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August 23 2012

15:46

The newsonomics of a New York Times + CNN combination

Mark Thompson faces a defining and daunting challenge: Lead The New York Times on that thin tightrope to a new stability, one tethered to the digital world. We’ve seen lots of good ideas already freely offered to the incoming NYT CEO. Let me offer a new one.

Let’s imagine what a New York Times/CNN combination would look like — and what it could do for both companies. Combination? Yes, a purposely squishy word. I’m not talking about a merger of the companies. I’m thinking about what each company offers the other strategically, at this point in media history, and how each could see its business advanced. We’ll leave the messy details of corporate development, of partnership, of joint venture, for a later day.

So why put these two entities closer together? Two big reasons provide some logic.

First, the marketplace is pushing companies toward convergence. The worlds of completely separate TV (video), newspapers/magazines (text), and radio (audio) have simply been overwhelmed by the reality of consumption devices that bring all three together for us — the iPad being the current crown of creation. But the legacy roots of each medium has made it really tough to either (re-)build truly multi-platform companies or forge newspaper/TV alliances (Tampa, Chicago, etc.) that work. Logic compels greater multi-platform creation; inevitably that will mean new combinations of legacy companies, even as legacy companies try to remake themselves internally.

Second, both CNN and The New York Times fill in numerous of the other’s weaknesses. At this digital moment when “mobile” and the tablet are tossing old habits up in the air and forcing consumers to re-form new ones, it’s a great time for both the Times and CNN to double down on their native advantages, and make their products no-brainer top-three places to go in the news everywhere-and-anywhere world.

For CNN, a partnership could be part of a strategy to reclaim its mojo after seeing TV ratings drop to 21-year lows. For the Times, having turned small corners in the last year, it’s a way to increase its sense of momentum, separating itself from the pack of other top news sources.

The timing is near-perfect. Mark Thompson, after all, comes to the Times as a broadcaster. With a 33-year TV career, he knows TV, and he knows the Times is just beginning to escape its print roots. Scaling the wall of video/TV, where huge revenues still exist, is one of his daunting challenges. He is one of the few people who could have taken the job who brings both a broadcast background and one of airtight news credibility, given the BBC’s standards. He is the perfect person to imagine a strong video/TV presence for the next-gen Times. The Times is looking currently at what a major investment in video would look like; how does it climb the incremental mountain with the next generations of TimesCasts?

CNN is searching for recently resigned president Jim Walton’s successor. While the 32-year-old network’s staff debates the realities and fantasies, and CNN-directed truths, of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” the once top-of-the-heap TV news source faces a fundamental identity crisis and big strategic moment. It has wavered along hard/soft news lines and in programming choices, spun into a dither by Fox News’ Roger Ailes and MSNBC’s Phil Griffin.

Now the next CNN president must renew brand purpose and internal pride. Focus on news — especially adding to its forte of who, what, and where the why and how aspects of news as it has been edging into (The Freedom Project, an award-winning series on human trafficking, and Saving Aesha, for example) — or play with more entertainment/personality positioning? Worry about the Foxes and the MSNBCs, or grab the moment of the greatest potential global news reach technology and literacy has ever made possible?

There are smaller plays for both, to be sure. CNN’s been around the block with CBS News, talking news merger, but those talks foundered on issues of control and culture. The Times has tried all manner of tests, from longer-standing ones with Google to newer ones with Flipboard.

What both need is a game changer: a move that will simultaneously do three things:

  • Rocket it ahead of the news competition, as consumers decide those handful of must-go-to news sources they’ll visit each day, across their many screens.
  • Add a large new dimension of content to its current brand. While both the Times and CNN have lots of content, both — as is the case of all news companies — can use more to satisfy insatiable digital reading appetites.
  • Create a strong, new revenue line, as both see traditional lines weakened by market change.

