Posts about newspapers

The opportunity of bankruptcy

Tweet: How bankruptcy can help a newspaper get theah from heah. Don’t squander it. **

I fear that Tribune Company – and other newspaper companies – will come out of bankruptcy having squandered the opportunity it presents to rebuild from the ground up.

At the New Business Models for (Local) News Summit at CUNY last week, my friend and mentor Jim Willse, late of the Star-Ledger in New Jersey, asked us to create a model for an existing news organization to morph into what we proposed as the new structure. That’d be painful and thus controversial, I said, to which Willse – never one to mince words – responded, “No shit.”

Can they get theah from heah? I’m not sure. A company that employed more than a thousand workers may end up employing just a hundred as it gets rid of printing and distribution infrastructure – the barrier to entry that became a barrier to change. Those shut-down costs are tremendous (that’s where bankruptcy helps, though). The cultural shift for people who remain is huge (I have spoken with many newspaper and magazine folks lately who – like me – held out hope that it was possible … until they gave up and quit). The need to reinvent business methods and models is urgent. And in the end, if it all works, the new company will be much smaller, a fraction of its former size, which is hard for executives, analysts, and shareholders to swallow – but it’s profitable and thus sustainable and that has to be the ultimate goal.

To make this volcanic transformation, I say a newspaper must start by getting out of the printing business (as Dave Morgan argued at our CUNY conference last year). Oh, it may still print a product as long as enough advertisers and readers stick with it to make it profitable and as long as it is valuable to promote the the digital brand of the future. But print can no longer drive the business; it’s just not sustainable.

When the Ann Arbor News folded this summer and was replaced by its owners with an online, community-based site, they chose to continue publishing twice a week to continue distributing coupons, circulars, and ads; it is printed by another paper in the company. [Disclosure: I consulted on the project.] Similarly, in the UK, the Birmingham Post went online and went weekly in print. My reputation aside, I’m not religiously opposed to paper. But maintaining a printing business is no longer an advantage; it’s a burden. So I say get out of the business and outsource whatever printing you do.

What about distribution? Well, as the circulation of the paper dwindles to naught, its value as a delivery platform also falls – to the point that coupon companies and stores like Best Buy will have to find alternative means of distribution. I think there’s a nice, if transitional business there for someone. Should it still be the newspaper company? Well, I’d give the same advice that is given to every startup: concentrate on one thing and do it well, get rid of the rest. So I’d say the paper should – as many pretty much do today – outsource its distribution.

Ad sales? That’s perhaps the toughest transition. Classifieds aside (they’re permanently lost anyway), newspapers are built to sell mass metro audiences to large advertisers. Sales staffs don’t drum up new business so much as they manage existing lists. Those folks aren’t likely to be able to sell entirely new kinds of advertising highly targeted marketing help for whole new populations of smaller merchants who couldn’t afford the newspaper before. Beside, such a staff doesn’t scale when you have to sell to so many new customers in networks. Build-it-and-they-will-come automated platforms don’t work; advertising still must be sold. This is why, in our models, we projected new sales forces – citizen sales – arising to sell at a local level. So for our transforming paper, I’d build networks of local sites and local sales and keep just enough of the old people to sell the big, old accounts that remain – if they can be re-educated.

Marketing is all but gone. If this newly constituted service isn’t sold by its public – if that public doesn’t collaborate with it and feel an ownership stake – then it will fail.

Now for editorial: I’ve written often about the new roles journalists will take on. As the marginal cost of information in a community falls to zero – as the internet and its tool enable communities to share much or most of what they know and need to know – then the question for journalists is how they add value and fill in gaps with reporting at the core as well as curation, community organization, and training. In our models, we forecast almost as many journalists as worked in the old paper newsroom, but they work for – and often own – more than a hundred companies. The core of journalists working at the new news organization is smaller.

Bankruptcy enables a newspaper company to shed its past. It can get out of contracts and leases for paper, printing plants, delivery, trucks. It can also get out of labor contracts, reducing severance costs. That is terribly painful but I fear it is as inevitable as the end of the ITU (the typesetters’ union). It offers a one-time chance to rethink, reinvent, and rebuild the company for the future. Is it better to stretch out the pain and never get anywhere? And if tough decisions and actions are not made, the likelihood that the company will die and all will be lost only increases.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has already come out of bankruptcy but without such a radical transformation. It, like other news companies, is taking out bricks a few at a time rather than building a new kind of company. That’s the opportunity I fear other bankrupt newspapers – Tribune Company, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Sun-Times – are squandering. The same can be said of other industries.

To take advantage of bankruptcy, a company has to have courage and bold visions of the future. Do newspaper companies? So far, we haven’t seen evidence of it. But it is possible.

