Can’t we all get along?

Mickey Kaus describes a nightmare I lived through called the New Century Network.

Mickey suggests that newspapers follow a cable model and all get together and charge something for their content. I think that model won’t work and is all about trying too hard to remember what it was like when people paid you five cents for your papers. But that’s another discussion.

BB (before the bubble), nine of the largest newspaper companies decided to form a consortium-clubby thing called New Century Network to battle against the threat of Microsoft (what threat?). I thought that would have been a good idea if it has just been an ad network to get national dollars into local sites. But the members layered on ambitions like cream filling in a napoleon. They imagined — and I do mean imagined — elaborate schemes to create shared content templates and to build a kind of EU for membership.

It failed for one simple reason: The newspaper companies couldn’t get along. Newspapers all think they’re special (say that word in the inflection of SNL’s Church Lady).

Way back in time, my children, I was involved in bringing computers into newsrooms. My first was at the Tribune in 1974. The paper’s second system was an over-customized disaster so expensively horrendous that management dispatched its own Pulitzer-winning task force of investigative reporters to dig into why, creating a great read in how newspaper committees could not manage technology (among other things). The bottom line was that they neglected to give the system enough memory to operate or enough backup to operate safely because they wanted to spend their money on lots of special (say it that way again) features.

You see, the problem was that every newspaper thinks it’s different even though it’s not. They all hooked their graphs and put on their pants the same way, one at a time, but they all refused to admit that. They thought they’d each reinvented reporting and editing; working in geographic and monopolistic isolation probably fostered that way of thinking. So they each had to have their own special computer system. That continued in newspapers and magazines until the Mac came along (and I revolted at Time Inc. and, thanks to my brilliant wife [which, by the way, explains why we have brilliant kids], we produced Entertainment Weekly entirely on Macs, avoiding the odious corporate computer department and its system and more than $1 million a year in fees).

Newspapers also think they each reinvented the business of newspapers. That’s why they couldn’t make NCN work despite the best efforts of the staff. After it collapsed, a few of them banded together for various classified endeavors. But they all missed the trains roaring down the track getting ready to wreck them.

Who could have imagined that Google and Craigslist would be the real threats? Well, they should have.

And so, today, newspapers don’t have that national ad network and don’t have shared registration and don’t have a classified strategy and are saddled with their big, expensive presses and staffs while nimbler competitors fly right over them.

Now back to Mickey: Even before he ends his post, he wisely decides that maybe it’s not such a great idea to try to get newspapers together to charge for their content. He has been one of the most eloquent, along with Jay Rosen, criticizing TimesSelect (and I will admit that I read the columnists there less now that I know I can’t link to them). That’s why Mickey suggested that maybe getting everybody together to charge would be better (but he quickly sees the problems: you can’t charge enough so that, after sharing the take, it’s even worth the effort, not to mention the marketing expense… and besides, there are lots of nimble competitors zooming over who can tell you the news).

So he ends with just one suggestion: Can’t we at least have shared, one-time registration for all these damned local newspaper sites that each have to ask you the same questions to irritate you so you tell the same lies? I suggested that a dozen times, Mickey. I tried to get NCN to do just that. And when the AP wonders how it should help newspapers in their hour of need, I suggest that. Never happened.

You see, newspapers can’t get along. They think they’re special.

  • The fact that newspapers think they’re special is still leading to technological debacles. Our project aims to address a lot of those problems by creating a free and open-source set of tools for media, but it’s an uphill battle getting big boss-types to see past their blinders.

  • There ought to be open source standards for information exchange in the traditional print media. The standards should not be driven by hobbyists (i.e. RSS) but by the industries themselves.

  • Jane

    I recently completed a Harris survey from the Wall Street Journal. I gather the WSJ is looking to provide access/archives from all major newspapers and other non-web published sources (newsletters, industry perodicals). From the survey, it appeared they were contemplating charging $199 for up to 400 articles a year.

    I would certainly consider paying $199/year if and when the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Daily Telegraph, Newsweek, Christian Science Monitor also started placing their content behind a paid subscription. (I’d sign on just to get access to the Financial Times, assuming it was included. Currently, my employer pays for the WSJ.)

