newspapers

NYTimes’ “Fair” Prices

Today, both Jean-Louis and I struggle with the same topic: last week’s announcement of the New York Time’s strange paywall structure.

For a digital newspaper, there is no such thing as a fair price. Too many questionable assumptions, too many variables, too many ways to play with data. The Monday Note and my day job as the head of the French digital press consortium both gave me opportunities to work on such numbers for weeks. Intellectually stimulating as the exercise might be, when analyzing readers’ migration to digital, you can’t reach useable conclusions through a mere extrapolation of the eroding print model. Nor can you reliably model price elasticity in an electronic medium where “free” is the rule, “freemium” the minority, and paid-for the exception.

Let’s start with the basic problem: the free model (read: advertising supported) cannot provide the financial support for an ambitious, in-depth, global information enterprise. This type of organization is inherently expensive. The depletion of print readership (expect a real 5-8% drop every year), and the corresponding loss in advertising revenue create an urgent need for new financial models. Otherwise, the likes of the Huffington Post will find nothing to aggregate other than the vast echo chamber they built their ephemeral value on.
As the past fails to provide a solid foundation, the most prudent way of building a new business model starts with basic building blocks. For instance, the cost of a high-volume digital transaction platform for news products (all sorts of products, not just dumb PDF shovelware) should be around 8% to 10% of revenue, all included. Then, covering the news should require x hundreds of editorial staff, y dozens of support positions, all costing z. In addition, the news organization’s value proposition need to be factored in these numbers. That value proposition, in turn, translates into who and how many would be willing to pay for such (perceived) qualities. All this leads to the most important task: rethinking the organization in order to achieve these goals — in a context where the print’s old money flow now looks like a dried-up creek in Summer.

Trial and error is the only way to find answers to all these questions. Experimenting requires humility, agility, ability to learn from mistakes. Let’s admit it: such traits are in short supply in century-old news organizations that – until recently – thrived on their unchallenged confidence. In contrast, an ability to adjust quickly is a dominant feature of the most successful digital companies. Another characteristic of the best tech companies being a relentless quest for simplicity. As an example, think of Apple’s fixation on removing unnecessary buttons and dials, or just look at Google’s main search page.

Unsurprisingly, the New York Times chose the opposite path. One possibility entailed weighing how much its large audience of faithful readers would be willing to pay for its content and shooting for a single subscription price aimed at generating volume. Instead, the NYT went for a convoluted pricing structure.

In a nutshell: after reading 20 articles over 4 weeks, you hit the wall. Then you must choose your plan: $15/month for web viewing + smartphone; $20/month for web access + app on a tablet; or $35/month for accessing the NYTimes on all devices (something the most valuable regulars do), details here. It took 14 months, and according to the Times digital czar Martin Nisenholtz, reams of market research to come up with this. I also involved a serious investment : $40m-$50m (!!) according to this Bloomberg story.

The New York Times paywall is like the French tax system: expensive, utterly complicated, disconnected from the reality and designed to be bypassed.

Loopholes abound. To avoid hitting the wall, take your pick:

  • Use different email accounts. If, like me, you own or operate several different domain names, bingo!
  • Easier: use three browsers as the cookies placed by the NYTimes on each are not interconnected; if you have Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari, that’s 80 stories a month! The paywall is fading away.
  • Delete your cookies. Many paranoid users do it every day, sometimes automatically. Deleting cookies introduces several drawbacks for those who want to navigate quickly, but penny-pinchers will like it.
  • Visit the NYTimes from other sites, such as Twitter or Facebook, but in fact from any site, including Google (see Jean-Louis’ view on this below).

This list goes on an on.

Whom is this paywall aiming at? According to the Times itself, about 15% of their current readership will hit the wall. The bet is that segment – affluent, busy, non-nerdy – won’t bother tricking the system and will instead pay up. Let’s accept that assumption and run the numbers (and notice the level of uncertainty):

Global audience for NYTimes.com: in February, according to Comscore, 48.5 million unique visitors worldwide. (Note that no one uses Nielsen numbers any longer.) Should we focus the analysis solely on the domestic market and reduce the UV number to 32m? Advertisers would agree: foreign audiences carry little value. But, when looking at those potentially willing to pay for the NYTimes, the answer is the opposite: let’s stick to the 48.5m.

Now, let’s remove those who just fly-by, i.e. people coming from search engine or social medias: they will look at one story and jump elsewhere. Google accounts for 15% of the NYTimes traffic; Facebook, 4%. Add others such as Twitter and round it up to 25% of the global audience. This leaves about 36m monthly regular users to play with, of which 15% (5.4m), according to the Times’ estimates, are heavy users likely to hit the wall. How many would take the jump and pay? And how much money would they contribute to the Times revenue line?

Here are the numbers for an average monthly spending of $20.00 :

Transformation rate => number of subscribers => annual revenue

5%  => 270,000 => $65m
10% => 540,000 => $130m
15% => 810,000 => $194m
20% => 1.08m => $259m

OK. Let’s stick to a reasonable 10%. How does the extra $130m compare to the current Times revenue structure? In 2010, The NYT Media Group (print + digital) made $1.55 billion all together. $780m came from advertising revenues, of which about $160m from NYTimes.com. Interestingly, 44% of the total  ($683m) came from circulation — at $2.00/day in newsstands, the NYTimes is expensive.

In this case, the Grey Lady’s digital operation would total: $130m+$160m = $290m. This is enough to support the huge 1000+ editorial staff (the newsroom expense line is said to be in the $200m range).

Let’s stop here. The New York Times’ pricing structure, the fact that it is also designed to protect the paper’s physical circulation, the paywall’s porosity all complicate projections. One thing is sure: $35 a month ($420/year — $455 year for 52wks) to view the online paper on three devices is ridiculous, not matter how elitist the target group is fantasized to be. You simply don’t charge such an amount in a (US) market where services like Hulu or Netflix cost $7.99 per month. The Times would have been better inspired to go for a simple $15 a month on all devices. Such a price would allow to shoot for a goal of 2 or 3 million digital subscribers worldwide within three years. This would yield $360m-$540m in extra revenue, corresponding to between 5% and 8% of the regular digital readers mentioned above. For a global brand of the NY Times’ stature, such numbers are not unattainable.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The NY Times: Un-Free At Last!

