Mr. Watson, come here… I need you…
Sometimes when new technologies come along, they overturn the world of conventional thinking – particularly when it comes to valuation.
Take a look at the telephone.
Before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, value was directly married to rarity. The more rare an object, the more it was worth. Gold had great value because there was not a lot of it. Make gold as common as lead, and its value would plummet. So people horded gold and nations went to war over gold. Only kings and very rich people had gold. That was how they liked it. Open the treasury in the middle of the night and luxuriate in your wealth.
Comes the telephone.
What is the value of a telephone if only one person has it?
Who are you going to call?
If only a few kings and a few rich people have phones, the value increases, but only marginally. Now you can call a few friends,but that’s about it.
However, if everyone has a phone, right down to the local plumber, suddenly a phone is so valuable that you can not afford not to have one.
Now that’s value, but an inverse value from that which had been true through almost all of human experience. It is no longer rarity that gives value, but rather commonality.
What does this have to do with the current crisis in newspapers?
A lot, I think.
Because the crisis we are facing in newspapers and journalism in general is also a moment in which conventional thinking about valuation is being turned on its head, although we are slow to see that , as usual.
Up until now, we have thought that the primary asset of a paper or a TV station was, in fact, the station or the newspaper itself. It was The New York Times that had the value, or CBS News. The rest, the people who worked there, were in a sense fungible.
In other words, the institution lived on and on, and readers or viewers were attracted to the institution, while the people who created the content for the institution were fundamentally replaceable or interchangeable.
This we sometimes referred to as ‘branding’.
This remained true so long as the technology of the day meant that there were a limited number of pipelines or platforms for delivery of information or content (and the advertising that went along with them). In the words of AJ Liebling “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one”.
Because it was ridiculously expensive to even entertain the idea of having your own press. The very cost of a press and the attendant mechanisms of distribution were a barrier to entry for competitors. Thus, the perceived value of an institution like The New York Times was vested in that barrier to entry. The reporters might go from paper to paper, from The Times to The Herald to The Daily News, but the paper, the institution would survive.
The reporters were marginal.
The same was true for television.
When it surfaced in the 1950s, the signal was pushed through the air. There was limited space on the electromagnetic spectrum, so the FCC licensed the limited space to three networks, ABC, NBC and CBS and they held a virtual monopoly over access to people’s homes.
Shows might come and go, but the platform, the pipeline was in the frequency (and in all the expensive investment in infrastructure to push pictures and sound into the air). The value was in the network, not in the content, per se. The content was simply the filler, which was changeable depending upon taste.
When cable arrived, it as the same model, simply fractionalized over more players.
The web, however, like the invention of the telephone, changed everything.
At first, newspapers and later television stations saw the web as yet another platform for distribution – a kind of super cable, that would carry The New York Times or CBS shows into everyone’s home.
But that was not the case.
What the web did was to rewrite the fundamentals of valuation.
And like medieval kings, it was and is hard for those who once had the most precious things in the world to grasp that the very definition of value has now changed forever.
What the web did was to take away the barriers to entry. To make the ‘gold’ of the NY Times or NBC’s FCC license as common as lead.
Now, anyone, any time, and for no cost, could get into 2 billion homes. For free.
So where does value suddenly reside?
In the content.
People online are seeking content.
And they do not care where it resides.
iTunes is a classic indicator of what is coming.
In webworld, music is often a harbinger of where the future lies.
When I go to iTunes to download a song, I don’t care if the recording artist is signed with Arista or RCA or Decca or whomever. It does not matter a bit to me. It is the music I am after. The ‘studio’ goes away. It is the content that is king.
Each day I go to NYTimes.com to read the paper, but in truth, if Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman and a handfull of others were to suddenly break away from the paper and set up their own website (and like Drudge, they might aggregate headlines), I would go there instead.
Now, the NY Times might be in financial trouble, and perhaps their website does not generate enough revenue to support their building, the presses, their trucks, their vast management and HR teams and so on. But my guess is that online revenues from The New New York Times (aka Rich, Dowd, Friedman and Co.) would more than satisfy the writers.
That’s all that counts.
So it strikes me as more than a bit odd that when budget cuts come, which is inevitable, the first places to be cut are those who actually create the content.
It does not make sense.
It is like eating the seed corn.
Sell the building.
Fire the management.
Close down HR.
Do anything, but save and nurture the talent.
Or maybe the talent will simply leave and set up their own online ‘paper’. I mean, why do they really need management anyway?