The Financial Times is a rare media property: a global, long-established brand combined with a successful — although unfinished — digital transformation. Such uniqueness explains why Nikkei paid £844m ($1.3bn, €1.18m) for it.
by Frédéric Filloux
My last column about new valuations in digital media triggered an abundance of comments. Here are my responses and additions to the discussion.
The most revealing part of argument used by those who tweeted (800 of them), commented or emailed me, is how many wished things to remain simple and segregated: legacy vs. native media, content producers vs. service providers, ancestral performances indicators and, of course, the self-granted permission to a certain category of people to decide what is worthy. Too bad for cartesian minds and simplifiers, the digital world is blurring known boundaries, mixing company purposes of and overhauling the competitive landscape.
Let’s start with one point of contention:
Why throw LinkedIn, Facebook and old companies such as the NYTimes or the Guardian into the equation? That’s the old apples and oranges point some commenters have real trouble seeing past. Here is why, precisely, the mix is relevant.
Last Tuesday February 17, LinkedIn announced it had hired a Fortune reporter as its business editor. Caroline Fairchild is the archetypal modern, young journalist: reporter, blogger with a cause (The Broadsheet is her newsletter on powerful women), mastering all necessary tools (video editing, SEO tactics, partnerships) as she went from Bloomberg to the HuffPo, among other gigs. Here is what she says about her new job:
LinkedIn’s been around for 11 years and today publishes more than 50,000 posts a week (that’s roughly 10 NYTs per day) — but the publishing platform is still an infant, debuting widely less than a year ago. The rules and roles are being defined and redefined daily; experimenting is a constant.
Here we are: LinkedIn intends to morph into a major business news provider and a frontal competitor to established business media. Already, scores of guest columnists publish on a regular basis on LinkedIn, enjoying audiences many times larger than their DeLuxe appearances in legacy media. (For the record, I was invited to blend the Monday Note into LinkedIn, but the conditions didn’t quite make sense to us. Jean-Louis Gassée and I preferred preserving our independent franchise.)
For a $2.2bn revenue company such as LinkedIn, creating a newsroom aimed at the business community definitely makes sense and I simply wonder why it took them so long to go full throttle in that direction — not only with an avalanche of posts but with a more selective, quality-oriented approach. If it shows an ability to display properly value-added editorial, LinkedIn could be poised to become a potent publishing platform eventually competing with The Economist, Quartz, FT.com or Les Echos. All of it with a huge data analytics staff led by world-class engineers.
That’s why I think the comparison with established media makes sense.
As for Facebook, the argument is even more straightforward. Last October, I published a column titled How Facebook and Google Now Dominate Media Distribution; it exposed our growing dependence on social media, and the need to look more closely at the virtues of direct access as a generator of quality traffic. (A visit coming from social generates less than one page view versus 4 to 6 page views for direct access.) Facebook has become a dominant channel for accessing the news. Take a look at this table from Reuters Institute Report on Digital News Report (PDF here.)
There’s no doubt that these figures are now outdated as media’s quest to tap into the social reservoir has never been greater. (In passing, note the small delta between News Lovers and Casual Users.) It varies widely from one country to another, but about 40% of the age segment below 35 relies on social as its primary source for news… and when we say “social”, we mostly mean Facebook. Should we really ignore this behemoth when it comes to assess news economics? I don’t think so.
More than ever, Facebook deserves close monitoring. No one is eager to criticize their dope dealer, but Mark Zuckerberg’s construction is probably the most pernicious and the most unpredictable distributors the news industry ever faced.
For instance, even if you picked a given media for your FB newsfeed, the algorithm will decide how much you’ll see from it, based on your past navigation and profile. And numbers are terrible: as an example, only 16% of what the FT.com pushes on Facebook actually reaches its users, and that’s not a bad number when compared to the rest of the industry.
And still, the media sector continues to increase its dependence on social. Consider the recent change in the home page of NowThis, a clever video provider specialized in rapid-fire news clips:
No more home page! Implementing a rather bold idea floated years ago by BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith, NowThis recently decided to get rid of the traditional web access to, instead, propagate its content only via, from left to right: Tumbler, Kik, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat. We can assume that this strategy is based on careful analytics (more on this in a future Monday Note.)
Among other questions raised by Monday Note readers: Why focus solely on the New York Times and why not include the Gannetts or McClatchys? It’s simply because, along with The Guardian or the FT.com, the NYT is substantially more likely to become predominantly a digital brand than many others in the (old) league.
To be sure, as one reader rightly pointed out, recent history shows how printed media that chose to go full digital end up losing on both vectors. Indeed, given the size of its print advertising revenue, the Times would be foolish to switch to 100% online — at least for now. However, the trends is there: a shrinking print readership, fewer points of copy sale, consequently higher cost of delivery… Giving up the idea of a daily newspaper (while preserving a revamped end-of-the-week offering) its just a matter of time — I’ll give it five years, not more. And the more decisive the shift, the better the results will be: Keep in mind that only 7 (seven!) full-time positions are assigned to the making of the Financial Times’ print edition; how many in the vast herd of money-losing, newspaper-obsessed companies?