On March 28th, after much handwringing, the New York Times will finally deploy a paywall. NYT fans, your author included, rejoice: We see this as a necessary condition for the newspaper’s survival. Necessary…but not sufficient. A “small matter of implementation’’ remains an obstacle on the paper’s path to greatness in the digital era. A matter that, so far, doesn’t seem to have received sufficient attention from NYT execs.

Let’s start with a test…and no peeking: How much do you pay for an iTunes “song”?

If you answered “about $1,” you pass. A little less, a little more, the exact number depends on the whims of unseen seers, but, yes, about a dollar. And that reliable debit, give or take a few pennies, feeds an important psychological criterion. You’re free to focus on choosing your music, unencumbered by price considerations.

You’ve graduated to the next level: How much for a New York Times digital subscription?

The pleasant reassurance of a readily available “close enough’’ answer is sorely missing.

See the NYT’s Publisher’s nearly impenetrable calculus in his letter to readers, dip into the lengthy FAQ, and finish with this buggy article in the paper’s otherwise excellent Media & Advertising. You may also want to peruse the 2141 reader comments. By itself, the number gives a temperature reading.

You’ll need an accountant and an attorney to traverse the maze of plans and to decode the fine print in the NYT’s paywall T&Cs, but as I understand them:

  • The first 20 articles in a “calendar month” are free. After that, you’ll be nudged towards a $15 subscription for 4 weeks of Web access.
  • Smartphones? An iPhone, Android, or Blackberry app is included with the $15 deal. For one year of 52 (4 * 13) weeks, you’ll pay 13 * $15 = $195. Yearly subscriptions aren’t offered. But do I have to pay twice if I own both an iPhone and a Moto Droid?There’s no Web-only deal. The basic $15 rate bundles Web and smartphone access.
  • If you have an iPad you’ll pay extra: $20 per 4-week billing cycle = $210 for one year.
  • Other tablets? Not yet.
  • You want access from all of your devices? PC, smartphone, iPad, Times Reader 2.0, the NY Times app from the Chrome Web Store…that’ll be $35 for 4 weeks, $455 for a year.
  • If you’re a paper subscriber, the NYT elders smile upon you: You’ll have access to everything from all your devices with no unseemly display of surcharge. But it depends on the deal you make: new subscriber, renewal, special offer, a conversation with a Customer Retention Specialist… It all sounds like dealing with a cell phone carrier or a cable network provider or an airline. Three well-loved businesses.
  • For e-book readers such as the Kindle and the Nook: Sorry, no access at this time. (Amazon will sell you the NY Times newspaper, but it doesn’t give you access to the site.)
  • What happens if you touch a page through a search engine, through your friend’s Facebook wall or Twitter tweet, through a link on someone’s blog? Free…unless it’s not. Some visits fall within the 20 articles/month rule; others, such as through Google links, will have a 5 free articles-a-day limit. One can see what an enterprising geek could make of this. How does the NYT know it’s you coming back for one more hit of their good stuff? They do it through cookies. $195/year is a good incentive for a little bit of “cookie management” and IP address spoofing.

I might have misrepresented a clause or two, but the overwhelming truth remains: This is a failure of the Mind more than a failure of the brains. The NYT decision makers are without a doubt exceedingly intelligent and hardworking. But are they steeped in the Web’s culture, in the smartphone/tablet revolution?

Customers don’t make decisions with their neocortex, an organ that is too easy to bullshit. They decide within deeper, comforting recesses, and they rationalize when the culture demands a seemingly logical, socially acceptable “post-planation”.

What price do NYT’s execs put on simplicity, on ease, on reader enjoyment vs. catering to their own internal discourse? If they don’t like talking to Steve Jobs (and vice versa) they could turn to Jeff Bezos for tips on simplicity.

iTunes has taught us that customers are willing to pay for content if the process is simple, if it’s easy on the mind and the wallet. One could argue that consumers aren’t paying for the content, they’re paying for the delivery service.  Regard Netflix on Demand, to use another example. Restricted content, instant delivery, success.

All of this is well known, analyzed, taught in business schools. The brains at the NYT should know all of this.

Instead of the cellular plan language above, the Grey Lady could proudly offer the following:

  • A 4-week subscription costs $15. It works across any combination of the following devices: [list here. more devices as we go].
  • Paper subscribers…thank-you, and you’re welcome to our digital content on all supported devices, gratis.
  • Not a subscriber? Not a problem. You can “touch” 20 articles a month for free, regardless of the source.
  • We know there will be “enterprising” individuals who will try to circumvent our paywall, and we understand the seduction. We’ll stick to positive countermeasures: we’ll protect our content by offering superior apps that deliver superior joy of use.

So…why doesn’t she?

We know readers will pay for content. Consumer Reports and The Wall Street Journal prove it, but with an important difference: They’ve always charged for their content so they’ve never had to face readers’ withdrawal symptoms.

Or perhaps I missed an essential cog in the NYT money pump. Looking back to the 5 articles per day limit when coming through Google, vs. 20 per month by other means, including links on the NYT main page…I smell a deal. Is money flowing from Mountain View to Manhattan despite the Lady’s rage against aggregators such as Google News (while never cutting them off)? Does Google subsidize 5 daily articles by kicking back a fraction of its advertising revenue to the NYT?

From an advertiser’s perspective, this becomes a dubious proposition. Ostensibly, the paywall strengthens the NYT’s pitch to advertisers: You know we have a “bankable” audience; our readers are willing to buy in. The first 20 articles a month are free. They’ll get hooked. But (the advertisers respond) if anyone can have 140 free articles a month through Google…doesn’t this weaken your “select audience” argument?

Advertising dollars aside, business model transitions are hard, some say impossible. As my compadre Frédéric has shown many times in previous Monday Notes such as this one, the ARPU falls dramatically when moving from paper to pixels pushed around the Internet.