Before I get to how a game-changer may work, let’s try this as a simplified chart to compare the two companies:

The New York Times CNN Brand Ascendant; mobile apps have now separated NYT from other “newspapers”; digital circulation has newly marked NYT as innovator Ubiquitous in U.S. and worldwide; its image — what it stands for — is unclear Top leadership CEO Mark Thompson begins in November Search on for replacement for President Jim Walton Audience Top-five web site; newspaper circulation flat Top-three web site; TV ratings at 21-year low Revenue Reader revenue, newly revived and growing, with all-access digital circulation programs; online advertising under pricing pressure, and by ad marketplace change; print advertising in 5-10 percent annual decline. Net loss of $39.7 million (2011) Cable/satellite fees, increasingly threatened by low ratings and the potential unbundling of forced consumer packages; advertising, on air and online, both under pricing pressure by ad marketplace change. Profit of $600 million (est. 2012) Global Times moving that way, with ~10 percent of paying digital-only customers outside U.S.; new China site By definition, global and recognized globally. Great worldwide distribution and name recognition TV culture/experience Experimenting, unevenly, with “video” It’s a TV company Text culture/experience It’s a newspaper company Experimenting, unevenly, with “text” Content Deep, authoritative, agenda-setting; fairly good breadth, but the deep web is exposing its areas of weakness Immediate, wide, truly global, largely authoritative; good breadth, and worldwide, though subpar to AP Access to TV platforms Minimal Ubiquitous Revenue sources Readers, advertisers Cable/satellite cos., advertisers Aggregator chops Little developed; a powerful potential for adding breadth to its brand Little developed, but it bought top-three tablet aggregator Zite Community-generated content Fledgling efforts have gone awry CNN’s iReport is a prototype for user-generated reporting; if those CNN/Mashable talks work their way to completion, CNN would have a leg up on social media journalism Wire Longstanding NYT wire and syndicate are mature Newer CNN wire fighting for place in market

There’s clearly a complementarity here that makes sense — on paper. How might it work in reality?

It’s easiest to see how the two might exploit two green fields, areas so new neither has as much ego or business invested.

If we look at the coming five screens of access, it is the emerging two — connected TV and connected car — that are most virgin, while laptop/desktop, smartphone and tablet are already deeply competitive. Both connected TV and connected car offer many new product opportunities and access to new revenue. A partnership could focus on those two, as the least threatening way to combine smarts and assets.

More immediately, we could see a new focus on tablet and smartphone products. For starters:

  • Next-generation news video products for the tablet: The Wall Street Journal has burst out of its word box this year with a major emphasis on video. It has just begun to leverage its deep journalistic expertise, though the presentation is still more talking head than “TV.” Combining the beat expertise of New York Times journalists with CNN TV smarts — and its own formidable behind-the-scenes journalistic workforce — offers breakout potential for tablet video news. CNN’s journalist workforce numbers is a hard number to compare to the Times’ 1,150 journalists; how do you count those who provide the technology to present the journalism? Yet CNN’s journalists often get short shrift in the press, which favors endless Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper stories. Here’s one area where print is superior: In the breadth of The New York Times’ Sunday edition, for instance, you can see the great stretch of its journalistic talent. With the flat screen of the TV or the computer or tablet, you can’t see the rich CNN reporting behind its facade.
  • The leading global news product: Everyone from Bloomberg to the FT and BBC and from the Journal to the Times and the Guardian, is now moving on the vast global opportunity (English-speaking and otherwise). No longer must the Brits be satisfied with their one percent of the world market, or Americans with five percent. Here both CNN and the Times are among the top contenders. With 32 journalists outside the U.S. and 24 foreign bureaus, the Times has maintained a global presence, when most of its print brethren have severely cut back. CNN’s 33 foreign bureaus and vast carriage across the world lay continued claim to its birthright. If you are overseas and watch CNN International, it’s a night-and-day different product than CNN U.S.; adding the Times to the mix would lengthen its international lead.
  • Reinventing the “wire”: CNN’s wire, launched in 2009, marked its emergence from AP. The goal: compete with AP, leveraging its substantial journalistic investment with syndication, selling the same content to many, many others. That wire, like many competitors to AP and Reuters, has found tough going against the incumbents. Meanwhile, The New York Times’ wire and syndicate face the same struggles of most in that niche wire business: maturity at best, holding on to as much of the old, dwindling print world as they can. A combined “wire,” focusing on those next-generation syndicatable digital/mobile products, could harvest joint assets well.