Again, this is not a matter of advocating the disappearance of print; it is about market relevancy such as addressing niches and the most solvent readerships. The narrower the better: if your target group is perfectly identified, affluent, geographically bound — e.g. the financial or administrative district in big capital — a print product still makes sense. (And of course, some magazines will continue to thrive.)
Finally, when it comes to assessing valuations, the biggest divide lies between the static and the dynamic appreciation of the future. Wall Street analysts see prospects for the NYT Co. in a rather static manner: readership evolution, in volumes and structures, ability to reduce production expenditures, cost of goods — all of the above feeding the usual Discounted Cash Flow model and its derivatives… But they don’t consider drastic changes in the environment, nor signs of disruption.
Venture Capital people see the context in a much more dynamic, chaotic perspective. For instance: the unabated rise of the smartphone; massive shifts in consumer behaviors and time allocation; the impact of Moore’s or Metcalfe’s Laws (tech improvements and network effects); or a new breed of corporations such as the Full Stack Startup concept exposed by Andreessen Horowitz’ Chris Dixon (the man behind BuzzFeed valuation):
Suppose you develop a new technology that is valuable to some industry. The old approach was to sell or license your technology to the existing companies in that industry. The new approach is to build a complete, end-to-end product or service that bypasses existing companies.
Prominent examples of this “full stack” approach include Tesla, Warby Parker, Uber, Harry’s, Nest, Buzzfeed, and Netflix.
All of it is far more enthralling than promising investors a new print section for 2016, two more tabs on the website all manned by a smaller but more productive staff.
One analysis looks at a continuously evolving environment, the other places bets on an uncertain, discontinuous future.
The problem for legacy media is their inability to propose disruptive or scalable perspectives. Wherever we turn — The NYT, The Guardian, Le Monde — we see only a sad narrative based on incremental gains and cost-cutting. No game changing perspective, no compelling storytelling, no conquering posture. Instead, in most cases, the scenario is one of quietly managing an inevitable decline.
By contrast, native digital players propose a much brighter (although riskier) future wrapped in high octane concepts, such as: Transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone (Uber), or Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful (Google), or Redefining online advertising with social, content-driven publishing technology, [and providing] the most shareable breaking news, original reporting, entertainment, and video across the social web (BuzzFeed).
No wonder why some are big money attractors while others aren’t.
by Frédéric Filloux
Some legacy media assets are vastly underestimated. A few clues in four charts.
Recent annual reports and estimates for the calendar year 2014 suggest interesting comparisons between the financial performance of media (either legacy or digital) and Internet giants.
In the charts below, I look at seven companies, each in a class by itself:
For two companies, in order to make comparisons relevant, I broke down “digital revenues” as they appear in financial statements: $351m for the New York Times ($182m in digital advertising + $169m for digital subscriptions) and, for The Guardian, $106m (the equivalent of the £69.5m in the Guardian Media Group annual report (PDF here).
Audience numbers above come from ComScore (Dec 2014 report) for a common reference. We’ll note traffic data do vary when looking at other sources – which shows the urgent need for an industry-wide measurement standard.
The “Members” column seemed necessary because traffic as measured by monthly uniques does differ from actual membership. Such difference doesn’t apply to news media (NYT, Guardian, BuzzFeed).
For valuations, stock data provide precise market cap figures, but I didn’t venture putting a number the Guardian’s value. For BuzzFeed, the $850m figure is based on its latest round of investment. I selected BuzzFeed because it might be one of the most interesting properties to watch this year: It built a huge audience of 77m UVs (some say the number could be over 100m), mostly by milking endless stacks of listicles, with clever marketing and an abundance of native ads. And, at the same time, BuzzFeed is poaching a number first class editors and writers, including, recently, from the Guardian and ProPublica; it will be interesting to see how Buzzfeed uses this talent pool. (For the record: If founder Jonah Peretti and editor-in-chief Ben Smith pull this off, I will gladly revise my harsh opinion of BuzzFeed).
The New York Times is an obvious choice: It belongs to the tiny guild of legacy media that did almost everything right for their conversion to digital. The $169m revenue coming from its 910,000 digital subscribers didn’t exist at all seven years ago, and digital advertising is now picking up thanks to a decisive shift to native formats. Amazingly enough, the New York Times sales team is said to now feature a ratio of one to one between hardcore sales persons and creative people who engineer bespoke operations for advertisers. Altogether, last year’s $351m in digital revenue far surpasses newsroom costs (about $200m).
A “normal” board of directors would certainly ask management why it does not consider a drastic downsizing of newspaper operations and only keep the fat weekend edition. (I believe the Times will eventually go there.)
The Guardian also deserves to be in this group: It became a global and digital powerhouse that never yielded to the click-bait temptation. From its journalistic breadth and depth to the design of its web site and applications, it is the gold standard of the profession – but regrettably not for its financial performances, read Henry Mance’s piece in the FT.