The transition conundrum is this: The Internet is killing paper and Web advertising won’t keep a newspaper afloat, hence the recourse to a paywall after years of free access. This might explain the Grey Lady’s unseemly contortions.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Tear down this PDF

The PDF document format is digital publishing’s worst enemy. For a large part, the news industry still relies on this 18-year-old format to sell its content online. PDF is to e-publishing what the steam locomotive is to the high-speed train. In our business, progress is called XML and HTML5.

Picture today’s smartphone reading experience. We’ll start with a newspaper purchased on a digital kiosk. For a broadsheet, a format still largely used by dailies, the phone’s “window” covers 1/60th of the paper’s page. Multiply by 30 pages of news. You’ll need 1800 pans and zooms to cover the entire publication (plus, each time time you pinch out, you can take a leisurely sip of your coffee as the image redraws).

Next, we have two iPhone screen captures of American Photo, purchased on Zinio. The more compact magazine format doesn’t help. Note that you need to scroll laterally to read a full line (as for the “Text” function, meant to insure easier reading, it is ineffective) :

Am I being too derisive, or can we say this is not the best way to read?

The battle for online news will be won on mobility. We’re just at the beginning of the smartphone era. We can count on better screens, faster processors combined to extended battery life, more storage, better networks… The bulk of news consumption will come from people on the move, demanding constant updates and taking a quick glance at what is stored in their mobile device — regardless of networks conditions. Speed, lightness and versatility will be key success factors. There won’t be much tolerance for latency.

In that respect, PDF is just a lame duck.

Back in 1993, the Portable Document Format was a fantastic digital publishing breakthrough. All of a sudden, using a sophisticated mathematical description of images, texts, typefaces, layout elements, the most complex graphic creation could be encapsulated into a single file. Large font sets and dedicated software were no longer needed. The PDF reader, licensed from Adobe Systems under the name of Acrobat, soon became free or pre-loaded in various OS platform. PDF became an open standard in 2008. As for the performance, it was stunning: see a 6400% magnification below:

Great for high-quality book publishing… And a completely pointless stunt for a mobile news product.

The newspaper industry jumped on PDF. The new format let a production crew send the full publication to the printing plant using huge, high definition PDF files directly transferred to the printing plates. When the web arose, the industry kept using the same format to make the publication available for downloading. After years of file optimization, a newspaper or a magazine still weighs 20 to 50 megabytes. The download is manageable over ADSL or cable, but impractical on a mobile network. But wait, it can get worse: on the Android platform, for example, the reader can actually ad weight to the original PDF file. This is the consequence of a good intention: giving the publisher the choice between a finished product that is easier to leaf through, but requires a heavier file, and one that downloads faster, but is more difficult to read.

Publishers’ inclination to keep using PDF is based on one idea: the graphical elements of a publication — layout, typefaces — are an essential component of a printed brand. By extension this visual identity is seen as a “label of trust” for the news brand, with the design-perfect PDF being the medium of choice.

Now, three things:
#1, this widely shared assertion is not supported by strong facts. There is no survey (to my knowledge) that links visual identity to reader loyalty, to feelings of trust;
#2, on this matter, if there remains any lingering bond with readers, it will fade away with the new generation of news consumers: they are much less sensitive than their elders to the notion of “trusted brand”, let alone to any design associated to it;
#3, the web has evolved. The HMTL5 standard has shown the ability to render any graphic design without the PDF format’s downsides (see this previous Monday Note: Rebooting Web Publishing Design).

Why not, therefore, jumping off the PDF train? The short answer is XML management. Our techiest Monday Note readers will forgive this shortcut: the Extensible Markup Language is a version of the web language readable by both machines and humans. An article encoded in XML is not an image but a set of character strings associated to various “tags” that describe what they are, where they belong; the description also provides contextual information to be retrieved at will. In theory, any publishing system, big or small, should be able to produce clean XML files. It should also be able to generate a “zoning file” that maps the coordinates of a story, or any other element in the page (see the red box below that indicates the position of the story in a newspaper front page). Armed with such position data, smartphone software can provide the right reading experience, limiting the need for the painful panning and zooming I mentioned above.

Unfortunately, no one lives in theory’s wonderland.

In fact, very few newspapers are able to produce usable XML or zoning files. Part of the reason lies in outdated editorial systems that were not designed (not upgraded either) to handle such sophisticated, web-friendly files. IT managers have been slow to embrace the web engineering culture and it didn’t occur to publishers than a “human upgrade” was badly needed deep in the bowels of their company…  (This, by the way, leaves another wide open field to internet pure players and their web-savvy tech teams).

This backwardness has created its own ecosystem… in low-wage countries. Every night, all over the world, highly specialized contractors collect the PDF files of hundreds of newspapers and send them to India, Romania or Madagascar. Down there, it takes a few hours to electronically dismantle the image files and to convert them to dynamic XML text files, with proper tagging and zoning. Thanks to the time difference, the converted static newspaper is sent back to the publishers by dawn, ready to be uploaded on an internet platform, right before the physical version hits the streets.

Many will find these shortcomings appalling. For a large part it is. The good news is the evolution has merely begun. Still, very few publishers realize that upgrading of their production chain is a crucial competitive asset. As for the PDF, it remains immensely useful for many applications, but it is no longer suitable for news content that thrives on nomadic uses.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Ongo… where?

Ongo is an ambitious digital kiosk. Launched last week, it was founded last year by Alex Kazim, a high-tech executive who worked at Ebay, Skype and PayPal. Kazim lined up an impressive group of investors: Gannett, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the venture capital firm Elevation Partners whose portfolio includes Facebook, Yelp and Palm (now part of HP). Altogether, Ongo raised $12m, an unusually large amount for such a project (marketing activities will consume a large fraction of the company’s funding). Headquartered in Cupertino, California, led by a mechanical engineer, Ongo carries more Silicon Valley DNA than its media siblings. As an advocate of greater technology input in media companies, I’d say it’s a good thing.

Up to a point. I see Ongo as too much of an automated aggregator as opposed to an edited news product. In this respect, Ongo might be a good start, supported by a neat tech implementation (both on the web and on the iPad), but we’re not there yet.

Let’s have a look.

Business-wise, Ongo is a paid-for kiosk. For $6.99 a month, it includes a basic set of  publications. Then, you add titles of your own choosing. As you’ll see below, the bill builds up quickly:

In this simulation, I’m getting five publications for free. Then, for a hefty $35.96 per month, I get four more titles… that are available for free on the web!

