? Not now. There is no white knight.

The Times is indeed a national treasure and a national necessity. As local media become more local, we will have only The Times covering the nation and the world with the Washington Post covering the nation, mostly, and the Wall Street Journal vying to compete. Look at London, where the Guardian, the Times, and the Telegraph, at the high end, compete to cover the world. Three quality national papers do the job well. Germany, France, and other nations also depend on national papers. I have confidence that our three papers could do the job. The Brits are lucky to also have the BBC; CNN has pretensions to fulfill its role here and elsewhere but it’s more a pretender; our broadcast network news operations are weak tea. No, we need The Times.

So how would you restructure it? (Please spare us the kneejerk kicks to The Times’ groin. We’ve heard them all.)

In March – when it would have been easier to sell assets and accomplish change – I made my suggestions for restructuring:

I’d spin off New York metro as a separate product and turn The Times into a national – and international – service and brand purely. The metro product would have a big staff, a small audience in the city, and thus a difficult P&L, but this shift would take much of the staff cost of the newsroom off the books of the national product and let it focus is work. The three national papers should compete for links – even share revenue for them – in a reverse syndication model. In addition, I’d create curated content and ad networks independent sites (it has a start in its relationship with Freakonomics); The Times or Post or Journal could build the high-quality Glam of news. The Times newsroom should be rebuilt from zero for its new structure, emphasizing national coverage and digital. The Globe should be drastically restructured, sloughing off its print and distribution businesses. I’d now say it should make the leap and shift completely online. That is, turn off the presses. In March, I said they should sell other assets. Too late now.

But that probably doesn’t go far enough. How would you rethink The Times?

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society robertdfeinman

    I’d partner with an electronics firm to create a usable ebook reader that could download the Times (and other publications) automatically overnight.

    It would need a high resolution, full color, screen which should be big enough to show the average book page a full size. If the technology was developed enough, perhaps magazine page size could be accommodated. I see many people holding their laptops on the train so a light weight reader would now be acceptable to more people.

    Then I’d price the publication so that there was a big incentive to buy it electronically instead of the paper version. I’d also set up a scheme similar to the cell phones where the reader was subsidized by the cost of the subscription to get more of them into the hands of readers.

    To make the deal more popular I’d also partner with many other publications, just as Apple has done with its music store.

    Once the newspapers and magazines get out of the dead tree business their costs will drop significantly and they may even find that the number of subscribers increases – especially if they come up with a bite-sized pricing scheme for individual stories, or sections or some other way not to have to buy the whole thing.

    I don’t know what this would do to their present advertising mindset. This morning I threw out, yet another, gloss magazine insert aimed at over-indulgence, this one was all jewelery. Under my scheme I’d never see this section, and I’m sure advertisers would be unhappy. Of course, I never see it now, they just don’t realize that…

  • http://cloudculturecontent.blogspot.com Adam

    Forgive me, but I your case for the Times being a “national necessity” is far from persuasive.

    No knee-jerk kicks intended here, simply an observation: if the Times is indeed filling a valuable role, then the day and age we live in makes it all the easier for someone else to crop up and take their place should they fall.

    The Times is just one institution. If it cannot save itself, I am dubious that we will be worse off as a result.

  • Tyler

    I’m an avid reader of the Times’ online content and I’m constantly struck by how much white space the articles have, especially compared to other news sites. If as many people are viewing the site as I’ve been led to believe they should be able to make themselves more attractive to advertisers… an AdSense-type system where the ads reflect the content (Fandango for movie reviews, for example) could quite possibly correct that.

    As far as physical newspapers, I’ve been wondering if a print-exclusive ‘weekly newspaper’ might work… just the Sunday Times, for example. I doubt this would work for a standard-bearer like the Times but it would be an interesting experiment, perhaps a ‘spin-off.’ Granted, I’m basically just envisioning The New Yorker.

  • Lannie

    I have to agree with Adam that I do not believe the Times is a national necessity. I fully believe that if the times and other newspapers go under the journalism that is considered necessary (fourth estate) will survive in another format.

  • Sarah Becker

    If the NY Times can find a way to file Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy, I know about 80 million people that would dance in the streets. NYT is, in a word, unAmerican with its lies.

