Wrong battlefield

It’s kinda touching that Rupert Murdoch’s loyal lieutenants are trying to entertain the boss by starting an old-fashioned newspaper war (old-fashioned modifies newspaper). But it’s also ever-more revealing of their worldview.

And of course, the best way to declare a war is to declare it over and claim victory. “Nationally, there’s no contest now,” Robert Thomson, editor of the Wall Street Journal, said, according to the AP, “We’re more than twice as big as The New York Times. They’re not a serious competitor.” The AP goes on to tell us that the “Journal sold an average of about 2 million copies nationwide on weekends compared with the Times’ 900,000.”

OK, but that’s half the story. It’s more like 10 percent of the story. For now shift to the future, the web, and comScore tells us that in July, The Times reached 43.6 million people online vs. the Journal’s 16.1 million. By the time you add in pass-around readers for the paper and de-dupe the same readers for print and online, those numbers might change, but the moral to the story doesn’t.

The New York Times has roughly two and a half times more readers than the Journal. That translates to two and a half times more influence, two and a half times more relationships, a two-and-a-half-time bigger brand.

Murdoch has been willing to lose tens of millions of dollars on his New York Post for one reason: he wants a “bully pulpit” (his words.) He has certainly turned FoxNews into just that. So its kind of sad, if you’re feeling empathetic, that his Journal is losing so to The Times. That’s why Thomson doth protest too much.

That is the price of the pay wall. It may be a price worth paying. The New York Times is, of course, piling up bricks for its wall now. But off in the open field, no bricks in sight, stands Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger with 37 million readers online wondering whether he could soon run the largest newspaper site in the world.

Now I argue these days that brands are no longer magnets; they become labels when you find content through search, algorithms, and peers’ links. Murdoch cut off the algorithms when he pulled his Times of London out of Google News just as he put it behind the wall. That was not a business decision but an emotional but. But I’m even willing to stipulate that his pay wall could work — work in the sense that he gets satisfactory revenue (whatever the definition of that is) from readers rather than from advertisers.

But the real price is growth. It won’t grow. I see that not as victory in the war for the biggest bully pulpit — for the bragging rights to talking to more people. I see that as surrender.

  • Alex Pline

    Why can’t someone figure out a truly frictionless way to do micropayments? That is in my estimation the shangri-la for the content business. Disintermediation is not affected, people get to consume the content way they want and content owners get paid sans advertising and as you mention here, there is the possibility of growth. Something on the order of 1-5 cents per article. Very few people would balk at a few cents to read a NY Times article as long as it is frictionless. It’s not rocket science, so why has no one figured this out?? Subscription models are passe.

  • Eric Gauvin

    I don’t understand. Why won’t it grow?

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  • @3screenplanet

    Jeff, you’re unfortunately confusing traffic with cash. What good is the supposedly massive influence of the Times if they can’t parlay it into revenue. Yes, the Times is killing the Journal on traffic, but the Journal is making a fine mint with their paying, albeit lesser, traffic.

    And could you please can the FoxNews is Murdoch’s mouthpiece bit? What say you of the Times being the mouthpiece of the Democratic Party? Neither reality or non-reality is relevant to the battle between the Times and the Journal.

    • Jim S

      But Fox News is Murdoch’s mouthpiece through his puppet Ailes. The relationship is as simple as that whereas the relationship between any political party or movement and the Times isn’t nearly as simple. In spite of what the loyal Faux News fans may claim, the Times is not a mouthpiece like Fox.

  • cm

    Jeff, surely you can’t equate readership with influence. Influencing people is irrelevant if those people are not going to act.

    I don’t know much about WSJ and NYT readership profiles, but don’t WSJ readers tend to be people with more powerful positions in business etc. If my understanding is correct then influencing a single WSJ reader possibly carries more weight than influencing 10 NYT readers.

    The same goes for advertising etc too. Advertisements only have benefit if the reader is a candidate to purchase the product on offer. A car ad in WSJ might be more beneficial than in NYT if WSJ readers have more spending power.

    I really don’t agree with your claim that information product brands are doomed. I remember the same claim about consumer products in the 1970s and 1980s when Amway etc looked like they were making inroads. It was predicted by many that we’d just be buying generic products within a few years.

    It is increasingly difficult to sift quality news and analysis from complete crap. Twitter, blogging and other modern media make it easier and easier to proliferate rumor and low quality information. People wanting quality information are increasingly drawn to brands they can trust.

    People with high quality expectations will increasingly be prepared to pay. For that reason paywalls might work for some brands and not others depending on whom they target. For example people might be prepared to pay for WSJ but not for that info-sludge that comes from Time magazine.

