Wednesday, February 7, 2007

NY Times' Sulzberger on the Future of News: Pinching Print?

Haaretz covers comments at the recent Davos summit by Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., Chairman and Publisher of The New York Times Company, in which "Pinch" lashed out at a number of newspaper sacred cows, including print itself. When asked if he thought that the NYT would still be printed in five years, Sulzberger replied, "I really don't know whether we'll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don't care, either," citing his focus on making the Times a leading online property. When any sort of major investment in print for the national/global/regional/local daily costing a billion or more U.S. dollars, investing in online production seems to be a more cost-effective way for them to keep a leading role in news curation and creation.

Sulzberger's stance is admirable in its own way, showing a commitment to bringing NY Times operations into more cost-effective and profitable online venues appealing to younger demographics that expand their advertising base significantly. In five years most nationally-scaled newspapers will be under extreme pressure any way if they are still relying too heavily on resource-intensive print revenues. What's not clear is whether the NY Times or any other major news organization will have sussed out their cost structures to the point that they will be able to compete with a rapidly broadening array of online news outlets. Saying that you're going to go premium online no matter what presumes that you've cracked the online premium formula. It's far from clear that this is the case with either the NY Times and a host of other online papers.

As both overall revenues and margins decline for news organizations the nature of The New York Times' "curation" role for news will come under increasing pressure. Rosy revenue and net income stories from the Wall Street Journal bolster the confidence of news organizations everywhere, but few if any newspapers have the specialized audience that the Journal enjoys to help drive up ad revenues for both online and print editions. The bottom line is that news in print is going to be around for far longer than five years - perhaps decades or more - but in formats increasingly defined by audiences used to aggregating their own content. The NY Times is right to push aggressively into online venues for its core news operations but making the most of personalized print and other personalized media will be an increasingly important contribution to news organizations' bottom lines in the years ahead.

My fear - and expectation to some degree - is that a Google Newspaper initiative will come along and trump short-sighted news organizations at their own game. With users as the ultimate curators it will be interesting to see whether news organizations will have spent their development funds effectively in preparing news for a predominantly digital present and future that's supplemented by strong and specialized print offerings.
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