Coming back to our analysis, Google unsurprisingly crushes all competitors when it comes its financial performance against its audience (counted in monthly unique visitors):
When measured in terms of membership — which doesn’t apply to digital media — the gap is even greater between the search engine and the rest of the pack :
The valuation approach reveals an apparent break in financial logic. While being a giant in every aspects (revenue, profit, market share, R&D spending, staffing, etc), Google appears strangely undervalued. When you divide its market capitalization by its actual revenue, the multiple is not even 6 times the revenue. By comparison, BuzzFeed has a multiple of 8.5 times its presumed revenue (the multiple could fall below 6 if its audience remains the same and its projected revenue increases by 50% this year as management suggests.) Conversely, when using this market cap/revenue metric, the top three (Twitter, Facebook, and even LinkedIn) show strong signs of overvaluation:
Through this lens, if Wall Street could assign to The New York Times the ratio Silicon Valley grants BuzzFeed (8.5 instead of a paltry 1.4), the Times would be worth about $19bn instead of the current $2.2bn.
Again, there is no doubt that Wall Street would respond enthusiastically to a major shrinkage of NYTCo’s print operations; but regardless of the drag caused by the newspaper itself, the valuation gap is absurdly wide when considering that 75% of BuzzFeed traffic is actually controlled by Facebook, certainly not the most reliably unselfish partner.
As if the above wasn’t enough, a final look confirms the oddity of market valuations. Riding the unabated trust of its investors, BuzzFeed brings three times less money per employee than The New York Times does (all sources of revenue included this time):
Ten years. That’s how far away in the past the Google IPO lies. Ten years of explosive growth for the digital world, ten gruesome years for legacy media. Here is the lost decade, revisited in charts and numbers.
The asymmetry is staggering. By every measure, the digital sphere grew explosively thanks to a combination of known factors: a massive influx of capital; the radical culture shift fostered by a “blank slate” approach; obsessive agility in search of new preys; flattened hierarchies; shrugged-off acceptance of failure; refocusing on the customer; a keen sense of competition; heavy reliance to technology…
By showing neither appetite nor will to check theses boxes, the newspaper and magazine industry missed almost every possible train. In due fairness, some were impossible to catch. But legacy media stubbornly refused to overhaul their culture, they remained stuck in feudal hierarchies, invested way too late in tech. And, perhaps their cardinal sin, they kept treating failure as an abomination instead of an essential component of the innovation process.
Consequences have been terrible. Today, an entire industry stands on the verge of extinction.
Le’s start with stock performance:
At last Friday’s closing, Google was worth $390bn, the New York Times Company $1.85bn, Gannett $7.62bn (82 dailies and 480 non-dailies, TV stations, digital media properties, etc.) and McClatchy $392m (multiples dailies, digital services…)
In 2003, Google was minuscule compared to the newspaper industry:
Between 2003 and 2013, Google revenue grew by 60x. In the meantime, according to Newspapers Association of America data, the total revenue of the US newspaper industry shrank by 34%. While sales (newsstand and subscriptions) remain steady at $11bn in current dollars, print advertising revenue plunged by 61%.
For the newspaper industry, the share digital advertising, despite growing by 180%, remained way too small: it only grew from 2.6% to 14.5% and was therefore unable to offset the loss in print ads.
The split in valuation and revenue, inevitably reflected on investors perception in terms of funding :
In the chart above, Flipboard’s huge funding (and an undisclosed but tiny ad revenue), was used mostly to grab market share and eliminate competition. Flipboard did both, swallowing Zite (a far better product, in my view) for a reported $60m, i.e. $9 per user (the seller, CNN, achieved a good upside, while, regrettably, it had been unable to build upon Zite). The Huffington Post was acquired by AOL for $315m in 2011, an amount seen as ridiculous at the time, but consistent with today’s valuation of similar properties. In the newspaper segment, The Washington Post was acquired last year by Jeff Bezos for $250m; Le Monde was acquired by a triumvirate of investors led by telecom magnate Xavier Niel for $110m on 2010; and the Boston Globe was sold by The NYT for $70m when the Times purchased it for… $1.1bn in 1993.
For the newspaper industry, the only consolation is the reader’s residual value when compared to high audience but low yield digital pure players:
In the chart above, Vox Media’s reader value differs widely: Google Analytics grants it 80 million unique visitors per month; Quantcast says 65 million; and ComScore sees 30 million – such discrepancies are frequent, a part of the internet’s charm. As for Le Monde, thanks to the restoration of its P&L (even if its finances seem a little too good to be true), it’s fair to say its reader’s value could be much more than €7, a number based on the 2010 price tag and a combined audience of 14.9m viewers. These numbers include duplicated audiences of 8.8m in print, 7.9m for the fixed web and 3.2m on mobile (source Audipresse One Global, July 2014).
The reader value gap between between digital players and legacy platforms also raises the question of investment attractiveness. Why does VC money only flocks to new, but low yield digital media?
This is a matter of discussion for next week.
Legacy media is at great risk of losing against tech culture. This is because incumbents miss a key driver: an obsession with their own mortality. Such missing paranoia gene negatively impacts every aspect of their business.
At the last Code conference (the tech gathering hosted by Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher), Google co-founder Sergey Brin made a surprising statement (at least to me): Asked by Swisher how Google sees itself, Brin responded in his usual terse manner: “There is the external and the internal view. For the outside, we are Goliath and the rest are Davids. From the inside, we are the Davids”. From someone who co-founded a $378bn market cap company that commands more than 80% of the global internet search, this is indeed an unexpected acknowledgement.