Am I missing something?

This is counterintuitive enough to force to make two assumptions:
– Some of these titles will soon switch to paid-for models; this could be the case for the Boston Globe (part of the New York Times Company, itself about to roll-out its paywall next month — is the $14.99 rate a prelude to the coming standalone price?). Most of Ongo’s catalog is likely to follow; otherwise, there is no point in subscribing to the service. (As for the Guardian, to my knowledge, it is meant to remain free).
– Ongo founders bet the true value of their service is harboring in a single place paid-for publications that are currently disseminated all over the web (and therefore require separate logins and, soon, payments). This is a huge bet on the value of simplicity and convenience.

Strange pricing choices aside, Ongo’s concept faces two big challenges: interface design and the commitment of its main editorial drivers.

First, on the web or on the iPad, Ongo is flat and dry. Its designers have deliberately chosen to remove the layout or the visual identity that defines a title. Again, they bet on the convenience of having everything displayed on the same site. In another departure from the usual web page structure, they opted for a “skimmer” style, based on a panel-like navigation: no more scrolling here, you jump from one screen to another.

The result isn’t convincing. Ongo’s iPad edition shows every story at the same level. In the example below, the second screen of yesterday’s “Page One” (2nd screen of page 1, that’s novelty) mixes up a Taco Bell story drawn from USA Today and pressure on the White House to condemn Hosni Mubarak.

And should you select navigation by title (in the example below: the Washington Post), you will get this bizarre page structure in which a US representative’s dental ordeal is displayed on the side of the main Egypt article — while the secondary Egypt story is sent at the opposite corner of the page:

This is a perfect illustration for the limits of automated aggregation. Without a proper dose of human editing, of rearranging news streams to make them consistent with the news cycle hierarchy, any machine-driven system will inevitably produce contents structures disconnected from readers’ expectations. Serious news websites rely on well-trained editors for their home page or use A/B testing procedures, to determine on the fly which headline is the most likely to be clicked on. Even a captive — i.e. subscription based — clientele will not easily abandon its ingrained news reading ways.

The same applies to visual references. Print or digital newspapers, or web pure players, all give a great deal of thought to interface design. They strive for a combination of unique visual identity and easy navigation. Ongo simply cannot expect to attract or retain readers by encapsulating everything into the same dull layout. (We’ll come back to the issue of merging design and digital constraints in a future Monday Note).

The second challenge is what I’ll call the “broken toys pawned off to poor kids” syndrome. In 1990, when the world discovered the horrendous living conditions in Romanian orphanages, European families began giving toys to charities. Used toys, of course. Broken toys, in fact. Charities were understandably pissed. In business ventures, the “broken toys syndrome” occurs when a partner is so reluctant to play its role, that it keeps its involvement to a bare minimum. In Ongo’s case, two critical audience attractors — the New York Times and The Financial Times — are not really playing the game. The NYTimes feeds the platform with a selection of stories, many of them one or two days old. As for the FT, it provides so little content that it doesn’t even fill its allocated space on Ongo’s iPad screen (see below).

These two institutions should make up their mind: either they are on board with Ongo for a price consistent with their current (or future) rate — perhaps applying a discount if they want to push the new platform — or they stay inside their cosy walled garden and established brands. At this stage, Ongo presents the two “Times” as being part of its product. But, at this stage, these iconic papers are far from being really there. As readers quickly see through the scheme, this type of incentive isn’t going to help.

As far as subscribing to Ongo, although I expect to cough up about $600 this year for a wide range of digital news contents, I won’t flash my Visa card for Ongo — yet. Tomorrow, perhaps: this one-week old site has the brainpower, the backers and the funding to become the powerful platform for online news this industry badly needs.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The Uncertain Future of Free Dailies

There are signs. Not necessarily good ones. At ten in the morning in Paris, you still find piles of free dailies at almost every distribution point. At four in the afternoon, in the business district, outside one of the busiest subway stations, unopened stacks of copies of Metro lay soaked by the winter rain. Two years ago, subway and commuter trains were filled with people reading a free daily. Now, readership has dropped dramatically. In 2002-2005, to make sure the morning daily was there when its intended target group walked by, the logistics team at 20 Minutes (the market leader) carefully adjusted the number of papers available at key locations using traffic analysis in 15 mins increments. Today, the oversupply is obvious.

What happened to the free dailies that once rocked the press market?

Before I go further, a bit of disclosure. I was 20 Minutes’ editor from 2001 to mid-2007; then, until December 2009, I went to work for Schibsted ASA, the Norwegian group that owns 50% of 20 Minutes.

The French free daily market is a strong one. Here are the main data (source: EPIQ/ Audipresse market research): total readership is 4.5m people (+0.4% from September 2009 to September 2010); this is approx. 9% of the French adult population in about 10-12 major cities.

Ranking……………………Readership…………….Ownership
1- 20 Minutes :………….. 2.7m (+2.2% Y/Y) ……Schibsted/Ouest-France
2-  Metro :      ……………. 2.4m  (-0.7%) …………Metro International
3- Direct Matin: …………..1.7m (+4.8%)……….  Bolloré Média
4- Direct Soir: …………….1.0m.(-5.4%) …………Bolloré Media

Financially speaking, these titles share an advertising market of about €120m ($160m). Their market strategy is built on heavy discounting (about 80% of the rate card vs. 50% for the paid-for press). As a result, a full page in a free daily will net about €10,000-15,000 as opposed to €40,000-50,000 for a major paid-newspaper.
In Q3 2010, for 16% revenue growth, 20 Minutes showed a negative EBIT of €1.3m; it could however turn a small profit for the full 2010 year with revenue in the €50-55m range. Metro showed both a declining EBIT and declining revenue for the same period. The other two papers don’t provide figures but are said to bleed cash.

Where is this going?

