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New York Times: Dinosaur or New Media Machine?

2 March 2008 1,335 views One Comment

Since my current work is in new media and social networking, I am keenly interested in the turbulence facing the newspaper industry. Clients, ranging from Fortune 2000 companies to small innovative startups, come to my team at SocialOptimize to gain an understanding of the new media landscape and to develop an actionable strategy for building a meaningful presence in social networks. They ask about their traditional marketing budgets and I tell them that we will see the disappearance of many old model newspaper, radio, and television companies as they struggle and fail to adapt to the reality of new media on the Web. Consumers are spending less time watching television, listening to radio, and reading newspapers. Instead, they are spending more and more time on the Internet for their news and entertainment needs. Very few traditional media companies will emerge stronger from this “dislocation” but the opportunity exists for several to transform themselves into new media leaders.

As an investor, I train my eyes on public companies that report the news who are also making headlines themselves. During periods of disruption, large sums of value get destroyed but great opportunities arise at the same time. Thus my ears perked up when I learned that Harbinger Capital, playing the role of activist investor, initiated a proxy fight by nominating four candidates for the New York Times (NYT) board of directors. The New York Times, being one of the leaders and most important assets in traditional media, has been causing great anxiety and nervousness in shareholders. Newspaper subscriptions and newspaper advertising revenue, the old metrics of success, are steadily declining and this has caused a panic in investors. I argue that newspaper subscriptions can no longer be relevant in the evaluation of this company. While advertising revenue of course remains the lifeblood of media companies, revenue from the printed page should diminish in priority. The company needs a dramatic rethinking of what it means to be relevant and influential and how to reconfigure its revenue base. Harbinger seems to be on the same page as it calls for “bold action” in the form of selling off business units and increasing investments in online efforts.

New York Times Newsroom

If Harbinger succeeds in placing its nominees on the board, I think it will have its greatest impact by helping the company allocate capital in a more logical manner. The company should start by deemphasizing or changing its editorial makeup. Americans perceive mainstream media outlets like the New York Times as “out of touch” and severely biased in favor of liberal policies and politicians. Whether this bias is true or not matters little, one can only respond to the marketplace with logic and logic dictates that the customer is always right. This presents an opportunity to drastically cut the expensive editorial staff and balance it with editors of more conservative leanings. In no way am I advocating for a government mandated Fairness Doctrine. I’m pushing for a market-mandated, self-regulated, fairness regime that satisfies what consumers and readers are asking for. This will go a long way in maintaining relevance and influence while generating substantial cost savings at the same time.

As for overhauling its revenue base, I think that the New York Times has taken good steps towards improving its online efforts. Only Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (NWS-A) has arguably done a better job at shifting revenue streams online. It doesn’t get a lot of press for its investments in the Internet, but some of the companies it has invested in are very compelling. As with all new businesses, patience is required for a few of these to work out and become substantive revenue generators. Many of these have ambiguous business models to begin with and it will take some time to adjust to the market and settle on a viable strategy. I expect some of these will not gain traction and will fail, but that is the perilous, creative, and destructive nature of our evolving online business environment. Here are some of the company’s more notable recent investments in a portfolio style overview:

WordPress LogoEarlier this year, NYT co-invested with a few venture capital funds in San Francisco-based Automattic. Automattic’s primary product is the blogging platform known as WordPress. WordPress software can be downloaded for free and hosted on private servers. WordPress.com is a hosted blogging solution that many major media outlets are turning to as a cost-effective solution for serving blogs and other content. Large media companies such as CNN, Fortune, and Fox are paying for the company’s WordPress.com services to host their blog content. WordPress is one of the leading content serving platforms on the Internet and continues to grow in popularity. I think Automattic will carefully find other ways to monetize the technology including serving advertising.

Brightcove LogoThe Internet is a medium that is conducive to the convergence of different types of media such as text, video, and audio. The clean divisions between newspapers, radio stations, and broadcast television that existed before the rise of the Web no longer apply. In early 2007, the New York Times joined with other media companies such as Time Warner (TWX), GE Global Media & Communications (GE), Hearst Interactive Media, and IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI) to fund Brightcove, a developer of IP video technology. Brightcove technology hosts and serves content published by professional media businesses. Brightcove has emerged as one of the more successful alternatives to YouTube for consumers of video content.

quadrantONE LogoJust earlier last month, NYT partnered with Sam Zell’s Tribune Company, Gannett (GCI), and Hearst to form a joint venture called quadrantONE. Yet another in a long line of advertising networks, quadrantONE will sell localized online advertisements, primarily display or banner ads. Given that this network will include many regional and national newspaper organizations, it stands a reasonable chance of achieving success. The challenge will be to educate smaller, more localized marketers about this differentiating factor. Many small marketers are still only aware of Google’s (GOOG) advertising platforms. The real opportunity here belongs to the regional and local metro papers. Consumers will return to demanding more quality localized news and content. If the local news agencies can meet that demand, they can create the inventory necessary to make a localized ad network like quadrantONE a viable competitor online.

