Years ago there was a TV ad featuring the actor Pauly Shore. Sitting in front of a haystack there was a sign over his frowning head reading "Find the needle." The voice over said "hard." Then another shot of Mr. Shore sitting in front of the same haystack grinning quite broadly, and the sign said "Find the hay." the voice over said "easy." Have you ever noticed that in business we too often try to do what's hard, rather than what's easy?
Take for example The New York Times Company, profiled today on Marketwatch.com in "The Gray Lady's Dilemma." The dilemma is apparently what the company will do next. Only, it really doesn't seem like much of a dilemma. The company is rapidly on its way to bankruptcy, with cash flow insufficient to cover operations. The leaders are negotiating with unions to lower costs, but it's unclear these cuts will be sufficient. And they definitely won't be within a year or two. Meanwhile the company is trying to sell The Boston Globe, which is highly unprofitable, and will most likely sell the Red Sox and the landmark Times Building in Manhattan, raising cash to keep the paper alive.
Only there isn't much of a dilemma here. Newspapers as they have historically been a business are no longer feasible. The costs outweigh the advertising and subscription dollars. The market is telling newspaper owners (Tribune Corporation, Gannett, McClatchey, News Corp. and all the others as well as The Times) that it has shifted. Cash flow and profits are a RESULT of the business model. People now are saying that they simply won't pay for newspapers – nor even read them. Thus advertisers have no reason to advertise. The results are terrible because the market has shifted. The easy thing to do is listen to the market. It's saying "stop." This should be easy. Quit, before you run out of money.
Of course, company leadership is Locked-in to doing what it always has done. So it doesn't want to stop. And many employees are Locked-in to their old job descriptions and pay – so they don't want to stop. They want to do what's hard – which is trying to Defend & Extend a money-losing enterprise after its useful life has been exhausted. But if customers have moved on, isn't this featherbedding? How is it different than trying to maintain coal shovelers on electric locomotives? This approach is hard. Very hard. And it won't succeed.
For a full half-decade, maybe longer, it has been crystal clear that print news, radio news and TV news (especially local) is worth a lot less than it used to be. They all suffer from one-way communication limits, poor reach and frequently poor latency. All problems that didn't exist before the internet. This technology and market shift has driven down revenues. People won't pay for what they can get globally, faster and in an interactive environment. As these customers shift, advertisers want to go where they are. After all, advertising is only valuable when it actually reaches someone.
Meanwhile, reporting and commentary increasingly is supplied by bloggers that work for free – or nearly so. Not unlike the "stringers" used by news services back in the "wire" days of Reuters, UPI and AP. Only now the stringers can take their news directly to the public without needing the wire service or publishers. They can blog their information and use Google to sell ads on their sites, thus directly making a market for their product. They even can push the product to consolidators like HuffingtonPost.com in order to maximize reach and revenue. Thus, the costs of acquiring and accumulating news has dropped dramatically. Increasingly, this pits the expensive journalist against the low cost journalist. And the market is shifting to the lower cost resource — regardless of how much people argue about the lack of quality (of course, some [such as politicians] would question the quality in today's "legitimate" media.)
Trying to keep The New York Times and Boston Globe alive as they have historically been is hard. I would contend a suicide effort. Continuing is explained only by recognizing the leaders are more interested in extending Lock-in than results. Because if they want results they would be full-bore putting all their energy into creating mixed-format content with maximum distribution that leads with the internet (including e-distribution like Kindle), and connects to TV, radio and print. Pricing for newspapers and magazines would jump dramatically in order to cover the much higher cost of printing. And the salespeople would be trained to sell cross-format ads which run in all formats. Audience numbers would cross all formats, and revenue would be tied to maximum reach, not the marginal value of each format. That is what advertisers want. Creating that sale, building that company, would be relatively much easier than trying to defend the Lock-in. And it would produce much better results.
The only dilemma at The New York Times Company is between dying as a newspaper company, or surviving as something else. The path it's on now says the management would rather die a newspaper company than do the smart thing and change to meet the market shift. For investors, this poses no dilemma. Investors would be foolhardy to be long the equity or bonds of The New York Times. There will be no GM-style bailout, and the current direction is into the Whirlpool. Employees had better be socking away cash for the inevitable pay cuts and layoffs. Suppliers better tighten up terms and watch the receivables. Because the company is in for a hard ending. And faster than anyone wants to admit.
Don't miss my recent ebook, "The Fall of GM" for a
quick read on how easily any company (even the nation's largest employer) can be
easily upset by market shifts. And learn what GM could have done to avoid
bankruptcy – lessons that can help your business grow!