Then, there’s the web in general and TV, the former where both engage in head-to-head combat and the latter in which CNN, though struggling, is the incumbent and NYT the wannabe. The hurdles to cooperation, there, are highest, though the payoff may be the greatest.

For CNN, the questions would be: How could TV people harness the added depth of The New York Times’ report and intelligence? How could it marry its video and text in new state-of-the-art ways?

While CNN is now much more profitable than the Times, the fragmentation and disruption of TV business models is happening quickly (see “The newsonomics of breakthrough digital TV, from Aereo to Dyle and MundoFox to Google Fiber TV”). A Times partnership could help CNN find ways to create new news and information products that consumers will pay for, as the Times has now nimbly done, with its digital circulation initiative.

For The New York Times, the questions would be: How could text-based journalists move into the next generation of multimedia storytelling, bringing over their craft and standards, but learning new skills? How could video be graft onto the Times DNA, make the Times the company it needs to be in the next age?

How could the Times tap into the revenue stream of TV access, either through programming that cable and satellite companies would pay then for, as they pay Time Warner/CNN? It isn’t as if Times reporters haven’t been well-used on broadcast. NPR does a masterful job of that, but the Times gets no revenue out of the relationship. That’s the key: wringing TV money out of a deal.

For both, the tasty intangible: Would a combination of two of the best brands in news world reinforce and heighten each side’s? Of course, there are lots of reasons why it wouldn’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t work. Yet, it if did, it would give real meaning to convergence — finally — as the old demarcations of print and TV fast erode.

It’s easy to tick off the numerous factors that make it difficult: control, valuation and culture top the list. It’s at least, though, a whiteboard exercise that allocates strengths and deficits, opportunities and challenges over a five-year time span. That’s the level of thinking, and timespan, that Mark Thompson will need to bring to the Times, as will CNN’s new chief when she or he arrives in Atlanta.

January 19 2012

15:00

The newsonomics of signature content

What’s your signature content?

Quick: If somebody buttonholed you in an elevator, a school play, or a bar, and said, “Why should I pay you for that?” — what do you tell them?

Each passing week, it seems we’re further into the age of signature content. That only makes sense: If the death of distance is now old news, if everything is available everywhere at the touch of button or the swipe of a finger, then what makes any news or entertainment brand stand out amid this plague of plenty?

Closed systems — from three or four TV networks to less than a dozen big movie studios to a half-dozen major magazine publishers to geographically dominant newspapers — made signature content less important. Sure, big shows and big names have always driven media to some extent, but now, media without big names or big shows are going to get lost in the ether. Take Hulu’s announcement last week about Hulu Originals. You do have to wonder if Hulu’s fictional 13-episode “Battleground,” about a dysfunctional political campaign, will be bested by the Republican reality show in progress when the show debuts next month. Hulu is also bringing a Morgan Spurlock series for a second run, and probably will feature one other new program. The Hulu announcement joins Netflix’s own foray into signature content. Three years ago, would the thought of Netflix signing up Little Steven to do an original comedy series have crossed anyone’s imagination?

Hulu and Netflix both need to distinguish themselves in the market — not only from each other, but from Comcast, DirecTV, and Time Warner, among others. They need to buy protection as supposed masses consider cutting the cord on packaged services, Roku-ing and Apple-enabling Internet video onto their living-room screens. In movies and TV, we’re quickly morphing from a world of news and entertainment anywhere — get all of these things, somewhat haphazardly (Comcast Xfinity, for instance) on all of our devices — to one in which consumers ask, “What special do you have for me, in addition to my all access? Yes, All-Access, the cool feature of 2011, will quickly graduate from a wow to an expectation.

Why as consumers should we pay $7.99 (down from an initial $9.99) to Hulu Plus, when the same stuff (kinda sorta) is available through Boxee, or Apple TV, or Netflix, if I can find it? Why am I paying $7.99 a month (apparently the magic price of the moment) to Netflix for a catalog of films that is both voluminous and too often lacking what I want? Consumers are going to be asking that question a lot more.