Federated Media LogoNYT has also invested in Federated Media, an ad network for blogs. There will always be a place in this world for professionally produced news content. I certainly don’t want an amateur giving me the scoop on a tightly guarded political scandal. Most amateurs don’t write well enough to convey the juiciness of the drama. And if an amateur suddenly stumbles upon a juicy scoop and is capable of writing cogently about it, that person immediately becomes a professional. Such has happened in the world of blogging. The new world certainly has space for an army of amateurs sharing their opinions regarding everything under the sun. This distributed rather than centralized model of content creation opens up opportunities for a talented few to break into the ranks of influential professionals. The good ones generate a relatively large following. Federated Media helps this top tier of bloggers monetize their audience and content. A recent rumor has management at Federated Media rejecting a $100 million buyout offer.

Indeed LogoThe rise of Craigslist, partially owned by eBay (EBAY) has devastated the classifieds advertising market for newspapers. Job listings revenue, usually the most lucrative segment in classifieds advertising, has fallen way down. The migration of job listings off news pages to online job boards such as Monster (MNST) only worsens the situation. The New York Times hopes its investment in Indeed, a search engine for jobs, will help it recapture some of those lost revenues. Indeed promises to give job hunters access to millions of job listings aggregated from online job boards, corporate websites, and newspapers.

Shifd LogoI did not know there was a New York Times Research & Development Group. I hope the boys at Harbinger don’t look at this little skunk works team as a waste of scarce capital. Innovation and breakthrough business models take time and freedom to develop. I already look upon corporate-directed incubators with skepticism but when the parent company accepts that it is in crises mode, there might just be a chance for the mad scientists and geeks to make an impact. Shifd is a new mobile Web application that allows users to share content between their desktop computers and mobile devices. Shifd, pardon the pun, is a paradigm-shifting idea. It makes possible a future in which we don’t have discreet devices separate from each other. All our information lives on the Web and is available to us from any device and custom-configured to our needs. Your cell phone and your desktop computer will have roughly the same utility and functional profile.

Daylife LogoDaylife calls itself a “news site and distribution platform.” It is a different take on the aggregation of related news items and competes against the likes of Digg and Reddit. Instead of relying solely on a community of users to vote news stories up popularity rankings, the company appears to utilize its own search technology and algorithms to organize related news articles. Daylife also offers Web widgets that help other publishers expand their news content. The New York Times invested in this startup in late 2006. If I had to short one of these startups, Daylife would be the one. I love their user interface design; these guys are definitely in tune with the modern aesthetic. However, the competitive landscape for news aggregation is simply too crowded and the company does not offer anything so different and compelling to suggest that it can take users from Digg, Reddit, or even Google News.

WideOrbit LogoWideOrbit provides software systems that automate and manage the sales, traffic, and billing of advertising. It sells its products to radio stations, television broadcasters, cable networks, and data centers. This sounds like a wonderful product as I am sure that relatively few people are putting their minds to solving the billing management needs of content publishers. Most entrepreneurs are focused on the deservedly hyped Web 2.0 space. This may not seem core to the business of the New York Times, but any model that puts the company in the middle of revenue flows will create value. Non-core businesses such as Federated Media and WideOrbit may create value for the company as they are sold off at rich multiples and for handsome returns. But in this uncertain time, who really understands what is core and what is non-core?

Again, Harbinger Capital is spot on with its call for a dramatic rethinking of the New York Times’ business model. Much capital can be allocated away from traditional business activities to online efforts that can significantly change the structure of the company. New profit centers will arise and the company’s recent investments in Web startups give it a good chance to navigate the future. What the New York Times needs right now is a stable of patient investors.

Update 3/17/08 – The New York Times came to a compromise with activist hedge funds Harbinger Capital and Firebrand Partners by expanding board seats by two outside directors. Scott Galloway of Firebrand and James Kohlberg of Kohlberg & Company are the two outside nominees slated to join the board of directors.

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One Comment »

  • New York Times Follow-up said:

    [...] by the rumblings of activist hedge funds Harbinger Capital and Firebrand Partners last month, I wrote about the New York Times (NYT) and its evolving technology assets. I found the Times to be surprisingly [...]

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