    • Matt Terenzio

      Generic products have exploded. Whoever looked at the trends in the 70s and recognized that brand loyalty would diminish was a sharp one. And when it comes to online news, brand loyalty is non-existant. Please don’t confuse that with trust, which has become the major differentiator, and is more often based around individuals, not media companies.

      You actually trust a media company?? I don’t think you are in the majority.

    • Jim S

      No one in their right mind except for the people who think Glen Beck actually does research and presents the facts would, however, believe anything from the WSJ op-ed section.

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  • Last time I checked the New York Times was a *daily*, so what’s with this “Journal sold .. copies nationwide on weekends” ?? Do they think their readers are so stupid they wouldn’t notice?

    Even in sunny South Africa I’m laughing at the WSJ’s sad attempt at chest-thumping.

  • William

    It’s kind of appropriate, Jeff, that you called this post “the wrong battlefield”, because it seems you have chosen precisely that.

    As in so much in life, size in and of itself does not matter. I am thrilled for Alan Rusbridger that he may find himself running the biggest newspaper website in the world, but concerned for him if he thinks that this represents success in some form if his newspaper group is losing tens of millions of pounds a year.

    Ditto the New York Times. An audience of 46m is broadly irrelevant if you cannot monetise it. Users who pay for content are more actively engaged in it, value it more (giving the publication more “influence” with them) and are therefore more valuable to advertisers, who pay a higher cpm to access them.

    And of course, the publisher gets an additional revenue stream to fund good quality journalism – the sort of journalism where random assertions such as more readers equals more influence are interrogated and supported by fact. This sort of journalism is expensive, and does not deserve to be free.

  • Jim Jefferson

    Hey Jeff, About accuracy – Robert Thomson not Robert Thompson is the editor of the Wall Street Journal.

  • Charles Prestwich

    “That is the price of the pay wall. It may be a price worth paying. The New York Times is, of course, piling up bricks for its wall now. But off in the open field, no bricks in sight, stands Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger with 37 million readers online wondering whether he could soon run the largest newspaper site in the world. ”

    The world? Alan Rusbridger does not even find himself running the biggest website in Britain – the Daily Mail has been the UK’s most popular newspaper website for eight months now, and is only stretching its lead. The Guardian’s audience grab is fading fast.

    Not that it truly matters. As @William points out, what *does* matter is who is reading you – a few million one-time, Google-driven casual visitors isn’t an audience, and not marketable in any useful way. Advertisers aren’t interested at prices more than a few cents per thousand, so those readers add nothing but cost to a site, while also flattering you to deceive about the true value of your journalism, and the true utility of your work beyond the one-click gratification of Google News. I’ll wager selling subscriptions focuses the mind more sharply than the “build it and they’ll find it on Google” approach.

    Surrender? True surrender comes when your run out of money and the journalism you hold dear can’t be paid for any more. Even the Guardian may have to collect some bricks and build them a paywall to make a few benjies.

    Sure, they’ll insist that a paid-for iPad application isn’t really a wall. Or that paid-for vertical sites aren’t the same – that the core Guardian is free. But paid it will be. And it won’t be surrender – it’ll be a wise step towards survival. That’s a good battle to fight.

  • Jeff,

    I’m not sold on your contention that brand is no longer a magnet; albeit the polls of the magnet may have shifted negatively for a number of brands. Thus the reaction by many to any story on FoxNews or MSNBC as being tainted by political rhetoric right or left; regardless of the truth, the perception persists with those brands.

    So, brand has an impact of veracity. That is, one is likely to make certain assumptions of confidence regarding the information provided by one brand verses another. And as such influence grows brand takes on a social context. A brand’s influence is thereby intertwined with social constructs. Making brand even more important today than it was yesterday. So, a brand can and will thrive in a walled/pay environment. The brand only need create a perception of greater value beyond that which is available for free (or make free seem of lesser veracity). Maybe, this is what drives the comments made by Murdoch’s team??? It’s part of a marketing effort to taint NYT and bolster WSJ???

    (stay tuned for my next treatise on “cool” being the driving factor in brand and social. :-D )

    -Bradley Martin

  • It’s possible that the Times Online move is simply an experiment. A publishing magnet pushing his pieces around the board. “I wonder what would happen if I do that?”

    Murdoch tries to get online, but fails.

    The geek still rules

    Long live the geek

  • The more important issue in the long run is the direction in which each newspaper is going. That is important to know if one is to contemplate a destination.

  • I find it interesting that the previous post is about your entrepreneurial journalism program, yet this post about the business of journalism is mostly just your opinion and has very little to do with business principles.

    I thought entrepreneurialism had to do with business principles.

    You seem to confuse entrepreneurialism with reinvention or innovation.

    • …furthermore Murdoch is a huge entrepreneur

      From the perspective of the study of entrepreneurial journalism it would be well worth looking at what he has done in a more neutral way…