Forbes’ Paul Maidment bashes the newspaper industry (uh-oh, more competition) following another moribund conference. But he gets it backwards.
If there was a change in print executives’ moods at the conference in Las Vegas, it was that a decade of consolidation and cost cutting to maintain what have been fat industry profit margins are giving way to talk of Internet publishing opportunities. Sigh. Earth to newspaper executives: Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft have, in the meantime, made themselves into media companies that are bigger than any newspaper.
Even the mighty minds behind Google took several years to realize that they were a media company, not a tech company. But they and their fellow West Coasters have invented a new way of presenting journalism, through aggregation rather than creation. They have also invented a new way of consuming it, through search, and have found new expression to an age-old publishing truth–that if you can gather an audience, you can make money. In doing so, they have been ripping out the commercial heart of the newspaper industry, its classified ads business.
No, I say that’s mixed up. Search — namely, Google — and links — namely, blogs — send huge traffic to news sites. Without that audience and attention and branding, the old news sites’ online efforts would founder, taking the mother ships down with them.
In a distributed world, you want to be aggregated. If you’re not aggregated, you’re nowhere. (Not-quite-full disclosure: The news startup I’ve been working on promises to organize the world’s news.)
And Google did not kill the classifieds business. Neither did Craig. The advent of a new, distributed, edge-controlled medium that can put buyer and seller together directly, without the need for a centralized marketplace, is what did in classifieds.
Beware the French strategy of trying to avoid Google. That is like avoiding the newsstand.
Tribune Company just bought ForSaleByOwner.com. That’s a bigger deal than it may appear in the rearview mirror.
When I worked in newspaper companies, I quickly learned that FSBO was a dirty word that made publishers sweat. On the one hand, they wanted all those by-owner ads; they needed to be seen as the marketplace for homes. But on the other hand, the Realtors who paid the big bills hated by-owner ads; their lost customers were their competition. So publishers always danced a delicate two-step, trying hard not to promote the FSBO ads even as they counted the bucks from them. The terrible irony is that the real customers — home sellers — were treated like caged animals by both Realtors and newspapers.
But, of course, the cages are gone and the first to escape were the Realtors themselves. When the web came along, real estate agents realized they could deal directly with customers and no longer needed newspapers to create the marketplace. In fact, newspapers realized that they needed the Realtors’ listings for their own online sites — ads became content — and so the Realtors still ended up holding publishers by their delicates. FSBO was still a dirty word.
I saw this coming a decade ago and argued that newspaper companies should go into the real estate business themselves, becoming brokers to get listings into the closed multiple listing services and putting buyer and seller together directly because the Realtors would inevitably abandon papers. I thought I was going to be fired for speaking such heresy.
But now Tribune is going into the FSBO business.
Isn’t it fascinating how desperate companies are now willing to piss off the channels of sales, distribution, and revenue they so coddled and feared for so many year: ABC tells its affiliates to lump it as it distributes directly to consumers; Warner Brothers tells its network to lump it as it distributes around networks; and Tribune tells its Realtor-advertisers to lump it as it enables sellers to avoid Realtors. The question is whether they spent too long coddling the middlemen and forgetting who the real customer was all along.
Two groups of media’s moneymen held their confabs this week and they each spent some time self-flaggellating, as well they should.
The Times reports from the American Association of Advertising Agencies:
“I think our industry would be better if agencies were as comfortable with change as we like to tell clients they should be,” said Ron Berger, chief executive and chief creative officer for the New York and San Francisco offices of Euro RSCG Worldwide, part of Havas.
“I think our industry would be better if all of the people who speak at industry functions and say ‘It’s all about big ideas’ actually had a few” …
And Jon Fine reports in Business Week on the meeting of the Newspaper Association of America:
This year’s opening event was at the magnificent Field Museum, on a large open floor bookended by two massive dinosaur skeletons. Many attendees joked about this. To the executive to whom I said such an obvious metaphor would never, ever, appear in this column: I lied….
At the podium, Jay R. Smith, Cox Newspapers’ president and outgoing NAA chairman, gives a valedictory with the broad theme of “stop whining.” It begins with and repeatedly uses the phrase, “It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.” He also says: “The world changed a lot. Newspapers changed a little.” …
And Washington Post Publisher Donald Graham tells the group when discussing newspaper strategy that “the only honest answer is we don’t know how our future will work out.”
OK, let the flaggellating end. Let the overdue strategizing finally begin. The time for mourning the past is long over. The time for shrugging at the future is over, too. You no longer get points for admitting that you’re in a mess. You only get points for taking brave action to get out of it.
The New York Times new lab is hiring a futurist. Laugh if you will. But when you think about it, maybe newspapers should have hired futurists, oh, 10 or two years ago. [See my disclosures]
I just saw a jaw-dropping ad campaign by the Newspaper Association of America — the club of publishers — in Ad Age. It is aimed at convincing marketers that papers are still good places to sell stuff. But the images in the ads are all Monty-Pythonesque: antique, old, quaint, useless. That is precisely the image newspapers should not be projecting. But they are.