Publishers, distributors, aggregators, and networks all want more money, and they’ve seen — courtesy of tablets and All-Access — that consumers are now more ready to pay for digital content than ever before.

Forget “content wants to be free.” Now content wants a fee. And everyone from Time Inc to The New York Times to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to Hulu’s co-owners (Fox, Disney, and Comcast) see gold. They see another digital revenue stream, in addition to advertising or to cable subscription fees. Yet they are increasingly believing they’ve got to up the ante (and Hulu is raising new funds to buy original programming) to compete and to win those consumer dollars.

News companies — at least one in ten U.S. daily newspapers and many consumer magazines — are rapidly embracing digital circulation revenue and All-Access. Yet results have been quite uneven. That makes sense: Consumers will pay for digital news, feature, and entertainment content, but they don’t want to overpay, and they’ll increasingly be forced to make choices. Buy this; let that go.

Let’s be clear. Paid media is paid media, and the original-programming pushes of the video companies have great meaning for news and magazine companies, global to local. For them, the calculus is similar. News and magazine brands can launch new products, though that’s out-of-their-DNA-tough for many. So they’ve focused primarily on sub-brands, many of which are people. These are the faces of news and magazines; many of these have become hot commodities over the last several years (“The newsonomics of journalistic star power“) as companies try to distinguish themselves — and give readers and viewers a reason to pick them out of the crowd.

How, though, can media companies afford to pay a premium for branded, promotable talent, talent that may open consumers’ pocketbooks? That’s easy: spend less on other content. So we’ve got the rise of user-generated content, obtainable free or cheap, and all kinds of new syndicate action from Demand Media to startup Ebyline (and maybe NewsRight), all trying to make it cheap and easy to get more medium- and higher-quality content more cheaply. What’s old is new again — as a young features editor, I got regular visits from syndicate and wire salesman, ranging from high-quality to the Copley News Service, that sold its stuff by the pound.

Another prominent model no news or magazine company can afford to ignore: The Huffington Post. Back to the early days when Betsy Morgan first teamed up with Arianna, HuffPost has worked this evolving content pyramid. At the top, a few highly paid site faces, many opinionated faces (some paid, most not), and then low-cost aggregation, much of it AP, headlined with the site’s recognizable swagger.

Then, of course, there’s the old standby: staff cutting. We’ve seen lots of staff cutting. In fact, these days, while we see some announcements like Media General’s big Tampa cut, most of the bloodletting is less public, but no less real. If you need to pay more to stars, and ad revenues are still declining, staff cuts of less than premium content (and those that produce it) make economic sense (“The newsonomics of the new news cost pyramid“). It’s the new news math.

These newsonomics of signature content are getting clearer. Netflix is planning to spend 5 percent of its expenses — or $100 million a year — on original, Netflix-defining content. Hulu is spending about a quarter what Netflix’s total, or $500 million in total, on all content licensing this year. We don’t know how much of that is for original content, but observers believe “Battleground” will cost $15-20 million for its 13 episodes. With its other forays, it will probably spend closer to 10 percent of its content budget on original content.

Curiously, many newspaper newsrooms constitute only 10-20 percent of the overall expenses of a daily newspaper company. So we’re starting to see some new, and old, arithmetic play out here.

Simply, Andy Forssell, Hulu’s SVP of content, explained the cost/benefit ratio to Variety: “…having an original scripted series that hasn’t been seen anywhere else yet is considered the best tool for standing out with either advertisers or viewers.”

As usual, we see the bifurcation of the bigger national brands — those with more audience to gain and more money to spend — and local news brands. While many local newspapers have cut to the bone, with too much of the tissue in the form of experienced, name-brand metro and sports columnists cajoled or drummed into “early retirement,” we see increased branding of stars at places like Time, The New York Times, Fox News, and ESPN. The sports network may be the classic business model of our age, and in its anchors and top analysts — many initially lured from daily newspapers — it has shown the way for many years now.