#1 Readership. The key issue, obviously, but without a clear trend. The free press is designed to target a young, urban, active audience, one that is in high demand by advertisers. To make targeting more efficient, these papers beg for localization: specific pages for news, culture, services, etc. produced by a small local staff.
On the French market, free dailies show a small year-to-year growth thanks to the opening of new cities. In theory, such expansion is fine.  But going in the second tier of cities means watering down the very demographics the papers rely on for their pitch to advertisers. Plus, in smaller areas, localization becomes economically unviable. Even if, on a spreadsheet, publishers are still able to defend the marginal cost of expanding into smaller cities, the gain in advertising revenues is close to zero (or will get there after few quarters). A perfect example of the law of diminishing returns.

#2 The product. When they commute, what do people do instead of reading a free daily? Their heads are deep down inside their smartphones. Compared to a convenient, permanently updated, set of mobile services, the free press has lost its appeal.
Right now, the free daily is riding a low-cost downward spiral: fewer pages every day, requiring less journalists and editors, at every level cheapest is best, etc. Product people are no longer in charge. The result is seen every day in the product: nothing to retain the reader’s attention, no original treatment or angle, no uniqueness whatsoever; content is flat, bland, and often packaged in an increasingly aggressive ad environment (several times a week, an advertising cover-sheet conceals the content of the front page). No wonder the mobile phone is taking over. The rise of the smartphone took the free press by surprise, both in terms of time allocation (hours spent to text-messaging of Facebooking) and by its ability to provide a competing news product.
In retrospect — always easier than making good predictions — free papers should have capitalized on their brands, built upon millions of daily readers, to develop strongholds in web and mobile, with products targeted at every segment of their audience. In addition, satellite, market driven products in both editorial and services, should have been engineered. Darwin’s survival of the fittest.

#3 Market positions. Revenue and profit numbers show the importance of retaining the number one slot. On the French market, in spite of having a better product and running a tight ship, the n°1 position held from the start by 20 Minutes is likely to change. For one, profitability is fragile with three players on the market — one too many, at least. Two, Bolloré Media — publisher of Direct Matin and Direct Soir — shows both resilience and resolve. Size matters: for the €6bn revenue Bolloré Group, its free dailies weigh about 2% of the conglomerate (two thirds are transportation and logistics). In such a context, the €40-50m poured into the free press is pocket change.

The low barrier-to-entry is one of the most challenging free press features. Basically, you design a product, put together a stable of two dozens journalists, sign a couple of printing and distribution contracts and you’re in business. The rest is a constant adjustment to circumstances. It is very difficult to built a durable, unique and hard to replicate business.
In addition, Bolloré enjoys two advantages: it holds strong positions in the advertising sector (from creation to media buying) and, more importantly, it has the luxury of the time. From its perspective, being the late-comer with a so-so product is a minor inconvenience that can be corrected over time. The 172 years-old Bolloré group is good at the wait-and-adapt game. For instance, the weak evening edition of its free daily (Direct Soir) is about to morph into a theme-oriented daily special (cars, sports, well-being…). In the meantime, it will keep beefing up its circulation and thus could en up in a position to take the critical #1 slot. With a set of editorial products carefully designed to attract advertisers, Bolloré and its Direct papers could disrupt the game.

But in the long run, free newspapers face the tough and delicate challenge of dealing with digital news consumption. They still own great assets: brands (not as diversified as they could have been, still…), huge audiences and healthy shareholder structures. It is “a mere matter” of adapting products and creating new ones. Management by KPI is fine — and necessary. But, in a highly media-diverse competitive market, “painting by the numbers” can’t compensate a lack of product strategy vision and implementation.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Le Monde: a blueprint of a turnaround

The iconic French newspaper Le Monde is about to begin a new chapter of its complicated history. Last September, what remains France’s most influential paper changed hands (see previous Monday Note Le Monde’s escape velocity and story in NY Times’ DealBook).

Le Monde is now owned by a triumvirate: Xavier Niel, a telecom entrepreneur, provided the bulk of the €110m ($130m) injected in the venture; Matthieu Pigasse, head of Lazard France, and Pierre Bergé, co-founder of Yves Saint-Laurent fashion house. Now, as the paper prepares to replace its editor, the new owners’ turnaround operation faces tough challenges.

But, before we continue, a disclosure that might influence the way you read this column:

Over the last few days, I have been on the receiving end of feelers from both insiders and outsiders: they wanted to gauge my interest in Le Monde’s editor job. (None of these informal conversations directly involved the owners.) For reasons I’ll discuss towards the end of this note, I made it clear I wasn’t interested.

With this out of the way, let’s look two sets of problems at Le Monde: editorial and industrial.

The editorial one is a relatively minor. Le Monde prides itself in remaining the “Paper of Record”. Unfortunately, such posture encourages more arrogance than it spurs innovation or a burning desire to win. Le Monde’s morning e-mail sent to digital subscribers exemplifies this hauteur; it says: “Que dit Le Monde?” (What Does Le Monde Say?) ; it’s not “What’s in today’s paper”, “What we’ve got”, “What we scooped”, “Selected legwork”, or “You might like…” No. It is: “The State of the World according to Le Monde”.

Quite logically, we get headlines that pontificate about yesterday’s news (Le Monde is an afternoon paper, oddly enough). Rolling your eyes, you still buy it at your favorite kiosk hoping to find good reading material. Most of the time, you actually do. Le Monde still manages to retain a great editorial team, one able to produce and edit high-quality content. But such capability is no longer sufficient to keep (and preferably expand) its readership.

On weighty topics, The Guardian or The New York Times are just as solid as Le Monde, but they are also way more fun to read. By “fun to read” I mean these newspapers are more willing to assign valuable journalistic resources to subjects popular with readers but belittled by French journalists. (For more on what readers actually like, see a previous Monday Note: What do they read – actually ? ).

Again, dusting off this slightly austere and pretentious worldview is no big challenge; it only requires minor adjustments to the daily mix. And probably a bit of reorganization. Le Monde is notorious for its uneven workload distribution. On one extreme, we have toilers who feed the beast on a daily basis, always on the edge of burn-out; on the other, there are those who maintain a more epicurean approach to their job. Among the latter, some will have evidently to be let go; others will have to accept changes to their working conditions and contracts.

The industrial problem is far more critical. In the next few months, management will make decisions likely to seal the paper’s fate. These decisions will pave the way to a new era, or lead to extinction. (So far, the latter has been the unfortunate “natural” course: we’ll recall Le Monde was on the verge of bankruptcy last Summer).