** At Craig Newmark’s good suggestion, I am going to try to summarize posts – longer ones, at least – at the top. Old fart that I was, I at first thought of this as a UK-style subhed. But then I realize that the appropriate model is to put it in a tweet. So I’ll try that.

’nuff said

Dilbert.com

(Thanks, Ed Reading)

Nose, face, cut, spite: Blocking Google

There’s been a swine flu of stupidity spreading about the Murdoch meme of blocking Google from indexing a site’s content (to which Google always replies that you’ve always been able to do that with robots.txt – so go ahead if you want). I love that The Reach Group (TRG), a German consulting company, has quantified just how damaging that would be to Google: hardly at all.

TRG took the content of the 1,000 domains controlled by the 148 German publishers that signed the so-called Hamburg Declaration (a veiled shot at Google) and analyzed how critical they are to Google search results. TRG asked the question: “How empty would the first 10 Google search results be if one could no longer find anything from the 148 German publishers?”

It’s quite another matter if Wikipedia were not there. It appears on 13% of first-page results. That is, one entity – Wikipedia – is on the treasured first page almost three times as often as all of Germany’s top publishers. How does one say this in German? Yow.

This chart shows that sites of the Hamburg Declaration publishers have 5% share of a position on the first page of search results:

GermanGoogleTRGchart

This chart shows that Wikipedia has 13% share of the No. 1 position in search results:

googlegermanchart2

TRG further notes that Wikipedia represents only 0.01% of pages in the Google index – vs. 4.01% for German publishers – yet even so, Wikipedia pages clearly get more clicks and links and thus, Googlejuice.

RELATED: Jason Calicanis fantasizes about Microsoft paying The New York Times to leave Google’s index for Bing. Let me explain why that would never happen. 1. The Times is not stupid. 2. Times subsidiary About.com – the only bright spot these days in the NYTimesCo’s P&L – gets 80% of its traffic and 50% of its revenue from Google. 3. See rule No. 1.

Michael Arrington then joined in the fantasy saying that News Corp. could change the balance by shifting to Bing, but ends his post with his own reality check: MySpace – increasingly a disaster in News Corp’s P&L – is attempting to negotiate its $300 million deal with Google.

Microsoft can suck up to European publishers all it wants – even adopting their ACAP “standard,” which no one in the search industry is saluting because, as Google often points out, it addresses the desires only of a small proportion of sites and it would end up aiding spammers – but it won’t make a damned bit of difference.

As Erick Schonfeld reports, also on TechCrunch, if WSJ.com turned off Google it would lose 25% of its web traffic. He quotes Hitwise, which says 15% comes from Google search, 12% from Google News – and 7% from Drudge (aggregator), and 2% from Real Clear Politics (aggregator). From HItwise:

hitwisewsj3

But so what if News Corp does withdraw from Google? So what, indeed? Will other publishers join? No, they’ll celebrate the chance to grab more juice. If I saw any publishers pull out, I’d run at the chance to create topic pages to grab the little juice they have.

SEE ALSO: This analysis from The Internet Marketing Driver showing the importance of Google, Facebook, and Yahoo in driving audience to many sties. What they then do with that audience is then up to them. According to the imperatives of the link economy, it is up to he or she who gets the links to monetize them.

[Hat tip to friend Wolfgang Blau for twittering the TRG link. If I mistranslated, please corrected me.]

My advice to German media

I have an op-ed in today’s Welt Kompakt newspaper in Germany giving my advice to a German mediasphere that I see becoming more protectionist. It’s not online (ironically) but so you can see the play, a PDF of it is here and here. [Update: Here‘s the piece online.] This is my original English text:

* * *

At the Müncher Medientage, I spoke to 500 German executives from my home in New York and dared to give them some advice about their fate. I urged them to learn these lessons from watching American news companies shrivel and die: Protectionism is no strategy for the future. Every company in every industry (especially media) must be reinvented for the post-Guttenberg age—for the Google era. And the only sane response to change is to embrace it and find the opportunity in it.

I have been impressed with the innovation and openness to change I have seen in German media: Axel Springer shifted a large proportion of its revenue to digital; Bild equipped Germans with video cameras to report news; Burda invested in the networks Glam.com and Science Blogs; Holtzbrinck innovated in its incubator; WAZ created a world pioneer in DerWesten.

But when the times got tough in the financial crisis, I suddenly saw German media looking for an enemy to blame for their problems. The head of the Deutscher Journalisten-Verband called for legislation to condemn Google as a monopoly, an enemy of the press. Dr. Hubert Burda, a digital visionary I greatly admire, urged that copyright law should be expanded to protect publishers, whom he said deserve a share of search engines’ revenue. Chancellor Merkel is considering such changes in copyright. A group of publishers issued the Hamburg Declaration saying that all online content need not be free (though that has always been completely in their control).

