Nine Newspaper Questions and Answers

by: Ken Doctor

Late midsummer brings hugely cautious optimism, and lots of identity guessing games -- who has Journalism Online signed? What's Rupert really up to? -- worthy of William Shakespeare. Here's nine questions for the time:

1) Who are the 330 non-dailies in the Journalism Online semi-announcement? That's a big part of the guessing game, as reporters find out that McClatchy (NYSEMKT:MNI), Dow Jones (NASDAQ:NWS) and Tribune are all saying they're not participating. Speculation focuses on Gannett with its 850 non-daily (weekly, niche+) publications in the US and its increasing online niche orientation, using its Ripple6 engine. Or on Gatehouse (NYSEARCA:GHS), with its several hundred weeklies. Even MediaNews counts about a hundred weeklies. Or maybe the only announced partner -- marketing-oriented Itz Publishing of Portland -- is bringing some companies into the action. Far easier to get to "330" through a couple of bigger companies than by one-offs.

Of course, the JO release was more of a tease than an announcement. The numbers seem to be based on non-binding letters of intent, which is kind of like asking publishers in a paid content town hall discussion to raise their hands if they'd like new reader revenue. Attributor, another player in this summer's intense round of "paid" talks, also moved forward with many media companies, but did it without contracts or even loi's. (Content Bridges: "Attributor "Fair Share Consortium" Completes Newspaper Trifecta"). It has obtained feeds from "50% of the top 25 U.S. papers" to test its ad-monetization-of-piracy initiative. The key word here, for both: test.

If it fact, the ability to charge -- and get paid -- is based on having a good degree of proprietary content, then maybe it is the weeklies who have a better chance of bundling print and online than city dailies. Those that have websites or e-editions have seen them mainly as print retention tools, or bonuses for snowbird customers, Brian Steffens, exec director of the National Newspaper Association (2300 largely weekly members), tells me. He says that the about 42% of his members' papers are paid, 6% free and and the rest some combo of the two. I wonder if these paid papers -- which take in $20-50 in annual subs -- could tack on an online fee of 20% or so, and have it stick far better than their daily counterparts.

2) Sure, Everyblock's code is still open-source (courtesy of the Knight Foundation), but doesn't its new owner remind us it's still about location, location, location? The blinding simplificity of the Everyblock idea -- local city data routinized and made easy to use -- should have been one grabbed by newspaper companies. Local, local, local, right? While some operations, like the Sacramento Bee's Investigations Center and Mike Orren's Dallas start-up have gotten -- and acted on -- the value of local data, most newspaper companies still haven't. Yes, they can still use the open-source code, but with Everyblock innovator Adrian Holovaty working with, does that give a non-newspaper company two legs up? At the same time, kudos to MSNBC's Charlie Tillinghast and Cory Bergman (himself a local online pioneer through Seattle's Next Door Media and more) for winning the prize. Now, let's see what they do with it.

3) Will GM's deal with car buyers mean that even more traditional market dollars -- including newspaper print -- go away, as buyers and sellers blissfully meet on eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), cutting out a lot of middlemen? What kind of dent would that make in newspaper auto sector recovery expectations?

4) Hasn't Madeleine Brand, guest summer host for NPR's All Things Considered, been a breath of Left Coast (non-humid) air? Robert Siegel, Melissa Block and Michelle Norris are stalwarts, but it's been refreshing to have the easy-peezy feel she brings (for instance, "America: Prepare To Be Mightily Booshed,") even if her inclusion has been day-to-day.

5) Is "Do-Over" the coming strategy for newspaper companies? For the half-dozen US newspaper companies in bankruptcy, it's an official, court-approved do-over they are looking for, witness Brian Tierney's effort to shed some $300 million in debt in Philly as the papers seek to emerge from court supervision. He can make the case for a fresh start, building on the pride of downsizing: "Our performance has been incredible. We have carved $95 million out of the cost structure of the paper in the past three years." Meanwhile the Star-Tribune is about to jettison some $400 million of its half-billion-dollar debt as it emerges from bankruptcy. The bet in Minneapolis and Philly: recovering revenues may be sufficient to pay operating expenses, greatly reduced debt service and a bit of profit. It's a strategy that that McClatchy (MNI), MediaNews and the New York Times (NYSE:NYT) would love to follow as well, but they've all stayed out of the courts. The strategy, though, may be parallel: find some way -- property sales, long-term debt restructuring, new capital -- to segregate the large debt service that the business no longer will support.

6) Hasn't the Daily Mirror beaten Rupert to a punch? Murdoch's won great attention with his intention, his nod to a paid content future, and apparently is readying a new Sunday Times paid online product for November. In the meantime, Trinity Mirror, the third-largest newspaper group in the UK, has debuted Mirror Football. Take a look: it seems like the kind of full-featured (video, columns, blogs, visuals, data, and great use of archives) product that consumers might just pay a bit extra for, a newspaper version of a MLB or ESPN-like product. Says Sly Bailey, Trinity Mirror CEO: "The important thing for us is to develop the brand with the right content that engages a passionate audience, and therefore to have a diversified model that isn’t just about advertising. We think that is the next stage, and whether over time that gives you the opportunity to think about whether there are areas you can charge for, that's an open discussion -- but you have to create that content overall in order to have that option.” Exactly. Value first, then charge.

7) How many business news sites does the Wall Street Journal need? We got word Friday that the "The WSJ has placed at least three different ads seeking executive-level editors for a new business Web site." My guess is that Dow Jones, with the Journal, Barron's and Marketwatch, has sufficient brands deployed in the marketplace; in fact, I'd expected they would have niched and nested them better by now, almost two years into News Corp ownership. So my guess: new talent may be hired for niche sites, branded under some existing label, not a new one. WSJ's Alan Murray has already hinted at energy and CFO niches, no-brainers for a parent company skilled (through Factiva+) at B2B niching. The next logical move: greater regional business coverage in big business markets like Detroit, the Bay Area and Philly, which have all seen their own dailies cut back on business coverage.

8) How long will Legal Ads stay legal? The news reader in me wants them to keep being published, and the taxpayer in me cries foul. The Mercury News ran two pages of Legal ads in microscopic text last week, btw too small for aging baby boomers to read. Reading them is besides the point, though, anyway, right? It was probably old English law that required a public display of legal announcements, and that's carried over as a nice, little subsidy for newspapering. How long will it be though until law catches up with reality; instead of must-publish, must-Tweet?

9) Been down so long, looks like up to me? With apologies to Richard Farina, that's how I read Randy Dotinga's good report on new owner Platinum Equity's meeting with the staff. Revenues down more than 50% in three years. Coming: shorter stories and a move beyond Stone Age page assembly! One staffer's comment reminds me of staffers' optimism as Zell replaced Old Tribune and Tierney replaced Knight Ridder: [The new bosses seem decisive seem] "determined to not sit around a table and wring their hands and debate endlessly whether to proceed with one initiative or another." Alas, be careful what you wish for.