Sergey Brin’s statement echoes Bill Gates’ own view when, about fifteen years ago, he was asked about his biggest concern: Was it a decisive move or product by another big tech company? No, says, Gates, it is the fact that somewhere, somehow, a small group of people is inventing something that will change everything… With the rise of Google and Facebook, his fears came true on a scale he couldn’t even imagine. Roughly at the same time, Andy Grove, then CEO of Intel, published a book with a straightforward title: “Only the Paranoid Survives“. Among my favorites Grove quotes:
“Business success contains the seeds of its own destruction. The more successful you are, the more people want a chunk of your business and then another chunk and then another until there is nothing.”
Still, Intel wasn’t paranoid enough and completely missed the mobile revolution, leaving to ARM licensees the entire market of microprocessors for smartphones and tablets.
This deep-rooted sense of fragility is a potent engine of modern tech culture. It spurs companies to grow as fast as they can by raising lots of capital in the shortest possible time. It also drives them to capture market share by all means necessary (including the worst ones), and to develop a culture of excellence by hiring the best people at any cost while trimming the workforce as needed while obsessively maintaining a culture of agility to quickly learn form mistakes and to adapt to market conditions. Lastly, the ever-present sense of mortality drives rising tech companies to quickly erect barriers-to-entry and to generate network effects needed to keep incumbents at bay.
For a large part, these drives stem from these companies’ early history and culture. Most started combining a great idea with clever execution – as opposed to being born within an expensive infrastructure. Take Uber or AirBnB. Both started with a simple concept: harness digital tools to achieve swift and friction-free connections between customers and service providers. Gigantic infrastructure or utterly complicated applications weren’t required. Instead, the future of these companies was secured by a combination of flawless execution and fast growth (read this New York Times story about the Uber network effect challenge). Hence the rapid-fire rounds of financing that will boost Uber’s valuation to $17bn, allowing it to accelerate its worldwide expansion – and also combat a possible price war, as stated by its founder himself at the aforementioned Code Conference.
Unfortunately, paranoia-driven growth sometimes comes with ugly business practices. Examples abound: Amazon’s retaliation against publishers who fight its pricing conditions; Uber bullying tactics against its rival – followed by an apology; Google offering for free what others were used to sell, or distorting search results, etc.
Such behaviors leave the analog world completely flummoxed. Historical players had experienced nothing but a cosy competitive gentlemen-like environment, with a well-defined map of players. This left incumbents without the genes, the culture required to fight digital barbarians. Whether they are media dealing with Google, publishers negotiating with Amazon, hotels fighting Booking.com or AirBnB, or taxi confronting Uber, legacy players look like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. In some instances, they created their own dependency to new powerful distributors (like websites whose traffic relies largely on Google), before realizing that it was time to sue the dope dealer. (This is exactly what the European press is doing by assigning Google before the European Court of Justice invoking antitrust violations — a subject for a future Monday Note). The appeal to legislators underlines the growing feeling of impotence vis-a-vis the take-no-prisoners approach of new digital players: Unable to respond on the business side, the old guard turns to political power to develop a legal (but short-lasting) containment strategy.
In the media industry, historic players never developed a sense of urgency. The situation varies from one market to another but, in many instances, the “too important to fail” was the dominant belief. It always amazed me: As I witnessed the rise of the digital sector – its obsession with fast growth, and its inevitable collision course with legacy media – incumbents were frozen in the quiet certitude that their role in society was in fact irreplaceable, and that under no circumstances they would be left to succumb to a distasteful Darwinian rule. This deep-rooted complacency is, for a large part, responsible for the current state of the media industry.
Back in 1997, Andy Grove’s book explained how to deal with change :
“The implication was that either the people in the room needed to change their areas of knowledge and expertise or people themselves needed to be changed”
Instead, our industry made too few changes, too late. Since the first digital tremors hit business models ten years ago, we have been through one or two generations of managers in traditional media company. It is amazing to see how the same DNA is being replicated over and over. Some layers are moving faster than others, though. The higher you go in the food chain, the more people are penetrated by a sense of vital urgency. But the rank-and-file and middle management are holding back, unable to exit their comfort zone.
Earlier this year, the French newspaper Liberation chose the outdated slogan: “We are a Newspaper” in reaction to its new owners ideas (read this story in the NYT). Last week, Liberation opted to appoint as it editor-in-chief one of the strongest opponent to digital media (he is just out from the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur which he gently led into a quiet nursing home, leaving it worth next to nothing).
The gap between the managers of pure digital players and those who still lead legacy media has never been greater. Keenly aware of their own mortality, the former rely more than ever on brutal street-fight tactics, while the incumbents evolve at a different pace, still hoping that older models will resist longer than feared. For old media, it is time for a radical genetic alteration — if performed down to every layer of the media industry.
Here are numbers lifted form the NYT’s Innovation report (see last week) and other sources.
Most of The New York Times’ reach comes from its digital audience. Regardless of the metric, viewers on desktops and mobile are crushing print readers.
