- Traditional news formats – such as magazines and newspapers – are faltering
- On-line editions of traditional formats are not faring well
- Important journalists are transitioning to blogger roles to better provide news consumers what they want
- Important journalists from Newsweek and the New York Times have joined HuffingtonPost.com as bloggers
- Forbes.com is transitioning from traditional publishing to bloggers in its effort to meet market needs
- The new era of journalism will be nothing like the last
In early 2006, before it completed the leveraged buyout (LBO) that added piles of debt onto Tribune Corporation I was talking with several former Chicago Tribune executives who had been placed in senior positions at the acquired Los Angeles Times. Their challenge was figuring out how they would ever improve cash flow enough to justify the huge premium paid for the newspaper. Unfortunately, 90% or more of their energy was focused on cost cutting and outsourcing, with almost none looking at revenue generation.
In the face of a declining subscriber base, intense competitiion from smaller, targeted newspapers in the area, and a lousy ad market I asked both the publisher and the General Manager what they were going to do to drive revenue growth. They, quite literally, had no ideas. There was a fledgling effort, dramatically underfunded for the scale of the country’s largest local newspaper, to post part of the LATimes content on-line. But the entire team was only 30 people, they were restricted to re-treading newspaper content, and mostly they focused on local sports reports (pages which drew the largest number of hits). About a third of the staff were technical folks (IT), and half were sales – leaving very few bodies (or brains) to put energy into making a really world-class news environment worthy of the LATimes.com name. The group head was trying to find internet ad buyers who would pay a premium to be on a well-named but woefully content-weak web-site.
Lacking any plans to drive growth, in old or new markets, it was no surprise that lay-offs and draconian cost cutting continued. Several floors in the famous newspaper building right in downtown Los Angeles, like the Tribune Tower in Chicago, became empty. By 2008 as much of the building was used as a movie set as used by editors or reporters! Eventually Tribune Corp. filed bankruptcy – where it has remained going on 3 years now.
When asked if the newspaper would consider adding bloggers to the on-line journal, the entire management team was horrified. “Bloggers are not journalists,” was the first concern, “so quality would be unacceptable. You cannot expect a major journalistic enterprise to consider blogging to have any correlation with professional journalism.” I asked what they thought about the then-fledgling HuffingtonPost.com, to which they retorted “that is not a legitimate news company. The product is not comparable to our newspaper. It has nothing to do with the business we’re in.” And with that simple attack, the executives promptly dismissed the fledgling, fringe competition.
How things have changed in news publishing. Four years later newspapers are dramatically smaller, in both ad dollars and staff. Many major journals – magazines as well as newspapers – have discontinued print editions as subscriptions have declined. Print formats (physical size) are substantially smaller. While millions of internet news sites attract readers hourly, print readership has only gone down. Major journals, unable to maintain their cash flow, have been acquired at low prices by newcomers hopeful of developing a new business model, and many well known and formerly influential news journalists have been laid off, or moved to on-line environments in order to maintain employment.
About a week ago the Wall Street Journal reported “Newsweek’s Howard Fineman to Join Huffington Post.” This week Mediapost.com headlined “The HuffPo’s Hiring of NYT’s Peter Goodman Is More Significant Than You Think.” Rather rapidly, in just a few years, HuffingtonPost.com has become a major force in the news industry. Well known journalists from Newsweek and the New York Times add considerable credibility to a new media which traditional publishers far too often ignored. Much to the chagrin, to be sure, of Sam Zell and the leadership at Tribune Corporation.
Today people want not only sterile reporting, but some insight. “What does this mean? Why do you think this happened? Is this event important, or not, longer term? What am I supposed to do with this information?” People want some analysis, as well as news. And readers want the input NOW – immediately – not at some later time that meets an arbitrary news cycle. Increasingly news consumers want Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olberman (depending upon your point of view) rather than Walter Cronkite – and they’d like that input as soon as possible.
Bloggers provide this insight. They provide not only information, but make some sense of it. They utlize past experience and insight to bring together relevant, if disparate, facts coupled with some ideas as to what it means. Where 4 year ago publishers scoffed at HuffingtonPost.com, nobody is scoffing any longer.
And it’s with great pleasure, and a pretty hefty dose of humility, that I’ve become a blogger at Forbes.com (http://blogs.forbes.com/adamhartung/). Hand it to the publisher and editors at Forbes that they are moving Forbes.com from an on-line magazine to a bi-directional, real-time site for information and insight to the world of business and economic news. Writers aren’t limited to a set schedule, a set word length or even set topics. Readers will now be able to visit Forbes.com 24×7 and acquire up-to-the-minute news and insight on relevant topics.
Forbes.com is transitioning to be much more like HuffingtonPost.com – a change that aligns with the market shift. For readers, employees and advertisers this is a very, very good thing. Because nobody wants the end of journalism – just a transition to the market needs of 2010. I look forward to joining you at Forbes.com blogs, and hearing your comments to my take on business and economic news.