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April 23, 2014

The Newsonomics of a New York Times/CNN Combination

First published at Nieman Journalism Lab

Mark Thompson faces a defining and daunting challenge: Lead The New York Times on that thin tightrope to a new stability, one tethered to the digital world. We’ve seen lots of good ideas already freely offered to the incoming NYT CEO. Let me offer a new one.

Let’s imagine what a New York Times/CNN combination would look like — and what it could do for both companies. Combination? Yes, a purposely squishy word. I’m not talking about a merger of the companies. I’m thinking about what each company offers the other strategically, at this point in media history, and how each could see its business advanced. We’ll leave the messy details of corporate development, of partnership, of joint venture, for a later day.

So why put these two entities closer together? Two big reasons provide some logic.

First, the marketplace is pushing companies toward convergence. The worlds of completely separate TV (video), newspapers/magazines (text), and radio (audio) have simply been overwhelmed by the reality of consumption devices that bring all three together for us — the iPad being the current crown of creation. But the legacy roots of each medium has made it really tough to either (re-)build truly multi-platform companies or forge newspaper/TV alliances (Tampa, Chicago, etc.) that work. Logic compels greater multi-platform creation; inevitably that will mean new combinations of legacy companies, even as legacy companies try to remake themselves internally.

Second, both CNN and The New York Times fill in numerous of the other’s weaknesses. At this digital moment when “mobile” and the tablet are tossing old habits up in the air and forcing consumers to re-form new ones, it’s a great time for both the Times and CNN to double down on their native advantages, and make their products no-brainer top-three places to go in the news everywhere-and-anywhere world.

For CNN, a partnership could be part of a strategy to reclaim its mojo after seeing TV ratings drop to 21-year lows. For the Times, having turned small corners in the last year, it’s a way to increase its sense of momentum, separating itself from the pack of other top news sources.

The timing is near-perfect. Mark Thompson, after all, comes to the Times as a broadcaster. With a 33-year TV career, he knows TV, and he knows the Times is just beginning to escape its print roots. Scaling the wall of video/TV, where huge revenues still exist, is one of his daunting challenges. He is one of the few people who could have taken the job who brings both a broadcast background and one of airtight news credibility, given the BBC’s standards. He is the perfect person to imagine a strong video/TV presence for the next-gen Times. The Times is looking currently at what a major investment in video would look like; how does it climb the incremental mountain with the next generations of TimesCasts?

CNN is searching for recently resigned president Jim Walton’s successor. While the 32-year-old network’s staff debates the realities and fantasies, and CNN-directed truths, of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” the once top-of-the-heap TV news source faces a fundamental identity crisis and big strategic moment. It has wavered along hard/soft news lines and in programming choices, spun into a dither by Fox News’ Roger Ailes and MSNBC’s Phil Griffin.

Now the next CNN president must renew brand purpose and internal pride. Focus on news — especially adding to its forte of who, what, and where the whyand how aspects of news as it has been edging into (The Freedom Project, an award-winning series on human trafficking, and Saving Aesha, for example) — or play with more entertainment/personality positioning? Worry about the Foxes and the MSNBCs, or grab the moment of the greatest potential global news reach technology and literacy has ever made possible?

There are smaller plays for both, to be sure. CNN’s been around the block with CBS News, talking news merger, but those talks foundered on issues of control and culture. The Times has tried all manner of tests, from longer-standing ones with Google to newer ones with Flipboard.

What both need is a game changer: a move that will simultaneously do three things:

  • Rocket it ahead of the news competition, as consumers decide those handful of must-go-to news sources they’ll visit each day, across their many screens.
  • Add a large new dimension of content to its current brand. While both the Times and CNN have lots of content, both — as is the case of all news companies — can use more to satisfy insatiable digital reading appetites.
  • Create a strong, new revenue line, as both see traditional lines weakened by market change.

Before I get to how a game-changer may work, let’s try this as a simplified chart to compare the two companies:

The New York Times CNN
Brand Ascendant; mobile apps have now separated NYT from other “newspapers”; digital circulation has newly marked NYT as innovator Ubiquitous in U.S. and worldwide; its image — what it stands for — is unclear
Top leadership CEO Mark Thompson begins in November Search on for replacement for President Jim Walton
Audience Top-five web site; newspaper circulation flat Top-three web site; TV ratings at 21-year low
Revenue Reader revenue, newly revived and growing, with all-access digital circulation programs; online advertising under pricing pressure, and by ad marketplace change; print advertising in 5-10 percent annual decline. Net loss of $39.7 million (2011) Cable/satellite fees, increasingly threatened by low ratings and the potential unbundling of forced consumer packages; advertising, on air and online, both under pricing pressure by ad marketplace change. Profit of $600 million (est. 2012)
Global Times moving that way, with ~10 percent of paying digital-only customers outside U.S.; new China site By definition, global and recognized globally. Great worldwide distribution and name recognition
TV culture/experience Experimenting, unevenly, with “video” It’s a TV company
Text culture/experience It’s a newspaper company Experimenting, unevenly, with “text”
Content Deep, authoritative, agenda-setting; fairly good breadth, but the deep web is exposing its areas of weakness Immediate, wide, truly global, largely authoritative; good breadth, and worldwide, though subpar to AP
Access to TV platforms Minimal Ubiquitous
Revenue sources Readers, advertisers Cable/satellite cos., advertisers
Aggregator chops Little developed; a powerful potential for adding breadth to its brand Little developed, but it bought top-three tablet aggregator Zite
Community-generated content Fledgling efforts have gone awry CNN’s iReport is a prototype for user-generated reporting; if those CNN/Mashable talks work their way to completion, CNN would have a leg up on social media journalism
Wire Longstanding NYT wire and syndicate are mature Newer CNN wire fighting for place in market

There’s clearly a complementarity here that makes sense — on paper. How might it work in reality?