Sources: ComScore for the monthly uniques (US only); internal count for the home page views per 24 hours period and Gfk MRI based on net weekday & Sunday readership, Fall 2013 survey.
In theory, the Times can get rid of print. Digital revenue far exceeds the cost of running the newsroom, which amounts to $200m a year for 1300 writers and editors. Even if you add $20m for the 200 technical staff needed to run digital operations, and even 30% more for overhead, sales, marketing, and support staff, the result would still be a substantial profit — but would advertisers come in the same way for a digital-only product?
The ad market seems to reward quality journalism over aggregation and listicles: The NYTimes.com monetizes itself three times better than Business Insider and nineteen times better than BuzzFeed. For this graph I simply divided annual advertising revenue for each media by the number of monthly users: 30m UVs for the NYT, 12m UVs for Business Insider according to ComScore figures quoted in this 247wallst story, and a revenue estimated at $20m by Reuters. (Had I used a 25m UVs assumption, BI’s ARPU would have been only $0.80 per visitor and per year).
The Times is known to have invested a lot in its digital subscription system (760,000 subs to date). It turns out to have been worth every penny. For those who doubt the paid model’s efficiency, The New York Times provides a great blueprint for quality media.
The newspaper’s lingering preeminence keeps pulling legacy media downward. Their inability to challenge the old sovereign’s status precludes every step of a critically needed modernization. (Part of a series).
This column was scheduled to appear in the next two or three weeks. Then, on Thursday, the thick Innovation report by an ad hoc New Times task force came to the fore. Like many media watchers, I downloaded its 97 pages PDF , printed it (yes) and carefully annotated it. A lot has been written about it and I’m not going to add my own exegesis on top of numerous others. You can look at the always competent viewpoint from Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton who sees The leaked New York Times innovation report as one of the key documents of this media age. (Other good coverage includes Politico and Capital New York — I’m linking to the NYT tag, then you’ll have all the stories pertaining to Jill Abramson’s brutal firing as well).
This report is important one for two main reasons:
— The New York Times is viewed as one of the few traditional media to have successfully morphed into a spectacular digital machine. This backdrop gives a strong resonance to the report because many news organizations haven’t achieved half of what the NYT did, whether the metric is the performance of its digital subscription model, or its achievements in high-yield advertising – all while keeping its impregnable ability to collect Pulitzer prizes.
— We rarely, if ever, see an internal analysis expressed in such bold terms. Usually, to avoid ruffling feathers, such reports are heavily edited – which ends up being the best way to preserve the status quo. Even more, mastheads tend to distance themselves from endorsing conclusions coming from the “management crowd” – a coldly demeaning phrase. But, it the Times case, the report was expressly endorsed by the top editors (Abramson and her then second-in-command Dean Baquet who now leads the shop.)
Let’s then focus back to this column’s original intent: Why reinvent the newspaper, quickly and thoroughly.
Until last week, the reference on the matter was an email sent in January 2013 by Lionel Barber, the Financial Times editor (full-text in the Guardian), in which he sets a clear roadmap to shifting resources from print to digital:
I now want to set out in detail how we propose to reshape the FT for the digital age. (…)
[We] are proposing a shift of some resources from night work to day and from print to digital. This requires an FT-wide initiative to train our journalists to operate to the best of their abilities. And it requires decisive leadership. (…)
On unified news desks, we need to become content editors rather than page editors. We must rethink how we publish our content, when and in what form, whether conventional news, blogs, video or social media.
A year later, key numbers for the FT are impressive:
— A 2013 profit of £55m ($92m, €67m) for the FT Group (which includes the 50% stake Pearson owns in the Economist Group); that’s an increase of 17%, while sales are slightly down by 1% to £449m ( $755m, €551m)
— 415,000 digital subscribers (+31% in one year) who now account for two-thirds of the FT’s total audience (652,000 altogether: +8%, including a staggering 60% growth in corporate users at 260,000)
— A rise in digital subscribers that offsets the decline in advertising now accounting for 32% of FT Group revenue vs. 52% in 2008.
— For the first time, in 2013, FT digital content revenue exceeded print content.
The FT might be on sale – but its management did quite well.
Echoing Lionel Barber’s view of resources reassignments are the equally strong terms from The New York Times’Innovation Report:
In the coming years, The New York Times needs to accelerate its transition from a newspaper that also produces a rich and impressive digital report to a digital publication that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper. This is not a matter of semantics. It is a critical, difficult and, at times, painful transformation that will require us to rethink much of what we do every day. [page 81]
Stories are typically filed late in the day. Our mobile apps are organized by print sections. Desks meticulously lay out their sections but spend little time thinking about social strategies. Traditional reporting skills are the top priority in hiring and promotion. The habits and traditions built over a century and a half of putting out the paper are a powerful, conservative force as we transition to digital — none more so than the gravitational pull of Page One. [It] has become increasingly clear that we are not moving with enough urgency. [page 59]
The newsroom should begin an intensive review of its print traditions and digital needs — and create a road map for the difficult transition ahead. We need to know where we are, where we’re headed and where we want to go. [page 82]
These quotes from a news organization that never gave up on great journalism will be helpful to those who desperately struggle to transform newsrooms. It is also a plea for the necessity of dumping the obdurate print-first obsession:
— It precludes modernizing the recruiting process as journalists are still too often picked for their writing capabilities while many other talents are needed.
