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October 25, 2014

New New York Times Plan: (Digital) World Domination

Talk about a December surprise. News is being poured, or leaked, out of the New York Times Company with unexpected near-Christmas volume. Today’s news that the Times Company is finally selling its New York Times Regional Newspaper Group holdings of 14 newspapers absolutely fits with the last week’s news of CEO Janet Robinson’s abrupt departure.

The New York Times is slimming down to bulk up. It is no longer a newspaper company, with a strong national newspaper, a Boston cousin in the Globe and regional newspaper interests. It is a global news company whose future is mostly digital, and it will live or die on that adventure. It is a company that now sees 63% of its revenues (last from the third quarter) coming from the Times print and digital operations. Over the past several years, the Times — despite its many trials (selling its flagship building, participating in Carlos Slim usury, before paying back the 14% $250 million loan to the Mexican magnate) — has outperformed financially both the regional group and the Globe .

That only makes sense. Borrowing lessons from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and many others, the global Times is about scale. You can pay a Times reporter to write a story that can reach some of the Times ‘ 50 million global monthly unique visitors, three-fifths of them in the U.S. Or you can pay a Gainesville or Tuscaloosa reporter a little less to write a story that can reach a hundreth of that total. Do the math, and the future bet is on the company with the big global news brand and the reach.

The regional news companies, important as they are to their communities, have been but a business distraction. The Times has tried to sell them before, pulling back as market conditions forced it to do. Now Halifax Media Group seems set to complete its deal, which we’d have to believe is in final form given its inclusion of the NYTRNG papers on its website (courtesy of Romenesko), now taken down. Halifax is part of new generation of newspaper property buyers, believing they can make a go of these distressed properties, through more consolidation of jobs and other efficiencies. (“Now at Fire Sale Prices, a Few Newspapers…and Maybe More,” Newsonomics, Dec. 2, 2011)

For the Times now, and going forward, the competition is CNN, the BBC, News Corp, ABC, NBC, the Guardian, Bloomberg, Reuters and several others. Who indeed will be among the most trusted names in the (digital) news business?

The spasms of change at the Times come ironically after one of the most relatively successful years for the company. Yes, profits are still tough to come by — a measly $33 million in the last quarter — but the company pulled off a digital pay scheme that has established a modest beachhead. It begins to provide the Times a second digital revenue stream, in addition to advertising. Circulation revenues grew 3.4% for the last period, as the Times’ new digital All-Access push circulation had netted 324,000 “digital” subscribers of one kind or another and enabled the first Sunday home delivery print increase since 2006. It has positioned itself well with apps for emerging tablet and smartphone platforms, moving quickly into the Apple Newsstand, for instance. It is aiming for ubiquity and is in the lead of the newspaper pack, with the Journal nipping and biting along the way.

Yet, ominously, print advertising revenues decreased 10.4 percent and digital advertising revenues decreased 4.5 percent in the last quarter. 2012 looks like another down year, in high single digits. In fact, there’s an array of numbers that offer a quite uneven path to success next year, as I described in the Newsonomics of 2012′s Magic Formula, last week.

Consequently, the company is barely keeping even, and will likely have to accelerate cuts next year to stay profitable. So the plow must be sped. With less than a quarter of its revenues now driven by digital, the Times has to move quicker. It may balance (smartly as its done with its Sunday print/digital pricing) package print and digital, but it is has to grab mind share and market share in all the emerging digital spaces, tablet, smartphone, connected TV and web.

Expect the new CEO, most likely from the outside to be focused on three A’s: audience, advertising and analytics. Arrange those three in a virtuous circle, and you have an efficient spinning of the new digital economy. That’s clearly what Time Inc has in mind as it hired Laura Lang from the ad world.

The new CEO must also drive a faster kind of decision-making at the Times Company, a company now seeing both CEO Robinson and digital head Martin Nisenholtz leaving at the same time, the latter by retirement. Famously balkanized, with numerous power centers, the company has been both innovative and plodding. That’s an odd combo, but one fitting its prudent-above-all news culture. With one distraction removed (and now we wonder about the Boston Globe, its own pay scheme innovation underway, and how long it will remain a Times Company property), the new CEO aces a tough terrain. Given that the company, even post NYTRNG sale, is 90%+ newspaper-based, it suffers in its ability to grow. News Corp, CNN, Reuters and Bloomberg all are part of large, diversified companies that can buffer them from the permanent print ad downturn. As Janet Robinson found, the path forward is an extremely narrow one.



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