Schade. In these pronouncements, I hear echoes of American media’s funeral hymns. I see companies resisting the new reality of the internet age by trying to preserve the old rules of their old industry. Take, for example, Rupert Murdoch vowing to put all his news properties behind pay walls just because that’s how media used to operate—when that will only reduce audience, traffic, influence, and advertising just at the moment when growth is needed most. He is even threatened to block Google. That is simply suicidal.

Though I sympathize with media’s economic nostalgia, I must say that swimming upstream against the internet is futile. The better idea is to go with the flow of the internet, to see and exploit its opportunities.

Rather than fighting Google, learn lessons from it. Google understands the new economics of media. That is why it is successful—not because it exploits old media companies. Those old companies still operate in the content economy, begun 570 years by Guttenberg, in which the owner of content profited by selling multiple copies. Online, there needs to be only one copy of content and it is the links to it that bring it value. Content without links has no value. So when search engines, aggregators, bloggers, and Twitterers link to content, they are not stealing; they are giving the gift of attention and audience. Indeed, publishers should be grateful that Google does not charge them for the value of its links.

This link economy brings three imperatives for publishers. First, it requires them to make their content public if they want to be found. That is their choice, but if they retreat behind pay walls, hidden from search and links, they will not be discovered and they only create opportunities for new, free competitors. Second, the link economy demands specialization: Do what you do best and link to the rest. This specialization also brings a new efficiency that can make publishers more profitable. Third, in the link economy, it is the recipient of links who must exploit their value. That is still the publisher’s job.

Google has earned an estimated 30 percent of online ad revenue because it serves advertisers differently—and better. Here, too, Google understands a new economy, one based on abundance rather than scarcity. Publishers, even online, still sell scarcity as if the internet were print: only so many ad positions for so many eyeballs—what the market will bear. Google instead charges for clicks; it sells performance. Thus Google takes a share of the risk and that is what motivates it to place advertising all over the internet, to create more relevant positions for ads that will perform better for both the marketer and Google. That is why advertising has shifted to Google—not because it is enemy of the media but because advertisers prefer it. We call that competition.

The most important lesson to learn from Google is that it grew huge not by trying to acquire and control content on the internet, as publishers do. Google doesn’t want to own the internet, only to organize it. So Google created a platform that enables others to succeed with technology, content, promotion, and advertising revenue. That is Glam’s model, too, creating networks of hundreds of independent sites and then helping them succeed. I believe that platforms and networks will form the basis of the future of media—and much of the next economy.

At the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, where I teach, I am running the New Business Models for News Project, envisioning a profitable future for news if regional newspapers covering cities die. Though national news brands—whether this publication or the Guardian or The New York Times—have a future, regional newspapers across America and Europe are in trouble and some will die. Yet I am confident that journalism in those cities will not die, because there is a market demand for news, which we believe the market can meet.

We believe that news will emerge from ecosystems made up of many players—journalists, citizen journalists, citizen salespeople, volunteers, technologists—operating under different motives and means. Today, in America, we see hyperlocal bloggers earning $100-200,000 a year in advertising; these are real businesses. We see an opportunity to help them make more money by creating local, regional, and national advertising networks. We see the opportunity for a new newsroom to continue beat and investigative reporting and to work collaboratively with these networks. Without the cost of print and distribution, these new news organizations become smaller but profitable.

If you are trying to protect old jobs in old structures of old companies in old industries, then you might see my vision of the future as a threat. But if you embrace change and innovation, then you will see opportunities to reimagine and remake journalism, to find new ways to gather and share news collaboratively, supported by new revenue, reaching profitability thanks to new efficiencies.

Publishers will not get to that bright future by urging government to protect them from innovators and competitors. No, if we want anything from government, it should be universal broadband to encourage society’s migration to a digital economy, and a lack of regulation to assure a level playing field for innovation.

I hope that once the desperation of the current economic crisis subsides, my German media friends will not try to retreat to their old models but will instead continue to invent new ways and to again become leaders in innovation. That is the only sensible path to survival and success.

LATER: I should add disclosures that are also on my disclosures page. I was paid to come speak to editors at Axel Springer (publishers of Welt Kompakt), Burda (I’ve also spoken for their DLD conference), and Holtzbrinck.

Tough love for media

Here in a bit more friendly video format is the keynote I gave to the Munich Media Days (in English) a week ago, which I linked to earlier. I decided to be blunt and tough and tell them I was worried about the protectionist talk I’ve been hearing from Germany and that they need to have hard discussions about the change that will waft over there from here. Carta also put up a transcript.

Jeff Jarvis: “Google is not an enemy, Google is a model” from Carta on Vimeo.