It’s easiest to see how the two might exploit two green fields, areas so new neither has as much ego or business invested.

If we look at the coming five screens of access, it is the emerging two — connected TV and connected car — that are most virgin, while laptop/desktop, smartphone and tablet are already deeply competitive. Both connected TV and connected car offer many new product opportunities and access to new revenue. A partnership could focus on those two, as the least threatening way to combine smarts and assets.

More immediately, we could see a new focus on tablet and smartphone products. For starters:

  • Next-generation news video products for the tablet: The Wall Street Journal has burst out of its word box this year with a major emphasis on video. It has just begun to leverage its deep journalistic expertise, though the presentation is still more talking head than “TV.” Combining the beat expertise of New York Times journalists with CNN TV smarts — and its own formidable behind-the-scenes journalistic workforce — offers breakout potential for tablet video news. CNN’s journalist workforce numbers is a hard number to compare to the Times’ 1,150 journalists; how do you count those who provide the technology to present the journalism? Yet CNN’s journalists often get short shrift in the press, which favors endless Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper stories. Here’s one area where print is superior: In the breadth of The New York Times’ Sunday edition, for instance, you can see the great stretch of its journalistic talent. With the flat screen of the TV or the computer or tablet, you can’t see the rich CNN reporting behind its facade.
  • The leading global news product: Everyone from Bloomberg to the FT and BBC and from the Journal to the Times and the Guardian, is now moving on the vast global opportunity (English-speaking and otherwise). No longer must the Brits be satisfied with their one percent of the world market, or Americans with five percent. Here both CNN and the Times are among the top contenders. With 32 journalists outside the U.S. and 24 foreign bureaus, the Times has maintained a global presence, when most of its print brethren have severely cut back. CNN’s 33 foreign bureaus and vast carriage across the world lay continued claim to its birthright. If you are overseas and watch CNN International, it’s a night-and-day different product than CNN U.S.; adding the Times to the mix would lengthen its international lead.
  • Reinventing the “wire”: CNN’s wire, launched in 2009, marked its emergence from AP. The goal: compete with AP, leveraging its substantial journalistic investment with syndication, selling the same content to many, many others. That wire, like many competitors to AP and Reuters, has found tough going against the incumbents. Meanwhile, The New York Times’ wire and syndicate face the same struggles of most in that niche wire business: maturity at best, holding on to as much of the old, dwindling print world as they can. A combined “wire,” focusing on those next-generation syndicatable digital/mobile products, could harvest joint assets well.

Then, there’s the web in general and TV, the former where both engage in head-to-head combat and the latter in which CNN, though struggling, is the incumbent and NYT the wannabe. The hurdles to cooperation, there, are highest, though the payoff may be the greatest.

For CNN, the questions would be: How could TV people harness the added depth of The New York Times’ report and intelligence? How could it marry its video and text in new state-of-the-art ways?

While CNN is now much more profitable than the Times, the fragmentation and disruption of TV business models is happening quickly (see “The Newsonomics of Breakthrough Digital TV, from Aero to Dyle and MundoFox to Google Fiber TV“). A Times partnership could help CNN find ways to create new news and information products that consumers will pay for, as the Times has now nimbly done, with its digital circulation initiative.

For The New York Times, the questions would be: How could text-based journalists move into the next generation of multimedia storytelling, bringing over their craft and standards, but learning new skills? How could video be graft onto the Times DNA, make the Times the company it needs to be in the next age?

How could the Times tap into the revenue stream of TV access, either through programming that cable and satellite companies would pay then for, as they pay Time Warner/CNN? It isn’t as if Times reporters haven’t been well-used on broadcast. NPR does a masterful job of that, but the Times gets no revenue out of the relationship. That’s the key: wringing TV money out of a deal.

For both, the tasty intangible: Would a combination of two of the best brands in news world reinforce and heighten each side’s? Of course, there are lots of reasons why it wouldn’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t work. Yet, it if did, it would give real meaning to convergence — finally — as the old demarcations of print and TV fast erode.

It’s easy to tick off the numerous factors that make it difficult: control, valuation and culture top the list. It’s at least, though, a whiteboard exercise that allocates strengths and deficits, opportunities and challenges over a five-year time span. That’s the level of thinking, and timespan, that Mark Thompson will need to bring to the Times, as will CNN’s new chief when she or he arrives in Atlanta.

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