— It limits audience development initiatives. In today’s print-oriented newsrooms, most writers and editors consider their jobs done once the story is filed in the CMS (Content Management System). Unfortunately, in every fast-growing digital media outlets such as Buzzfeed, The HuffPo, Politico, Quartz, Vox Media, now part of the competitive landscape, throwing the story online is actually just the beginning. The ability to cause a news item to reverberate around the social sphere is now as important as being a good writer.
— As stated in the Times report, convincing the masthead on the mandatory resource-shifting in only part of the journey; most of the transformation’s weight lies on the shoulders of the rank and file in the newsroom.
— At the NYT as everywhere else, the old guard (regardless of age, actually), is the main obstacle to the necessary rapprochement between the editorial and the business side. For instance, by rejecting the idea that Branded Content would greatly benefit from the newsroom expertise (although everyone agrees that a news writer should never be asked to write advertorial), or that a conference is indeed an editorial initiative directed to a valuable audience segment, such conservative postures are actually shrinking the company down to its most fragile component.
— The same goes for the analytics arsenal. I heard scores of examples in which newsrooms call for more dashboards and indicators, but seldom use them. Editors should be supported by tactical analytics teams (including at the editorial meeting level) that will provide immediate and mi-terms trends, as well as editorial decision-making tools.
One of the most difficult part of the transformation of legacy media is not addressed in the Times Innovation report nor in the FT’s exposé. It pertains to the future of the physical newspapers itself (the layout of the Times remains terribly out-of-date): How should it evolve? What should be its primary goals in order to address and seduce a readership now overwhelmed by commodity news? What should be the main KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) of a modern newspapers? What about content: types of stories, length, timelessness, value-added? Should it actually remain a daily?
(To be continued…)
A strongly-worded column by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen triggered an intense debate on the future of news. Andreessen might be right places, but his views can also be dangerously simplistic.
For starters, it is always great to have an outsider’s view. Marc Andreessen’s witty, and fast-paced dithyramb on the future of news is undoubtedly welcome. But, as always, regardless of the depth and breath of the big picture he paints, the devil lies in the details. In no particular order, here are my thoughts on his manifesto.
As a European, I found his piece extraordinary US-centric or, slightly more broadly, Anglophone-centric.
Andreessen wrote :
[T]he market size is dramatically expanding—many more people consume news now vs. 10 or 20 years ago. Many more still will consume news in the next 10 to 20 years. Volume is being driven up, and that is a big, big deal.
Right now everyone is obsessed with slumping prices, but ultimately, the most important dynamic is No. 3 – increasing volume. Here’s why: Market size equals destiny. The big opportunity for the news industry in the next five to 10 years is to increase its market size 100x AND drop prices 10X. Become larger and much more important in the process.
By saying this, Andreessen makes two good faith mistakes.
First, he mixes up global reach and monetizable audience. Evidently, a growing number of people will enjoy access to news (maybe not all the 5 billion cellphone users he mentions), but the proportion of those able to generate a measurable ARPU is likely to be very small.
The Scalability that works for Google Maps or WhatsApp doesn’t work as well for the notion of relevant information, one that is more tightly connected to language, proximity and culture.
Second, he overestimates the addressable news market’s fragmentation. I live in France, a 66 million people country with a high standard of living and good fixed and mobile internet access. In spite of these factors, it remains a small market for the super-low-yield digital news business that brings few euros per year and per user (except for a minuscule subscriber base.) I remained stunned by the inability of good journalistic products, created by smart people, to find a sustainable business models after years of trying.
And the huge, globalized English speaking market does not warrant financial success. The Guardian is one such example. It operates one of the finest digital news system in the world but keeps bleeding money. The Guardian brings a mere $60m in digital ad revenue per year — to be compared to a kitten-rigged, listicles-saturated aggregator generating a multiple of this amount. Journalism has become almost impossible to monetize by itself (I’ll come back to that topic).
Andreessen also vastly underestimates the cost of good journalism when he writes:
“[T]he total global expense budget of all investigative journalism is tiny — in the neighborhood of tens of millions of dollars annually.”
Fact is, journalism is inherently expensive because it is by laborious and unpredictable: An investigation can take months, and yield nothing; or the journalistic outcome can be great, lifting the reputation of the media, but with zero impact on the revenue side (no identifiable growth in subscriptions or advertising). The same goes for ambitious coverage of people or events. No one has ever translated a Pulitzer Prize in hard dollars.
This is also the case for what Andreessen calls the “Baghdad Bureau problem”. It was said to cost $3m/year for the New York Times. In fact, on an annual basis, the Times spends about $200m for its news operations, including $70m for foreign coverage alone. The NYT is likely to stay afloat when it goes entirely digital (which might happen before the end of the decade), but one of the nastiest features of digital news is the unforgiving Winner Takes All mechanism.