At the Times, consider business editor Larry Ingrassia’s build-up of business columnists, from veterans Gretchen Morgenson and Floyd Norris to new(er)bies Andrew Ross Sorkin, Brian Stelter, David Carr, Ron Lieber, and David Pogue. And the Times more recently picked up James Stewart from archrival Dow Jones.

At Fox News, Roger Ailes has cannily built the most successful cable news operation not on the interchangeable blondes that provide so much fodder for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but on O’Reilly and Hannity.

At NBC, the news franchise is so built around Brian Williams that his well received newsmagazine “Rock Center with Brian Williams” is synonymous with its host.

At Time Warner’s CNN and Time, we see the building of a worldly franchise on Fareed Zakaria’s clear-eyed, no-nonsense view of our times.

And then there’s the more local and regional press. Newspapers have long believed that it wasn’t any one or a half-dozen names that sold the paper. They’ve believed the news itself was the star, and the daily information report was the brand. That may be still be true of the Times, the Journal, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and a handful of other national/global news organizations — all of which have substantial, multi-hundred newsrooms that produce branded, unique products. It’s less true of regional and local dailies, many of which still present too much commoditized news in national, business, entertainment, and sports coverage, and have bid goodbye to many faces familiar to readers. Those that have retained familiar faces must do what they can to keep them; all need to recruiting more.

Then they may have a good answer to the question, in one form or another, consumers and advertisers will increasingly ask: What’s your signature content?

January 15 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Who’s responsible for local news, and Google plays hardball with China

[Our friend Mark Coddington has spent the past several months writing weekly summaries of what's happened in the the changing world of journalism — both the important stories and the debates that came up around them online. I've liked them so much that I've asked him to join us here at the Lab. So every Friday morning — especially if you've been too busy to stay glued to Twitter and your RSS reader — come here to recap the week and see what you've missed. —Josh]

Who reports local news?: Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study Monday that aimed to find out “who really reports the news that most people get about their communities?” In studying the Baltimore news media ecosystem for a week, the study found that traditional media — especially newspapers — did most of the original reporting while new media sources functioned largely as a quick way to disseminate news from other places.

The study got pretty predictable reactions: Major mainstream sources (New York Times, AP, L.A. Times) repeated that finding in perfunctory write-ups. (Poynter did a bit more with it, though.) It inspired at least one “see how important newspapers are?” column. And several new media thinkers pooh-poohed it, led by CUNY prof Jeff Jarvis, who said it “sets up a strawman and then lights the match.” Steve Buttry (who notes he’s a newspaper/TV exec himself) offered the sharpest critique of the study, concluding that it’s too narrow, focuses on stories that are in the mainstream media’s wheelhouse, and has some damning statistics for traditional-media reporting, too. Former journalist John Zhu gave an impassioned rebuttal to Jarvis and Buttry that’s well worth a read, too.

(A couple of interesting tangential angles if you want to dig deeper: New York Times media critic David Carr explains why blogs aren’t geared toward original reporting, and new media giant Gawker offers a quick can’t-we-all-just-get-along post saying web journalism needs more reporting and newspapers need to get up to speed.)

My take: I’m with CUNY’s C.W. Anderson and USC’s David WestphalOf course traditional media organizations report most of our news; this finding is neither a threat to new-media folks nor ammunition for those in old media. (I share Zhu’s frustration here — let’s quit turning every new piece of information into a political/rhetorical weapon and start working together to fix our system of news.) Clay Shirky said it well last March: The new news systems won’t come into place until after the old ones break, not before. Why would we expect any different now? Let’s accept this study as rudimentary affirmation of what already makes sense and keep plugging away to make things better.

Google talks tough with China: Citing attacks from hackers and limits on free speech, Google made big news this week by announcing it won’t censor its Chinese results anymore and is considering pulling out of the country altogether. The New York Times has a lucid explanation of the situation, and this 2005 Wall Street Journal article is good background on Google/China relations. Looking for something more in-depth? Search engine maven Danny Sullivan is your guy.

