Women and Children First


And we had 70% market share….

The Day of Reckoning has arrived.

Or at least it has started.

Sam Zell’s Tribune Company goes Chapter 11.

The New York Times is so close to the edge that it has to mortgage its new headquarters to raise $225 million to meet a debt note that comes due May 2009.

NBC announces yet another round of cuts, and we are still at the beginning.

Change… vast and rapid change, is coming to the media business.  Now its a matter of survival, and only those willing to make the most radical changes in cost of operation are going to survive.

And this is not limited to the newspaper business, although they are first in line because the web carried text before it carried video. About 10 years before. So what television operations are seeing happen to newspapers today is going to happen to them tomorrow.

The ability of the web to carry text for free to 2+ billion homes around the world changed the fundamentals of the newspaper business.  It no longer made any sense to gather news, print it on paper and sell it on the street corner.  As much as 85% of the costs associated with publishing a newspaper are bound up in the cost of the physical production of the paper – the presses, the ink, the trucks to move the product around and put it in your hands.

The web offered an alternative – not a parallel distribution method, but an alternative. One or the other.

And, at the same time as the web offered that alternative, it also began to eat newspaper’s advertising dollars.

In the past decade or so, newspapers globally have been in decline. This isn’t a result of the recession. This was happening in the boom decade.


Newspaper’s revenues have been eroding over time, ironically, as younger readers migrate to the web (or indeed simply started there and never left).

Newspapers have two options now: follow the model of the Christian Science Monitor and pull the plug on print entirely, or go out of business.

In a wonderful piece by Jay Yarrow, Donald Graham, Publisher of the Washington Post said, “The business model that used to work at newspapers does not work any more.”

Television news is not far behind. Not by a long shot. Just ask the people who work at NBC.  And the local stations are going to follow suit.

That does not mean that news is not a viable business. But, as Donald Graham says, it is not viable the way it has been done until now.

The answer, I think, is a radical cost cutting on the production side, commensurate with the radical cuts in revenue and income that the web has wrought.  Fortunately, technology is on the cost-cutting side.

Small cameras and laptops in the hands of well trained journalists can create a treasure trove of digital content on a daily basis from all over the world.  The technology already exists.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but for $25 million, one-tenth of the money the Times has raised by mortgaging its building to one time service the interest on their debt… for one tenth of that, NBC News could field 250 digital journalists around the world, at $100,000 each.  Those reporters, all carrying digital cameras and laptops could file daily enough material to feed all NBC operations, all web news, as well as a great deal of NYtimes.com.

The asset to protect here is the content – the journalism.  Not the building.

The place to feed here is the web.

Media companies have an opportunity, and a rapidly closing window, to re-invent themselves as digital content creators, or they can close the doors and turn out the lights.

The potential is there.

It’s in the newsroom.

Put it to work.

Leverage (not to use too dirty a word) off the only asset you have. Your journalism.

In a world of global free internet access, newspaper’s and television station’s only real asset goes home every night.

If they don’t come back, you have nothing.

If you equip and train them for the new digital world, you have everything.


7 responses to “Women and Children First

  1. We need to do Something
    Video is something
    We need to do Video.


    I want news video to work as much as anyone, but the folks who drank that cool-aid aren’t feeling too clever right about now.

  2. Makes perfect sense – but those entrenched in the old way of doing things refuse to accept what appears to be the inevitable – and so will become both a perpetrator and a victim to the changes that are taking place.

    I understand the position the detractors take in debating your POV but everything I’m reading and seeing now points to denial on their part. I’m none too happy with what’s happening either – but each of us has only one of three options available for ANY given situation – Change the situation, remove yourself from it, or accept it for what it is without any resistance.

    Those are the options.

  3. For a number of years I’ve been providing communication advice to nonprofit public policy advocacy organizations.

    Leaders in these organizations have approach, and still mostly do approach, the problem of getting attention for their causes with a simple “earned media” model in their heads: send out a press release (often on some new study with new data and policy ideas), do follow up calls with reporters, and hope some part of the story gets in the paper. Another version of the same strategy: try and get an op-ed in a newspaper, or a letter to the editor. Once upon a time these approaches used to work well enough.

    Now, of course, the media environment has changed.

    The quickening collapse of the newspaper business means that old earned media strategy is less and less successful. Newspaper have been reducing coverage of local or state policy stories and letting go the reporter who used to cover them. What used to be just longish odds of getting in the paper are lengthening to damn near impossible. A similar trend seems to be at work in local TV news.

    The interesting thing is that many, many leaders of nonprofit advocacy organizations just don’t get the implications of these changes for their work. They want to keep sending out press releases and get their news into newspapers as their primary PR strategy.

    I’ve been telling them they can’t let “print” be their only focus and probably it shouldn’t be their first focus. The web means that they can eliminate the mediation of the newspapers.

    “Make your own content and speak directly to the audiences that matter to you,” I say. “It’s never been easier or less expensive to do. The future of nonprofit advocacy is in creating something in your organization that looks a lot like a newsroom producing content on your topics for your audiences. Make your own journalism. Be your own newspaper. Such media coverage as you will get will be coverage of the online content your organization produces. The political utility or status of the content you produce will be judged by the online conversation it generates” (witness discussion of the potential power of Obama’s email lists).

    They don’t listen. I’ve said it so often now they just roll their eyes.

    Of course the new environment requires learning new skills and new ways of organizing work inside nonprofits, and, most importantly, thinking about communications activities very differently. Adapting to the new media world looks like a lot of work and a lot of expense and it so much easier just to send out another press release and to say, as clients have said to me, “people still read newspapers, at least the kind of people we need to reach.”

    Now comes news of the Tribune’s travails and crappy performance at the New York Times. Who are those people you are going to reach with a newspaper story or an op-ed again?

    What’s happening to the media isn’t just happening to newspapers and local TV: it’s happening to an entire culture of producing and consuming a certain kind of content that was called news because editors and news directors had the authority to present it as such. Many social actors had a lot invested in that editorial authority. It served to legitimize their work and ideas. As that authority gets fuzzier and fuzzier an important institution in our democratic practice changing. What the final effect will be is anyone’s guess.

    One thing is more and more certain. Those who don’t come to grips with the nature of the change at hand are likely to wonder where their power and influence, such as they were, went.

  4. Fascinating. Just fascinating.

    So was the sinking of the Titanic.

    People have paid a lot of money to see that movie, over and over and over. Then they bought the DVD.

    Fascinating, it is.

    I am going to print this one out and take it into work for some conversation.

  5. I fully agree that newpapers should embrace video wholeheartedly and make it the centrepiece of their online product.

    But Newspapers are not going to do this until they can get hard evidence that their websites and their video offering can actually make them money. The jury is still very much out on this issue.

    Business models are thin on the ground. Sure, loads of newpapers are crossing to the internet – it’s a cheap transition to make – but how many are making money from it? Name them.

  6. What I find interesting as well…

    Is where will be the “central” historical libraries of news content. I mean, there will be fractionalized items everywhere. In the past, newspapers, networks, were a central hub and they have a huge archive.

    Where will the archive be? Or will it just be a search engine?


  7. Where will the archive be? Or will it just be a search engine?

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