Monday, November 13, 2006

Business as un-usual

If newspapers in the hands of experienced operators are flailing…how is it that men who made money selling groceries, building houses or breaking pop music acts will suddenly crack the code?

That was the question posed today in a New York Times column questioning the bona fides, if not the sanity, of the wealthy industrialists and financiers who have emerged as possible buyers of newspaper companies.

How would the new press barons crack the code? They wouldn’t, silly. They would rewrite it. And it’s about time someone does.

At last check, the billionaire publishing wannabes include Eli Broad, Ron Burkle, David Geffen, Maurice Greenberg, Jack Welch and local investors interested in individual properties in Baltimore, Hartford and Long Island.

Far from being hopelessly disadvantaged as outsiders to the newspaper industry, the new investors would bring fresh energy, fresh objectivity and refreshing new perspectives to a myopic business that only recently traded decades of unwarranted self-satisfaction for the sheer terror of competing in a radically restructured marketplace its leaders don’t understand.

Though publishers may be running out of airspeed, altitude and ideas, the billionaires eyeing the newspaper business see some pretty valuable assets. They include prominent, well-regarded brands; monopoly or near-monopoly market positions, and substantial revenues and profits.

They also know the players in this conservative industry – from publishers to pressmen – have been highly defensive and largely unimaginative about making the sacrifices and launching the bold initiatives necessary to compete in what, to them, is the alien environment of the wired world.

Instead of taking a business-as-usual approach to the challenges threatening newspapers, the new owners would:

:: Rapidly gain an objective understanding of the fundamental demographic, economic and technological changes resulting in falling circulation and declining advertising revenues.

:: Leverage the considerable core strengths of the underlying assets to create compelling content that efficiently delivers valuable audiences to advertisers.

:: Take advantage of myriad opportunities to cut unjustifiable operating expenses and invest at least some of the savings in carefully conceived projects to ensure the future growth of their franchises.

Some of the moves would reflect simple common sense. Other solutions would be more radical.

And many, as discussed immediately below, would be personally painful for the individuals forced to make way as the industry moves on.