The Internet practically blew up with commentary on this move, so suffice it to say I’m only scratching the surface here. (GigaOm has a nice starter for opinions outside of the usual tech-blog suspects.) Many Google- and China-watchers praised the move as bold step forward for freedom, like Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do?”; China/IT expert Rebecca MacKinnon (twice); New York Times human rights watchdog Nicholas Kristof; and tech guru Robert Scoble, to name a few.

TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy was more cynical, saying this was a business move for Google. (Sullivan and Scoble rebut the point in the links above.) Global blogging advocate Ethan Zuckerman laid out four possible explanations for the decision. The Wall Street Journal and Wired had some more details about Google’s internal arguments over this move, including their concerns about repercussions on the China employees. The China-watching blog Imagethief looked at the stakes for Google, and the Atlantic’s James Fallows, who got back from China not too long ago, has a quick take on the stakes from a foreign-relations standpoint.

Jarvis also took the opportunity to revisit a fascinating point from his book: Google has become an “interest-state,” an organization that collaborates and derives power outside of the traditional national borders. Google’s actions this week certainly seemed very nation-like, and the point is worth pondering.

Fox News ethics: Fox News was the subject of a couple of big stories this week: The biggest came Monday, when the network announced that it had signed Sarah Palin to a multiyear deal as a contributor. Most of the online commentary has focused on what this move means from Palin’s perspective (if that’s what you’re looking for, the BBC has a good roundup), but I haven’t found much of substance looking at this from the Fox/news media angle. I’m guessing this is for two reasons: Nobody in the world of media-thinkers is surprised that Fox has become a home for another out-of-office Republican, and none of them are taking Fox very seriously from an ethical standpoint in the first place.

Salon founder and blogging expert Scott Rosenberg found this out the frustrating way when he got an apathetic response to his question of how Fox will cover any stories that involve her. As I responded to Rosenberg on Twitter, I think the lack of interest in his question are a fascinating indication of media watchers’ cynicism about Fox’s ethics. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Fox News would be a shill for Palin regardless of whether she was an employee, simply by virtue of her conservatism. Regardless of whether you think that attitude is justified (I do), it’s sad that that’s the situation we’re in.

Fox News was also involved in a strange chain of events this week that started when The New York Times published a front-page profile of its chief, Roger Ailes. It included some stinging criticism from Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law, British PR bigwig Matthew Freud. That led to speculation by The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove and Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff that Ailes’ days were numbered at Fox, with Wolff actually asserting that Ailes had already been fired. Then the L.A. Times reported that Ailes was still around and had News Corp.’s full support. Um, OK.

Facebook says privacy’s passé: In a short interview last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave a sort-of explanation for Facebook’s sweeping privacy changes last month, one that ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick recognized as a dramatic break from the privacy defenses Zuckerberg’s given in the past. Essentially, Kirkpatrick infers, Zuckerberg is saying he considers us to now be living in an age where privacy just doesn’t matter as much to people.

Kirkpatrick and The Huffington Post’s Craig Kanalley give two spirited rebuttals, and over at the social media hub Mashable, Vadim Lavrusik says journalists should be worried about Facebook’s changes, too. Meanwhile, Advertising Age media critic Simon Dumenco argues that we’re not getting enough out of all the information we’re feeding Facebook and Twitter.

Reading roundup: These last few items aren’t attached to any big media-related conversations from this week, but they’re all worth a close read. First, in the Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles made the bold argument that there is no revenue model for journalism. Steve Buttry filed a point-by-point rebuttal, and the two traded counterpoints in the comments of each other’s posts. It’s a good debate to dive into.

Second, Alan Mutter, an expert on the business side of the news industry, has a sharp two-part post crunching the numbers to find out how long publishers can afford to keep their print products going. He considers a few scenarios and concludes that “some publishers may not be able to sustain print products for as long as demand holds out.”

And finally, Internet freedom writer and activist Cory Doctorow explains the principle “close enough for rock ‘n’ roll,” and how it needs to drive our new-media experimentation. It’s a smart, optimistic yet grounded look at the future of innovation, and I like its implications for the future of journalism.

Photo of Sarah Palin by The NewsHour used under a Creative Commons license.

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