The new shareholders — who define themselves as owners — were first viewed as saviors. Plenty of money, a strong industrial and financial track record for Xavier Niel and Mathieu Pigasse. As for the older Pierre Bergé (81), he was portrayed as the gentle philanthropist who arranged for Le Monde’s staff to retain a minority stake in the new capital structure. These idyllic feelings quickly evaporated as the paper’s management proved unable to present a well-thought-through strategic plan to their new bosses. After dawdling for a few months, the owners jumped to action, the hard way. Xavier Niel, the entrepreneur, lost patience and launched one of his former lieutenants on an expeditious cost-cutting operation. The gent — a French-Israeli entrepreneur — went after low-hanging fruits such as management perks, travel expenses and stationery (really!). In passing, as a way to squelch resistance, the new owners resorted to the classy expedient of leaking juicy details about the cost-cutting operations. They knew media reporters would parrot every bit of gossip without bothering with lowly fact-checking. Good old eighties tactics: publicly humiliating management.

Until then, people at Le Monde had only seen pictures of cost-killers; they got a rude wake-up call: gone is the era of passive shareholders and out-of-the-way board of directors. The general manager of the group was demoted two weeks ago, and the current editor has been stripped of its top attributions and is about to leave.

Now comes the hard part. The cost-killer is back in Israel but the really important decisions remain to be made.

#1 The printing plant. Le Monde still owns a cathedral that is both obsolete and costly to operate. The facility, controlled by the omnipotent Printer’s Union, is plagued by productions inefficiencies and loses its clients one after the other. The plant currently employs 300 people where 100 would be more than enough. That’s about €12m a year in potential savings. The choice is between injecting dozens of millions of euros to modernize the plant or closing it down. By any measure, this is a no-brainer: the plant has to be closed. Any Western publisher dreams of dumping his printing plant (many groups such as the Norwegian Schibsted no longer own any printing facility).

In Le Monde’s case, as part of the industry’s restructuring plan, the French government has set aside adequate funds and is ready to pick-up most of the tab. (For the long run, the Sarkozy administration wants to reduce the subsidies that accounts for 12% of the French dailies revenues but, in the interim, will provide financial support for transitions towards more durable structures.) This could free Le Monde to hand over its print job to the new facility built by Le Figaro eighteen months ago — one that begs for an accelerated amortization (see our story about Le Figaro’s strategy).

#2 The digital strategy. Last summer, investment bankers came up with the following valuations for the Groupe Le Monde: €10m for the newspaper itself, €30m for the magazines and €80m for its digital subsidiary, Le Monde Interactif (MIA). Problem is: 34% of MIA is owned by Lagardère Groupe, a diversified media company still in search of a viable digital strategy (despite numerous and costly acquisitions). The reason for this odd capital structure? The old guard at the newspaper was reluctant to fund Le Monde Interactif, which had to find external financing.

Now, Le Monde faces a weird situation: a third of its most valuable asset is controlled by another company and, with each passing quarter, the price for that stake goes up. Any new management would have to make sure it reassumes full ownership of such a critically important business unit. The urgency could justify a bold arbitrage move such as selling the cultural weekly Telerama acquired years ago. No synergies whatsoever have emerged from that takeover — except siphoning cash from Telerama to the perennially money-losing daily.

Le Monde needs to regain control of its digital strategy both from a capital and a product aspect. Le Monde Interactif grew up feeling like the illegitimate offspring of a noble family. No wonder why it now fiercely defends its autonomy. With a dual ownership – largely played by MIA’s management for its own political ends – and a profitable operation, the digital arm of Le Monde operates in its own ways. Unfortunately, not for the best results. Editorially speaking, the site remains below the newspaper’s standards, and it doesn’t look good when compared to the Guardian Unlimited or the New York Times Digital. Its content is uneven (to say the least), often remotely related to the paper’s editorial treatments; many blogs are weak, and the entire interaction with readers is messy. In short, a platform with great potential, technically and financially strong, but one that calls for more discipline and a greater strategic editorial alignment with the flagship.

In addition, Le Monde Interactif prides itself with a rebellious online appendage: LePost.fr, a website targeted at young audiences. Originally designed as a kind of innovation lab, LePost in fact became a place for gossip and unverified stories (labelled as such!) — and for bleeding money (€2m operating costs for €200,00 revenue in 2009). This excrescence only needs to be sold or closed-down. (Its staff could be efficiently reassigned to beef up Le Monde’s  presence in social and participatory medias.)

Within five years, Le Monde will be read mostly on mobile devices – smartphones tablets – and supported by a mixture of free and paid-for contents. In the meantime, the newspaper will undoubtedly continue to lose some of its readers, even though a core audience, mature, educated and affluent, could slow down the process. The paper’s pricing/distribution therefore needs to be reassessed. It is likely that it could sustain significant price hikes without major readership erosion, probably coupled with distribution focused on major cities. At the same time, the weekend edition — a strong advertising vehicle — should be expanded.

There is no room for procrastination. Le Monde needs to act decisively to preserve its brand and editorial influence. It needs to reconsider its perimeter to address a critical issue: the Paper of Record is now challenged; it must morph into the Permanent Media of Record, online and offline. This requires a serious rethinking of asset allocation.

Why I felt I shouldn’t even think about the editor job:

1 / The editor’s job, as it is now defined, has been stripped of any influence on the company’s strategy. Such a job needs a say on essential matters such as the printing plant, or the way Le Monde controls its digital unit. We need to know the new owners will involve the editor in such matters. For their defense, most journalists are totally divorced from any kind of management culture. In my case, I don’t believe a media can be effectively managed solely by making decisions for the main editorial or the home page.

2 / The selection process is just terrible. First, candidates have to declare themselves publicly. Then, they are auditioned by a kind of ad hoc committee. Next, they are presented to the owners and to delegates from the newsroom. Finally, the appointee has to be approved by a majority of 60% of the staff. The result is the primary factor in picking a candidate will be his or her ability to get those staff votes. For the selection committee, using other criteria bears the risk of being discredited. Good luck with that.