As far as philanthropy is considered, I won’t spend too much time on the issue except to say this: Relying on philanthropy to cure malaria or to support ill-understood artists bears witness to an absence of sustainable economic system. (Until, perhaps, the artist dies; as for malaria, there is indeed a very long term benefit for society, but not for those who supply the treatment, hence the mandatory call to generosity.) Saying investigative or public-interest journalism could/should rely on philanthropy is the same as admitting it’s economically unsustainable. Luckily, American society has produced scores of philanthropists free from any agenda (political, ideological, religious) — such as the Sandler Foundation with ProPublica. That’s not the case in France — not to mention Russia and many other countries.
There are plenty of areas in which I completely support Marc Andreessen’s view. For example: A media company “should be run like a business“, i.e. seek the profitability that will warrant its independence (from every economic agent: shareholders, advertisers, political pressure, etc.) This brings us to the size and shape of a modern news factory (I use the term on purpose). We have to deal with an unpleasant reality: Good journalism is no longer sustainable as a standalone activity. But — and that’s the good news — it remains the best and indispensable core around which to develop multiple activities (see my recent column about The News Media Revenue Matrix).You can’t develop services, conferences, publishing, etc. around a depreciated journalistic asset. On the other hand, this asset has to be drastically streamlined: In many cases, less people, better-paid (simply for the ability to retain talent) and with sufficient means to do their job (don’t go for the press junkets because the travel budget has been slashed, you’ll lose on three counts: credibility of your brand, self-esteem of your team, quality of the reporting.)
Unfortunately, as Andreessen noted, there are plenty of hurdles to overcome. In fact, most existing news companies do not fathom the depth of the transformation required to survive and thrive. Nor do they understand the urgency to set this massive overhaul in motion. Such moves require strength, strong leadership, creativity, a fresh approach, unabated confidence, and a systemic vision — all of the above in short supply at legacy media. Note that when Marc Andreessen prides himself to be an investor in media ventures (for instance Business Insider– no conflict of interest), all are digital natives and bear none of the burdens of traditional media. His bullishness on news is selective, personal.
The valuation gap between high tech and media companies has never been wider. The erosion of their revenue model might be the main culprit, but management teams, unions and boards of directors also bear their heavy share of responsibility.
Two weeks ago, with a transaction that reset the value of printed assets to almost nothing, the French market for newsmagazines collapsed for good. Le Monde acquired 65% of the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur for a mere €13.4m ($18m), at a valuation of €20m ($27m). In fact, thanks to convoluted transaction terms, Le Monde will actually disburse less than €10m for its controlling share.
This number is a hard fact, it confirms the downward spiral of French legacy media values. For a while, rumors have been flying about bids for prominent newsmagazines that would float around €20m. At the same time, Lagardère Groupe (a €7bn media conglomerate based in Paris) put most of its French magazines on the block, saying it would close them down if no buyer showed up. It turned out to be a “good” way to tip potential bidders, they can now sit and wait for prices to come down as balance sheets continue to deteriorate. This brilliant strategy is attributable to Arnaud Lagardère, the son of Jean-Luc Lagardère, the swashbuckling group founder. The heir is fond of tennis, top-models and embarrassing statements. He once said of himself: “Maybe [he] is incompetent, but not dishonest” — definitely right on the first count. Today, Lagardère Groupe faces a negative value for a large part of its magazine portfolio, meaning it is willing to actually pay the buyer willing to acquire a publication.
I discussed this situation with financial analysts in Paris and London. They are unforgivingly critical of the causes for this unprecedented value depletion. For a start, newsweeklies paid the price of deteriorating copy sales (roughly -15% for 2013) and of an anemic advertising market. But the real sin, these analysts point out, is the delay in transforming and restructuring companies. One put it bluntly: “It is clear there won’t be a single euro left for shareholders who didn’t do their job. Today, every acquisition on the French market is first and foremost weighed down by the need for a costly restructuring, which, in addition, will take three or for times longer than in the UK or elsewhere in Europe”.
The case of Le Nouvel Observateur is the perfect example. This iconic magazine of the French social democrats perfectly fits the picture of a nursing home where residents don’t do much while waiting for the unavoidable end. A thick layer of journalists there are keen to praise the weekly: “You come on a tuesday morning to write your column and by the following thursday, you’re gone. I don’t complain.” Two insiders told me that one of the events that finally pushed the aging owner of the “Nouvel Obs” to sell was the nixing of a timid management proposal: cutting one week of vacation (out of twelve) to save money. Also true, a good third of the staff actually does working hard to produce the magazine week after week. But a digital transformation — comparable, for instance, to what the Atlantic Media Group undertook is the US — is a dream completely out of reach.