  • invitedmedia

    sorry to say but the times is no different than detroit, the banking and insurance industry, airlines before them, steel, textiles, etc.

    they’ll be pitching for bailout $$$ just like detroit under the guise of keeping people employed.

    if we’re really going to “reinvent america” we’ll have to resist the urge to do anything of the sort.

  • http://interimtom.blogspot.com tom matrullo

    Before any technical moves will help, the Times will need to learn that its road to the giant bag of money in the sky lies through divorcing itself from real estate, advertising, and every business and marketing consideration. Essentially it should reconstitute itself as a news organization with moral and epistemological integrity, and spin its forests and printing operations and other assets off to someone who understands business. Set up a blind trust to administer residual income flows.

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  • http://www.jaqkapparel.com/home/ samdrigby

    “I’d partner with an electronics firm to create a usable ebook reader that could download the Times (and other publications) automatically overnight.”

    This is an interesting concept; the Kindle and other readers are clearly the wave of the future as book consumption is concerned.

    But I think there’s a question of viability for paid daily, weekly and monthly subscriptions to be delivered on the Kindle, especially for newspapers, that continues to go unanswered. I understand the argument for this sort of reader is its portability and accessibility (after initial purchase of course) compared to the computer and its ability to download whatever you’ve subscribed to through 3G networks (I think this is how the Kindle works?), but the question remains, if I can read the New York Times for free everyday online, even if I owned a Kindle, why would I buy it on a newsstand or pay $13.99/month to have it on my Kindle?

    (For me, the only answers are because I haven’t yet ponied up for the online crossword service, and because winding up with ink all over my fingers brings me back to the splendor of my finger-painting days.)

    If you’re saying that the Times should have their own reader and have it not be available on other devices like the Kindle, I think many would argue that while they may make some money off of those sales, it’s going to limit readership, and it doesn’t solve the problem of those who read online for free. (Note: perhaps this argument is showing my naivete about the profits of actual print editions, but I digress.)

    I’m not sure what, if anything, will return the Times to its glory years. I don’t know enough about advertising to speak towards the differences in that area between print and online. How plausible is it to make a paper completely available online? I feel as though shutting down print completely, even for a regional paper, is still a bit of time off, no? Isn’t there still a sizeable population of people who read the print edition everyday. Surely, online-only papers will make more money, because they’ll cut back their staffs, but (cue The Wire Season 5) wont that produce inferior product?

    My question: why hasn’t the Times looked into entirely different types of media? I like the Times and it is important, but other than Freakanomics and the Caucus, what has the Times done to enhance its online presence since it established its website?

  • http://www.speak-tome.com Ted Murphy

    Well, if I were in charge of the NYT, I wouldn’t be thinking big picture at all.

    Glancing at NYT’s 10Q tells the story. Advertising revenues have fallen -14% while raw material costs have gone up 7%. Wages and benefits have dropped a steep 9%, but that hasn’t been enough to avoid red ink even on an operating basis.

    http://sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/71691/000110465908069134/a08-25698_110q.htm

    NYT has got to cut, cut, cut their expenses. The advances in remote technology have opened up opportunities for cost cutting that they haven’t even begun to tap into. They could cut expenses in half and still deliver a comparable product.

    This is not Tribune — Tribune shows $11 b in debt. NYT has $1.1 b in debt. Tribune is hopeless, not so the NYT. At least financially.

  • http://www.patrickyen.com Patrick Yen

    I have way too many ideas to list.

    I wish I could share them here, but realistically,
    I can no longer afford to give away my ideas for free.

    If the Times wants to hear my ideas, they should contact me.
    My rates are very reasonable.

    Seriously, I’m sitting on a huge mountain of original ideas here.
    No bullshit.

  • toivo

    I would start an entertainment company (movies, sitcom, documentaries etc). The newspapers are entertainment + information providers. They are bad at being information providers.

  • http://meanbusiness.com smcnally

    Jeff’s talking about actionable ideas here. There are new business models The Times could work toward not just to “save itself,” but to evolve.

    – Focused products
    – Outsourcing and partnering on the creation and distribution of content
    – Reaching beyond in-house to buy and sell ads
    – Finding new streams of revenue

    It will take new thinking about products, the workforce, stewardship, journalism and where they sit – or stand – in that mix.

