1. souse, n.5: 3. A drunkard. slang (chiefly U.S.). (OED)
  2. white souse, n.1: A blog for literature, politics, science, and the occasional cocktail.

Monday, April 6, 2009

"Pinch" Sulzberger and the Demise of the NYTimes

There's a strong article out in Vanity Fair about Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and his stewardship of the NYTimes. At its most basic, it argues that Sulzberger lacks the vision and the talent to recognize the kind of changes necessary and to execute them (but also, that his rod-sparing love for the paper is spoiling the institution). It also points out that all other major publishers have proven equally inept (except, perhaps, Rupert Murdoch). But it gives two striking examples of sharp ideas which they failed to act upon:

First, from Diane Baker, who came on as C.F.O. in 1995:

Her biggest disappointment came when she crafted a potentially lucrative partnership with Amazon.com, already the biggest bookseller on the Internet. The Times would link all the titles reviewed in the paper’s prestigious Sunday Book Review section, ordinarily a money drain, to the online bookseller and receive a percentage on every book sold. “We could have made the Book Review into a big source of revenue,” she recalls. Baker knew that Amazon.com planned to eventually sell everything under the sun, to become the first digital supermarket. Not only would the deal have produced revenue from book sales, it would also have cemented a partnership with a tremendous future. She envisioned the newspaper as a virtual merchandising machine. Instead of the old carpet-bombing model of advertising, it would in effect target ads to readers of specific stories. “You know what they said?,” Baker recalls. “They said, We can’t do it, because Barnes & Noble is a big advertiser.”

Think about it -- the Times didn't just miss out on a cut for selling books for Amazon; they missed out on a share of selling EVERYTHING on Amazon which Amazon now offers. With 20 million unique Times visitors a month, that would be TONS of revenue -- and vastly more valuable to Amazon (or anyone else) that half-page ads.

And then this from Max Frankel, a former executive editor:

Frankel wrote two memos, which he no longer has, but whose content he remembers clearly. In the first memo he argued that, because computers were so good at generating lists, and cross-referencing them, classified ads in newspapers were doomed. He suggested that the Times set up a computer system to allow buyers and sellers to deal with each other directly online—“It was essentially Craigslist,” Frankel jokes. “I should have started it up!” Craigslist was created in 1995 and today averages billions of page hits per month, with reported annual revenues in excess of $80 million. It is a major factor in the decline of newspaper ad revenue.

“The second idea was much more important, and came a little later,” Frankel says. “I wrote that one big coming threat posed by the computer was disaggregation: the Internet disaggregates the hunt for information. The need for information would survive the advent of the digital era, but the package offered by The New York Times might not. So how do you protect the package? What was so great about The New York Times was not that we offered the best coverage in any particular field but that we were very good in so many. It was the totality of the newspaper that was a marvel, not any of its particulars. The Web threatened to break that up. One way to weather this, which I suggested, was that we needed to pick the fields in which to be pre-eminent. If you want to have the best sports package, then start hiring the staff and make yourself the best go-to place for sports information. If it is business, or politics—whatever—pick one and make yourself the best, or make a strategic alliance.” This is the approach taken by ESPN.com, by Bloomberg.com, IMDB.com, Weather.com, and a multitude of others. Any one of dozens of sites specializing in, say, politics or the arts could have been taken over and built up around the Times’s expert staff.

And the article adds that the Wallstreet Journal pursued this path , and is aggressively filching market share from the Times.

It's a striking article, because it indicates how much it is the upper-level management of newspapers who are to blame. How many great ideas have been floated by reporters and editors, only to get canned somewhere up the ladder by hide-bound and purblind management. It certainly confirms my experience-at-a-distance with the Chronicle. (Seen that new website lately? Nothing bespeaks self-confidence like a unacknowledged bastard.)

It's also an interesting article because it evinces the same qualities which it argues that Sulzberger lacks; that is, it does not allow its apparent affection for newspapers and even for the man to get in the way of the story. And for that reason it's honest, painful, and very interesting.

P.S.> If you click on the "Beta" at 29-95.com, you get a sparkling pony. I think I'm charmed.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Keep clicking the beta. You get unicorns & rainbows.