From an investor standpoint, buying the Nouvel Observateur means spending from the outset €15m to €20m, just to realign the company with decent working practices. French laws and collective bargaining do not help. In the case of Le Nouvel Observateur, the change in ownership will trigger a “clause of transfer” that will entitle every journalist to leave the company with at least one month of salary per year of employment (raised to 120% of the monthly wage beyond 15 years). For the upper layer of the newsroom that will see their working habits incompatible with a probable productivity realignment, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reward their long and tranquil tenure… at a cost of several million euros for the new owner. The same goes for mandatory buyouts, the customary way to push out people no longer needed. (What is Le Monde buying you might ask? Basically a 500,000 subscribers base, a better bargaining position on the advertising market, add a dose of vanity…)
Again, from a investor perspective, being forced to spend €15m-20m before allocating the first cent to a transformative investment is a severe deterrent. This mechanism also threatens daily newspapers such as Liberation (another icon of the French left wing, where I spent 12 years of my career). Isolated, stuck with a single product, dealing with a 35% decline in its paid circulation last year, a weak advertising base and a discredited management (in a recent internal vote, 90% of staff mistrust the bosses), a negative P&L despite €12m in State subsidies, this company faces a certain death unless it radically transforms itself. Its only way to survive might be to forgo the costly daily print edition, move to a well-crafted weekly distributed in selected urban areas, and extend it to realtime digital coverage on web, mobile and tablet. But such a move would mean yet another downsizing, along with heavy costs. No one is willing to be dragged into such “social Vietnam”, as one of my interlocutors puts it.
Those who advise potential buyers are quick to point out that, if the goal is to take a position in the digital world, their money would better be spent in building a pure player from the ground up. With €20 or 40 million, you can definitely build something powerful in the journalistic field.
The highly publicized startup culture — some would say “ideology” — with its unparalleled mixture of agility and skyrocketing valuations contributes to the demise of legacy medias. Consider the table below. It shows the gap between the valuation of each customer of social networks and legacy media:
For what it’s worth, this comparison illustrates the tremendous loss in value for legacy media. Several actually make (slim) profits while digital companies such as Pinterest or Snapchat don’t even have a revenue model. But as unfair as it sounds, investors — venture capital firms, Wall Street, high tech giants — are betting on two factors: the scalability of current user bases (with factors 10x or 20x being the norm) and also the ability of digital players to swiftly adjust themselves to quickly changing environments. Two qualities unfortunately not associated with legacy media.
Before deciding what should comes “first” in digital, publishers must figure out the right production workflow. Each and every player must plot its very own path away from the now aging notion of publication to the broader platform model.
Last week, I spent a few of days in Berlin at the European INMA conference. Among many interesting moments, there was our visit to the Axel Springer group, the number one print publisher in Germany that also operates scores of publications in 44 countries. In 2012, Springer had a revenue of €3.3bn and an EBIDTA of €628m; 40% of its revenue comes from digital, thanks to 160 different online properties and 120 applications. Attaining this level required an aggressive growth strategy: since 2006, Springer launched or acquired new digital activities at the stunning rate of one every two weeks!
Like most modern news outlets, Springer is obsessed with having everyone in the company work without distinction between digital and print. Its latest initiative involves the definitive transformation of the venerable daily Die Welt into a multimedia news factory. To achieve this, the company bets on the radical architecture of its brand new newsroom. Of course, Die Welt is not the first to bet on the physical setting of the workplace to accelerate changes. Among others, the UK’s Telegraph did the same several years ago (it didn’t go smoothly at first but, in the end, the effort paid back.)
Here is the floor plan of the Die Welt’s newsroom that will enter in operation within a couple of months (I reconstructed it from a picture and briefing notes) :
The open space resembles a sound-proof cathedral on the ground floor of the Axel Springer building in the center of Berlin. It will operate from 5am to midnight. The star shape reflects the news products’ diversity and time imperatives; the closest the workstations are from the center (where on-duty management sits), the faster the treatments are supposed to be: mobile staffers will stay close to the top editors as people in charge of building pages for the daily will dwell at the outer edges. This newsroom is mostly a production center; it actually accommodates only half of the Die Welt 300+ editorial staff as reporters and some staff writers will be located in a separate room. Note how all individual offices are gone while the periphery is filled with meeting rooms of various sizes and shapes that staffers use as needed.
Management gurus often say a radical alteration of physical settings is a key instrument of change. I can’t agree more. Interestingly enough, a firm like Innovation Media Consulting I’ve known since the Nineties as mostly an art direction company now works with architects and workflow specialists to induce changes in the way newsrooms operate.
But a super-modern floor plan is only part of the equation. In last week’s Monday Note, I addressed the need to make the story the kernel of a cluster of high value products. Both are merely components of a much deeper change, that is the creation of a true News Platform. Anglo-Saxon newsrooms enjoy several advantages over Southern Europe (for instance) ones. Since the beginning, their journalism is built on a clear separation between writers (or reporters) on one side, and editors on the other. Anglo-Saxon journalism comes embedded with a separation between the writing and the editing of journalistic material — that is not the custom in a country like France in which most interns sees themselves as potential heirs to Joseph Kessel. More seriously, here, the principle of heavy editing is much less accepted than in the US, UK or Germany where the process results in much better structured articles, and most powerful storytelling for long-form reporting. In addition, in those countries, newsrooms with top editors entirely dedicated to their role of managers are better equipped to address the needs of morphing news organizations. For the most part, these factors explain why, in the Anglo-Saxon world, the News Platform transformation is way ahead of anywhere else. Axel Springer’s management concedes that this radical news flow structure is the result of a process that started years ago — that’s why it has been smoothly accepted by the staff. Everyone now sees it as the indispensable platform to produce across all major vectors now used by the readers – mobile, tablets, web and print – with greater efficiency along with consistent quality,.