    It’s not only about ideas; there are a lot of smart people with great ideas at The Times. It’s about picking some and working to make them happen. And it’s about how much runway’s left to do it.

  • kindle user

    Don’t knock NYT on the Kindle. It’s the best way to read it. You can take it in the subway like a book and have many issues, downloaded while you sleep. And it’s cheaper than print but better organized than a web site. I wish it had a better design and was cheaper.

  • MrEdd

    “The Times is indeed a national treasure and a national necessity. ”

    The times is a certainly no treasure. It’s just a newspaper, like thousands of others. It has it’s arrogant pretentiousness that some have bought into so that they might pretend that reading their paper makes them more elite than someone else. But pretentiousness is all that is or ever was.

    The Times is a necessity (national or otherwise) in the same way that livery stables were once a necessity. Every place once needed them. Demand made it sure that someone would open one. But their day is gone and nothing is going to bring the market for them back on any grand scale.

  • http://sellingprint.blogspot.com Michael Josefowicz

    I’m with MrEdd on this one. It’s the same arrogance that the GM executives have demonstrated both in their business and their demeanor. The Times folks can’t seem to figure out how to coexist in a world where “above the fold” no longer defines the news. Sorry that’s gone. They’ll have to stop wearing the emperor’s clothes and get real, like everyone else.

    If the problem is making money. Sell printing, mailing and delivery logistics. That’s a defensible advantage. Or do shoppers. That’s working pretty well all over the place.

    If the problem is being a newspaper. Then start being the newspaper they always pretended they were. No more Judith Miller. Some real national news instead of trying to define that day’s buzz.

    On the tech front. Cut the daily to 24 pages. Put links to summaries on line. Then put out a weekly with customized content for subscription. I like education. Give me a weekly pub with best education stories. Do that, and I’ll give you money. Or sell paperback books in real time with the good investigative journalism they often produce.

    They already have lots of extra capacity in the pressroom. Why not use the long manfacturing tail to produce books that people will buy. Or how about they go into the textbook business and do real time paperbacks that connect daily events around the world with history, economics and anthropology and eliminate the textbook industry, which is one of the next ones to fall.

    It’s a stratgey is knowing what not to do problem. SO.. stop trying to create the phony glory they acheived in a previously protected market and selling advertising in a world that no one knew jif advertising worked anyway.

  • http://www.patrickyen.com/resume.html Patrick Yen

    Oh, the bittersweet smell of revolution..

    Okay, here’s what I really think, the Times is going to go out of business unless they hire me to restructure their organization.

    Seriously, I’ve called out trend after trend after trend before this all happened in the news market, consistently. I warned of all this years ago.

    Most of my ideas have actually never been published, nor have I published my best work. I made a conscious effort years ago to stop publishing my best ideas & material unless somebody paid me for them. If you’re familiar with any of my work online, then you’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg.

    I have a lot of solutions to the problems that the Times if facing.
    If they’re smart, then the Times will hire me to restructure their organization.

    If they’re not smart, they will go out of business.

  • Jonathan

    Jeff:

    I appreciate you continuing to bring up this topic, but — with deep and due respect — I don’t think we’re making much progress on getting to viable models.

    So, let’s start by cataloging what we’re considering. Let me know if I missing anything, but I think there are three basic ideas that have been floated on this blog, Fred Wilson’s, Dave Winer’s, and Doc Searles':

    1. Taking NYTimes non-profit

    2. Reducing the size of the NYTimes organization (to be more in line with its shrinking revenue opportunities)

    3. ‘Spinning off’ the editorial talent of the NYTimes into an About.com/ad-plus-navigation network

    A few points before getting your feedback on what I’m leaving out:

    * Note that 1 and 2 aren’t necessarily incompatible with 3. Both 1 and 2 probably involve a pretty drastic reduction of the newsroom, and that might lead to the ‘spun off’ journalists being re-engaged through a pay-for-performance/About.com network model.

    * There are a wide number of *additional* revenue models that can also be considered, from a speakers bureau to consulting network to product endorsement to e-book/e-commerce to e-learning/e-lectures. I think these are probably worth examining, and even the most controversial should be considered. I don’t consider them separate scenarios, because they are possible in all three strategies.