The need to appoint an editor aligned with the newspaper’s core values is understandable. But, rather than electing an editor by popular vote, it would be much better to have a candidate: (a) probed and interviewed by a selection committee led by the board of directors — like in most companies — and, (b) approved by a board of trustees whose mandate is promoting the paper’s independence and integrity.

3 / There is no shortage of candidates inside and outside. The owners might prefer an outsider, which could further complicate the game. (The triumvirate is said to put a high priority on hiring a forty-something. Such focus is questionable: Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, 57 years old, is at the top of his game on all facets of the paper’s business.

Unfortunately, the process as it stands today carries a high risk of morphing into a bitter campaign. The bloodied winner will then face a gauntlet of frustrated apparatchiks only too eager to question his/her authority since, of course, the defeated candidates won’t leave. It can’t work that way. Especially for a media group facing such daunting challenges.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Key Success Factors for a tablet-only “paper”

Can it fly? Last week, Rupert Murdoch announced he was plotting a tablet-only newspaper. Or rather, an iPad-only paper — at first; other tablets would follow. The Daily, as it is to be called (how modest and innovative) is to be blessed by Steve Jobs Himself at a media event introducing the new venture. Initially, rumors pointed to a December 9th date; the latest gossip now says the unveiling could be delayed over “issues”. In any case, this is big news: a major media group, crossing the Rubicon to get rid of both paper and web, riding the Apple promotional machine (details and speculations in this story from The Guardian).

Well before the iPad was introduced last Spring, many of us had dreamed of a news product encapsulated inside a self-sustaining iPhone application. The advent of the iPad, with its gorgeous screen, only made the dream more vivid. Then, reality interfered. Even with the combined installed bases of the iPhone and the iPad’s, numbers didn’t add up, the dream news product wouldn’t make real money. Could it work this time under Rupert Murdoch’s rule?

Let’s return to Earth and tally the project’s pluses and minuses.

On the plus side

1 /  Let’s make quick work of the staffing issue. Media pundits contend you can’t run a serious daily with a staff of hundred as envisioned by Murdoch. Of course, you can have a roaring newsroom with 100 people! As long as such staff is focused on the paper’s core journalistic beats; in an ideal world, a newsroom should be staffed by a relatively small number of dedicated, well-paid, hard-working reporters and editors, managed by a flat hierarchy. This compact crew only needs to be supplemented by a carefully outsourced network of specialized people whose expertise, while highly valued, isn’t used often enough to justify full time employment. Exactly the opposite of our dying print dinosaurs.

2 / The tablet immersive experience. Like no other device before, the iPad has the ability to capture the reader’s attention: iPad “sessions” last much longer than browsing expeditions on the internet. According to TigerSpike, the very design company that built apps for News Corp, the average iPad session lasts 30 to 40 minutes (see story in PaidContent).

3/ The market. Rupert Murdoch is convinced that, soon, an iPad, or a competing tablet, will find its way in almost every household. And he is said to have been impressed by projections of 40 million iPads in circulation by the end of 2011. Spreadsheet magic! Millions of customers… On the revenue side, numbers can work. A 100 persons newsroom should cost no more than $12-15m a year to operate. Assuming $99/year pricing, netting $66 per user after Apple’s fee, plus $10 per user per year of premium advertising (after all, it is a qualified audience), the ARPU can land at around $80, which translate into 150,000 subscribers required to break-even. Sounds appealing.

On the minus side

1 / Closed environment, no links. That is the side effect of the “cognitive container”: an application such as the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian or the Economist, is by definition autistic to the rest of the web. No links to the outside world (except if it has an embedded browser like Dow Jones’ All Things D), and no relation to the social/sharing whirlwind. Some will appreciate the coziness of a newspaper without parasitic external stimuli, other won’t accept to be cut-off from the social Babel. It could be a matter of generations.

2 / The Apple business model sucks (for media). At first, Apple’s 30% cut of the retail price sounds great compared to the physical world where production and distribution costs devour 40% to 50%. Not so simple. First, you need at least five times more readers in the to offset the advertising revenue depletion associated with the move to the digital world.
Second, the tax issue. In many countries, in spite of intense lobbying by media  companies, digital products carry standard VAT. In France, where the VAT is set at 19.6%, internal analysis made by publishers showed that a high volume daily will net less in the AppStore than in a physical kiosk.
Third, Apple’s terms of use. They deprive publishers of two things : first, the ability to set prices outside of Apple-dictated levels (usually too high or too low) and, second, access to customer data, which make any CRM monetization impossible. The latter is, in itself a major deterrent to dealing with Apple. Of course, if Steve endorses Rupert’s project, the conditions could be quite different.

Mandatory

1 /  Exclusive and proprietary content. If Murdoch’s paper — or any tablet-only publication for that matter — is unable to produce truly original content, it is doomed. The internet is flooded by reverberating newsflows of all kinds, and free. Value will inevitably follow uniqueness.

2 / Pricing: simple and adjustable. No one knows what readers will ultimately: the iTunes model (multiple 99 cents transactions) or the cable-TV or Netflix flat-but-fat fees? To find out, the only way is to offer multiple pricing options. Problem is: it goes against simplicity and readability.

3 / Beyond Apple and perhaps beyond the app. For all of its advantages, betting only on the AppStore could be risky. The market will be overflowed by other vendors and operating systems. Hedging one’s bets will be key.
Maybe it would be worthwhile to look beyond the application concept. Instead of an autistic app, why not build adaptative web sites that will adjust automagically to the device used (tanks to the user agent technique)? As screen sizes differ from an iPad, for a Samsung Galaxy Tab, or for the  upcoming Blackberry Playbook (see this video), the tablet-dedicated site could adjust and optimize its rendering. In doing so, the service would remain part of the web, connected to its social features; it could operate on a much better business model than Apple’s, and there would be no hassle with the app store application process, upgrades, inexplicable rejections, etc.

