The Times better change

The other day, when I noted that the hedge fund breathing down the necks of the NY Times Company board and management had acquired as much stock as the Sulzberger family, I said that strategic change in the company is inevitable and I asked you what you’d do with the business. Here are some of my answers:

* I fear it’s too late to sell the Boston Globe (which just announced more buyouts). Bet they’re kicking themselves now. Jack Welch was interested in taking it off their hands in 2006, when it was valued at $500-600 million — down from the $1.1 billion the Times Company paid for it in 1993; the Times just wrote-down the value of the Globe and a sister company by more than $800 million. Whoopsie daisy. I doubt they can sell the thing today.

So I would make the most radical restructuring of a newspaper anywhere in the world and use that as a laboratory for the Times itself and for other newspapers (see how new Tribune Company boss Sam Zell is using his smaller papers as “petri dishes“). I’d follow Dave Morgan’s advice and cut the newspaper company into four: production, distribution, advertising, and content. I’d sell the first two (getting rid of huge amounts of staff and shutdown obligation) and free up the advertising company to sell any local media, starting with a collaborative, distributed hyperlocal network the Globe must start to complete with the local papers that ring the city and strangle the Globe (papers the previous owners should have bought but didn’t). This sales effort has to work in radically different ways, setting up high-volume automated systems that members of the network itself can sell into. The old structure of well-lunched sales people who didn’t really sell but just handled lists of inherited clients won’t work anymore; Google is about to eat their lunch locally.

The content arm, meanwhile, needs to get rid of anything that does not focus on local news. More radical, it needs to start to aggressively drive readers from print to online, leapfrogging to the future that publishers dread, past paper. The Globe should become a testbed for reverse syndication, handing readers over to the Times for national and international coverage and perhaps also for national business and sports and even entertainment (and getting a revenue share for the new traffic the Globe sends Times’ way). The paper should take a hard look at whether to make sports a separate product and whether that should be in print or digital (a decision driven in great measure by ad sales). The print product should be ruthlessly local and anything else in it should be well-supported by advertising. Such a denuded but focused product may need to be free.

The Globe should then define itself first and foremost as a digital company and, more important, as a community company, a relationship network. It should become a platform for local news, information, and action and for new local sites and companies. That’s what comes after being a content company. This means that the staff must change radically as roles evolve from producing content to organizing, enabling, and educating collaborative and distributed networks.

The Globe that emerges should be of a radically different size but I fully believe that if the Times Company showed the balls to be the first to completely and radically reinvent a newspaper, its value would increase.

* As for the New York Times itself, I’d cut bait and turn it into a national newspaper — international in their dreams. The Times is not now and has not been for sometime a New York paper. So I’d either spin off or kill metro coverage. It could become a new local online collaborative journalistic network in the mold of the new Globe. Or it could die and I firmly believe a new and more nimble local network can emerge and take up the slack left. With that spinoff goes the Times production and distribution arms, in the Morgan model.

The New York Times itself should focus on what it does best and wants most to do: national and international coverage for a national audience. Either the Times will succeed at being the premiere American national news brand or . . . well, there is no “or.” That is the Times’ only choice; it is the box into which it has boxed itself.

What form does that take? It clearly should be more online than print — soon or immediatley exclusively online. It must focus on great reporting. It should be open to all media. It should become the host of opinion and discussion about all issues — which will be tough for them. The Times will have hearty competition from both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal but it should bravely leap ahead and recognize that Dow Jones management is scared of change (thus their mewling and successful efforts to convince Rupert Murdoch not to take down the pay wall . . . for now). It will also have competition from international news brands coming to America: the Guardian, the BBC, and possibly others.

I think the Times should explore the reverse syndication model I propose above and have the ambition to be the source of national and international reporting for every metro and local news site in America. If those sites send them enough traffic that generates enough revenue, the Times could expand its news coverage. By sharing revenue with those sites, it would beat the other competition in the old syndication business: wire services. But they’d better watch out: Reuters could be right behind them.

The Times should create and sell quality collaborative networks and expand the brand around its value: reporting. It should invest heavily in digital innovation and learn well from work that is going on elsewhere, especially London. And it has to become the product of collaboration with networks and independent professionals and its audience. I agree with Fred Wilson here: “I’d make the NY Times all about their audience. Let the people who read the paper have a much larger role in the content that gets published, both online and offline. The best thing about the NY Times is their readers. The only way they can fix their problems is by leveraging them as the other half of their newsroom.”

* Some — including the hedge fund pressuring the company — would sell but I’d hold onto it. (Disclosure: I consulted there for about a year and a half.) About is the one bright-spot in the Times P&L. It has brought understanding of online, SEO, and new means of content creation into the company and had an influence on the paper. It is, for now, the company’s only real digital asset. The reason to sell it, I think, would be to recognize profits and to set up the company’s balance sheet to go private if it chooses. But I think that’d be a strategic cop-out.

* I agree with Fred Wilson that I’d sell other assets. They are a distraction and management has enough on its hands. This includes the Herald-Tribune, which I’d probably fold into the Times operation and brand.

* Yes, and I’d sell the building.

At the end, the company can concentrate on rebuilding and extending its core asset, the Times’ reputation, and build a new relationship with its public.