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?