Reinventing the Newsroom

Franchises and Business Models

Posted in Branding, Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on July 15, 2009

This morning I read two different columns that led me to the same conclusion.

First off, Economist.com poses eight questions for Jacob Weisberg, Slate’s editor-in-chief. The money quote flying around the blogosphere is this: “The problem is that the leading news organisations have a stake in web-only newspapers not working because they will accelerate the decline of the large, if faltering businesses that revolve around print.”

I think that’s true, with a couple of caveats. Weisberg’s quote makes it sound like that’s a conscious strategy, or at least that’s the way the quote is being treated online. I don’t think it is conscious. I think most newspapers know their future is online and are honestly trying to figure out how to get there. But a lot of them have such large print investments — talking both infrastructure and culture — that it’s somewhere between difficult and inconceivable for them to truly remake themselves for the Web-first world. The sheer gravity of the print model pulls their ambitions down to a lower orbit, or leaves them short of escape velocity. In some ways that’s more insidious and harder to combat than a consciously misguided strategy.

The first half of Weisberg’s quote has gotten less attention. It’s this: “The test I’d most like to see is of a well-financed, for-profit, web-only ‘newspaper’ with no printed version.”

I’d like to see that too. The question is how to get there. As Weisberg has discussed, well-financed papers have trouble making the leap because they have so much invested in print. On the other side, there are papers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and AnnArbor.com (discussed today by Poynter’s Rick Edmonds in a follow-up to a piece I commented on here), which have big ambitions but are pursuing them with lean resources. This isn’t to say that those papers aren’t the right size for a Web-first operation — perhaps they are. But I worry if they have sufficient resources to make the difficult transition from big newspaper to lean but innovative Web shop.

Transitions are also on the mind of Fast Company co-founder Alan M. Webber, who pens an interesting follow-up to the Financial Times’ report that McGraw Hill could wind up selling BusinessWeek for just $1 — the same price that TV Guide fetched from OpenGate Capital.

“It’s time to buy when panic-stricken publishers offer up well-known brands with real assets at a price that is one stop away from Chris Anderson’s free,” Webber writes in the Huffington Post, noting that BusinessWeek has “a circulation — paid circulation — of almost 1 million, with a healthy pass-along rate. It has a top-notch web site. It has terrific followership in a number of areas where it’s attempted to carve out a position of thought-leadership.”

This isn’t to say that Webber thinks all is rosy at BusinessWeek. He thinks its problems begin with the newsweekly model, which he sees as no longer a good fit for consumers of news. His suggestion is to remake BusinessWeek as an American version of the Economist, interpreting the news and creating a stable of opinionated columnists from the ranks of old-school business journalists and new-school bloggers.

What really grabbed me — and brought me back to Weisberg’s thoughts — was Webber’s general advice.

“Most of all, BW needs to create a franchise,” he writes. “Because it’s not print that’s dead, or even print about business that’s dead. It’s old and tired franchises that are dead, franchises that have run out of gas and purpose and energy — franchises that deserve to die. Think about another medium that’s suffering ad sales loses [sic]: TV. Nobody bats an eyelash when a TV show goes off the air because it’s lost its franchise; nobody marvels at the ability of a new hit series to create a fresh franchise.”

That’s the key lesson, I think, and one that a lot of today’s papers would do well to heed. Today too many news franchises are so tangled up in the specifics of their print model that they’re having trouble moving forward to find a Web model that works. The franchise and the legacy business model need to be separated, with print finding its proper place among a host of models and their attendant strategies. Without that, news organizations’ efforts to change will be hobbled, and their franchises tarnished or lost.

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