    My fear is that many households in this country and certainly many households in developing countries cannot afford to access paid content. This would be a shame. I think the worlds stands gain if a Venezuelan can read an article on what went dreadfully wrong in Zimbabwe’s land reform or what went right in Malaysia’s refusal to follow orthodox IMF remedies.

  • Jeff – So here’s a question. When one of the largest newspaper chains – Knight Ridder – is bouhgt out by private equity shops, will that improve or degrade their clarity on fixing some of this. It certainly is not “too late” – whil evalue has eroded, the newspapers still have hefty audiences, brands and cash. A cashflow-oriented owner will probably be less fun for the newsrooms, at least at first, but will they punch down some of the “special” walls in order to make their bet work.

  • Tolman:
    Or the fear is that a private equity firm would bleed it try… or would not buy in the first place once they realize that newspapers can only shrink.
    (Click on the Rosen link above.)

  • Or rather, this Rosen link.

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  • NewspaperMan

    I’ve worked for a major newspaper for over 20 years, and the self-serving “specialness” attitude you describe is an overpowering, stifling weight that infuses every conversation, meeting and committee throughout the paper. Whether it’s editorial or business matters, “no one does it like we do” is the oft-repeated refrain.

    This drives some of us, well, nuts. We buy and sell a product–gathering news and ads and putting them into a package that is meant to serve readers and advertisers. HOW we do that internally is less relevant than the fact that it needs to be done (I’m a big believer in the notion that a newspaper helps contribute to the community, civics, etc.) But as you’ve often said, if we don’t satisfy and serve these readers and advertisers in our present form, our “specialness” won’t help us survive.

    The ability to figure this out, and fast, is not especially promising, given the industry’s lack of cooperation and trust among its members.

  • Newspaperperson:
    Well and strongly said.
    Yes, and when you dare not to recite the cultish cant, you’re marked as suspect, eh?
    When I left a newspapering company, a friend and colleague from years past emailed and just said, well, it’s no wonder considering what I say about newspapers. Marked man, me.
    So be careful behind the walls.

  • Kate said: “My fear is that many households in this country and certainly many households in developing countries cannot afford to access paid content. This would be a shame.”

    Maybe that content wouldn’t exist if jounalists couldn’t be paid to create it because of a lack of subscription revenue. Hopefully the journalists in developing countries will subscribe, maybe at a discount, and spread the ideas, if not the exact words, on to their readers with the benefit local context.

  • Jane

    CJR Article Nov. 2005
    The good news for newspapers in this country is that they make good money. … the weighted average of profit margins for the newspaper divisions of major media companies was 13 percent in 1991. It had climbed to nearly 20 percent last year — more than double the average profit margin of the Fortune 500.

    1) This industry needs to learn how to thrive on profit margins that are decidely less than double the average of the Fortune 500.
    2) This industry needs to harness technology to reduce costs without sacrificing the quality of their content. (I live in a college town. A letter to the editor today described how the university is hiring 16 administrative types at $144k/year while greatly expanding the percentage of part-time academics who are paid 40% of the compensation currently paid to f/t professors and w/o benefits. Guess what is going to suffer? I suspect the special people in the MSM also misallocate funds.)
    3) There will always be subscribers. I climb in bed with the New Yorker not with my laptop. And, I do prefer the print version of the WSJ and I routinely pick up magazines. Subscription rates simply won’t grow at the rates that had been previously forecasted. The task at hand is to keep the subscription rates currently in place.
    4) We’re a nation of news junkies. They’ll figure this out.

    I still think an individual in a foreign country should be able to access our media without filters or have articles subject to interpretation by local journalists. Sometimes, items of importance get lost in translation. Other times, local journalists may not be able to get stories published.

  • “Can’t we at least have shared, one-time registration for all these damned local newspaper sites?”

    Why, no! Think of the loss to their pinpoint accurate advertising! Their ads for specials at the local mall are so tempting, I would imagine people are jumping into airplanes all across the land to take advantage of them!