4 / Speedy and simple. On both my iPhone and my iPad, the applications I no longer use happen to be the most complicated and the slowest. One such example is the New York Times app: it needs more time to load than it takes to flip trough several pages of the paper’s web site. On the contrary, the just released Economist applications are great. Two buttons on the main page : Download (10 seconds for the entire magazine) and Read. That’s all. And if I want to change the font size, it is intuitive: I pinch in or out, and the whole layout resizes. Interestingly enough, The Economist gives its subscribers the choice between a great website experience and the magazine look and feed of its sleek application (I’m curious to see which one will prevail, audience-wise). The beauty of this app resides in what that has been removed from it.

Meditate on this: this is at the very core of Apple’ design genius.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Expanding Into New Territories

In defining business strategies for modern medias such as online newspapers, the most difficult part is finding the right combination of revenue streams. Advertising, pay-per-view, flat fee… All are part of the new spectrum media companies now have to deal with.

The gamut looks like this:

As we can see, newspapers mostly consist of one product line, confined to the mainstream, value-added news category. By going digital, this segment is likely to lose most of its value (expect a 60% meltdown as expressed in revenue per reader). Therefore, for these companies, it becomes critical to expand into new territories already taken over by other players. For instance, big media outlets endowed with strong brands should go into commodity news and participatory/social contents. This doesn’t mean a frontal attack on Facebook or Twitter, obviously; instead, the new reality dictates using and monetizing through them (see last week’s Monday Note on Facebook monetization).

Ancillary publishing should also be considered a natural expansion: news outlets retain large editorial staffs that could be harnessed to produce high value digital books (see this earlier Monday Note on Profitable Long Form Journalism). The “Events” item, on the list/graph above, is more questionable, but it remains a significant source of potential income tied to the brand’s notoriety. I left aside the classifieds business: except for a few media groups (Schibsted all over Europe or Le Figaro Group in France) that boarded the train on time, positions are now too entrenched to justify an investment to gain a position in that segment.

Advertising is likely to remain the biggest money maker for the two dominant categories: Commodity/Participatory/Social Media and Mainstream Value-Added. Unfortunately, in its digital form, advertising has run in deflationary mode for the past decade due to flat (at best) CPMs, with huge inventories putting further pressure on prices.

Print doesn’t look great either as investments shift en masse to digital; this reflects the growing imbalance between time spent by users on print and advertising investments in the medium. According to Nielsen Media Research, the Internet now accounts for 38% of time spent but only for 8% of ad spending; newspapers are on a symmetrical trend as they captured 20% of advertising dollars for only 8% of users’ time. More

New media valuations metrics

On September 22, the Norwegian media group Schibsted announced a transaction to make it the sole owner of the French free classifieds site LeBonCoin.fr. The valuation for the deal? €400m ($540m). I must admit it : I fell from my chair(*). Not that I look down at Le Bon Coin, au contraire. In a previous December 2009 Monday Note (Learning from free Classifieds), I explained why news media should give a closer look to such sites. In my view, they could draw inspiration from five key components: a crystal-clear interface, deep concern for its users, a proprietary value proposition, software that keeps working, and a free model… with paid-options.

Still… Four hundred million euros! In last week’s deal, Schibsted bought back the 50% stake owned by Ouest-France, the French regional newspaper group. The deal nets €140m for the Breton group – now facing a €100m restructuring of its… paper-based classifieds. The deal involves an asset swap: Ouest-France gives up a 59% EBITDA business (Le Bon Coin), and increases its stake in the company Schibsted exits, Car & Boat Media, valued at €120m, a 29% margin business. Analysts I spoke to wonder: Is this really the best move for Ouest-France? Obviously, they’re selling off a jewel. And, no less obviously, they never fully grasped the free classifieds site’s potential.

Now, let’s consider two aspects of this deal: the context for media economics, and asset valuation.

Context. The €400m valuation for Le Bon Coin, a four-year-old business, is to be viewed against the backdrop of French media goings-on. To name but one example, Le Parisien, a powerful daily, is to be sold for around €120m (the family owners wanted €200m). Last year, it made about €240m in revenue and lost €6 m. Together, Le Parisien, and its national/regional edition, Aujourd’hui en France, have a combined circulation of 477,579 and a readership of 2.23m (that is an astonishing 4.7 readers per copy). Translated into an ARPU (Average revenue per User) equivalent, Le Parisien makes 496€ per buyer of the paper per year, and €106 per reader per year. Let’s keep those numbers in mind.

According to the Schibsted press release, Le Bon Coin is valued at 22 times 2009 revenue of €18m, and 11 times the 2010 expected revenue of €36m.

On the one hand, we have a great but money-losing news media brand, Le Parisien, likely to be sold for 0.5 or 0.6 times its revenue. And, on the other, a classifieds website, Le Bon Coin, valued 11 times its revenue.

Isn’t there an imbalance here? An excess of sorts?

Asset performance provides parts of the answer: strings of losses for the newspaper (although clearly getting better) against a whopping 59% EBITDA for the classifieds sites and its ultralight production structure (20 people).

But the real answer is elsewhere: expected growth. More

Too many journalists ?

An unpleasant question: Do we have an excess of daily press journalists? And, if so, how does the surfeit vary from country to country?

Two years ago, Earl Wilkinson, the managing director of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA), produced a chart showing how the growth in the number of journalists employed by US dailies had not prevented a decrease in circulation:

A former journalist himself, Earl is a strong advocate of editorial differentiation; therefore, he is not against large newsrooms. But the fact remains: on the US market, the size of the newsroom isn’t a shield against readership erosion. With the possible exception of India,  the era of big editorial cathedrals is gone. In France for instance, according to a 2009 study conducted by the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the number of journalists almost tripled in two generations, about 50 years. For the same time period, the number of copies sold per 1000 inhabitants shrunk by 66%, from 360 about 120 per 1000 people.

I took the OECD report titled The Evolution of News and the Internet and fed it to Excel. The output shows the following trends:

#1: editorial workforce. If adding journalists has proven unable to reverse the trend in reader depletion, in any given market, the more numerous the journalists are, the better the newspaper industry holds. The chart below covers seven countries, with two superimposed data sets. First, in blue, the number of journalists per 100,000 daily copies sold; second, in red, paid circulation per 1000 inhabitants.

Sweden and Norway show the most favorable ratios: strongest readership and the biggest editorial staff per copies sold. Italy shows the worst numbers: relatively few journalists for the lowest readership. More