    * In all three scenarios, we agree that there will still need to be asset sales.

    Anyway, just to move the conversation forward, I wanted to try to identify the real strategic options.

  • http://www.aaa.bbb/ Jon

    1) Sell their current advertising base – probably the best-paying in the world, right? – into going online with them.
    2) Give up the pretense of objectivity, and use that to:
    3) Cut WAY down on editing – just proofread and enforce sourcing standards (yeah, even on Hersh). First, it costs gobsola of money. Second, it’s limiting NYT’s output to the understanding and willingness to accept surprises of a man specializing in journalism and living in safety in NYC. Editors also generally jigger-up at least a few stories every day to make them more worrisome than they really are. That’d free the Times’ excellent staff to do ther jobs alot better and bring far more facts to the pages.
    4) Is there

    Not that there’s the slightest chance of any serious reform will happen unless alot of top mgt are changed; the board clearly isn’t as unhappy enough to do that – as they should be. NYT is the GM of its day, not even being willing to think more than the least about keeping up with the slimmer and better competition of its day.

    Don’t forget McClatchy’s nice, newish national offering. It’s how papers OUGHTTA be. It’s gotten this longtime wapo-reader away, by their great Gitmo investigation, properly skeptical election-machine coverage, and a commitment to facts over made-up worry.

  • Jonathan

    @Jon – Okay, that’s one of the options – a reduced newsroom at a for-profit newspaper. In my summary, I listed that as #2: “Reducing the size of the NYTimes organization (to be more in line with its shrinking revenue opportunities.”

    Jeff’s proposal of spinning of the local/metro reporting (into an even less profitable NYC paper) is a version of that idea.

  • http://sellingprint.blogspot.com Michael Josefowicz

    here’s something I found at http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/2008/11/bottom-line-how-it-fares-when-you-nuke.html

    Excerpt:
    So if we owned a newspaper and wanted to consider a nice nuclear blast to position themselves for the future, today or soon, what would the aftermath look like?

    Here’s my suggestion: drop Monday and Tuesday, consolidate Wednesday and Thursday (for delivery Wednesday), drop Friday, and consolidate Saturday and Sunday (for delivery Saturday). So, a twice-weekly Wednesday and Saturday paper.

  • toivo

    @Michael

    why not just a (fat) weekly?

  • http://newsafternewspaper.blogspot.com Martin Langeveld

    That’s me Michael’s linking to.
    As I said in that post and a more recent one, if non-daily publication is indicated, different markets will have different solutions. Papers that are now considering dropping Monday should certainly run the numbers on just going directly to once, twice or three times a week. And there are other options.

    For the Times, drawing freely on ideas already suggested, plus my own, my model would be:
    1. Continue to push publication of content online first and foremost. Everyone must “get” that they now work for NYTimes.com, not a printed newspaper.
    2. Discontinue the national edition. This is analogous to the CS Monitor dropping their daily edition. As part of this, get out of the Globe’s back yard and discontinue the New England edition. Push all those non-metro readers online.
    3. Create a New York region free commuter “Metro” published Mon-Fri; drop all other daily print except:
    4. Publish on Saturday a weekend package incorporating parts of the existing Sunday and weekday extra sections and a lot of repurposed content from the site. No breaking news, but, perhaps, longer investigative stuff, longer analysis, and features. Charge a premium for classifieds that want to be in print; make online classifieds free (with paid upgrades).
    5. Farm out all printing and distribution; be a truly digital business.
    6. Consider going private by spinning off the Globe, regional dailies, and the printing operations.
    7. Consider spinning off the Metro and Sunday publications into separate entities as well so they can focus on NY metro advertising, including a regional TMC product.

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com Martin Langeveld

    Sorry, I borked my own blog link in the prior post. Click on my name here.

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  • http://sellingprint.blogspot.com Michael Josefowicz

    @ Martin.
    Makes lots of sense.
    Do you have any opinion of the idea that they could explore the idea of going after the “textbook” market and sell directly to schools. The notion is that textbooks are broken and that a regular publication that leverages the journalist talent in place to put news events in an historical and/or economic context.