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Watching the Times struggle (and what you can learn)

Page by page, section by section, the influence of the New York Times is fading away. Great people on an important mission, but their footprint is shrinking and the company is losing stock value and cash and power and the ability to have the impact that they might.

Today's Sunday magazine has a cover story on Jennifer Aniston. Of course!

"All the News That's Fit to Print" is the heart of the problem. It was never that, of course. It was "All the News That Fits." The entire mindset of (every) newspaper has been driven by the cost of paper, the finite nature of paper, the cost of delivery and the cycle of a daily paper. You run enough articles to fit as many ads as you can sell.These are artifacts of a different age, one that today's consumer doesn't care a whit about.

Lots of organizations go through this analysis. How do you leverage your brand or your customer base to get to the next level, to enter new markets or new technologies--and do it while running your old business. And almost without exception, organizations are run by people who want to protect the old business, not develop the new one.

When you think about your business, realize that it is a combination of assets and constraints. The Times understood both, but suddenly, the constraints changed. Now, it's possible for a single individual with a Typepad account to reach more people than almost any newspaper in the country can. Loosen one constraint and the game changes. That leaves you with the assets, for a while anyway.

When in pain, the answer is not to pander to the masses and undo the very things that made you special.

Ten years ago, the paper knew what it had to do. They had a shot at inventing the future, but compromised their way to it instead of leading. Here are some simple ways they could think big instead of merely failing to defend the status quo:

1. Use their influence and brand to enable users to spread their content:
Why, precisely, aren't the Zagats guides a NY Times product? Or Yelp? That's a quarter of a billion dollars worth of value that the paper with the most influential restaurant reviews page didn't create. Why didn't they build Wikipedia? Or a platform to influence the way politicians govern?

Hiring and promoting David Pogue is a great example of expanding that base into the online world. Buying about.com was smart, but being afraid to put the Times name on it was an error... an opportunity for leverage, wasted.

2. Leverage the op-ed page and spread important ideas:
Sure, Tom Friedman and a handful of other columnists have a large reach and influence. But why doesn't the Times have 50 columnists? 500? Tom Peters or Jim Leff or Joel Spolsky or Micah Sifry or Pam Slim or Patrick Semmens or Dan Pink would be great columnists. Why not view the endless print space online as an opportunity to leverage their core asset?

What would happen if the huge team of existing Times editors and writers each interviewed an interesting or important person every day? 5,000 or 10,000 really important interviews every year, each waiting for a sponsor, each finding a relevant audience...

3. Build a permission asset:
Times readers are among the most informed cultural consumers in the world. They tend to have money to spend and are eager for new ideas. What an opportunity to build 10 or a 100 or ten thousand silos. Carefully focused free email newsletters, and then blogs, each with an editor and plenty of relevant and useful ads. Well-written ideas, delivered with authority, are as important as ever. The Times sat back and let hundreds of other micro-sites deliver this instead.

4. Keep score:
The New York Times bestseller list used to matter a great deal. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because bookstores discounted and promoted the bestsellers, which helped them sell more.

We still want to know what the bestsellers are, but the Times works hard not to tell us. There are literally a thousand categories of media that people want to know about (top blogs, top DVDs, etc.) and the Times abdicated their ability to keep score, to be the trusted referee and to drive the short head in almost every form of culture.

Consider this for a moment: Oprah is able to sell ten times as many copies of a book than the New York Times can. The Times abdicated their role as the leader of the conversation about books.

5. Stringers:

The Times has always used freelancers and stringers to report and contribute to the paper. But how many? Why doesn't the paper have 10,000 stringers, each with a blog, each angling to be picked up by the central site? You wouldn't have to pay much per story to build a semi-pro cadre of writers and reporters. When you organize the news (delivering unique perspectives to people who want to hear them) you influence the conversation.

6. Create new platforms for advertisers:

The Times has profited longer than most newspapers because of New York. New York is an efficient place to be a newspaper. Lots of people, lots of advertisers, lots of spending, influence all over the world. But even that isn't enough to support the failing economics of dead trees and delivery. The only reason a paper exists (from a business point of view) is to sell ads.

So, what sort of ad-rich, ad-centric media could they build? From directories to pdfs to coupons to promotions, the list is nearly endless.

• • •

Instead of building something that dominates in this century the way they did in the last, the editors at the paper are pandering to the masses (and failing). Today's Magazine not only features the aforementioned volumes of insight about Jennifer Aniston, but it also includes yet another lame Ethicist column (they run it because they always have) and a weak interview with David Lynch (which no one will talk about on Monday). It also features recipes (we don't need more recipes, thanks, we now have an infinite number of recipes) and their latest affectation, which is overdesigned typesetting that is unreadable. All of these efforts are placeholders, not bold moves to create something that matters.

The people I know at the Times are smart, driven, honest and on a mission to do great work. The people didn't fail the system, the system failed them.

Do the people running the Times know more about running a newspaper or building ideas that spread profitably online? How about the people running your organization? Odds are, they're great at yesterday's business.

I guess it's about the difference between:

  • senior management playing defense, supporting and protecting the status quo and avoiding offending the elders upstairs vs.
  • using existing momentum and clout to build assets for the next business.

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