Recently I wrote on the future of newspapers, something many of us with roots in the industry do as a daily pastime. In all of my research, I still think the models of the future that Alan Mutter of Newsosaur postulated for newspapers recently best portray a reasonable future as indicated by the paths many current papers are taking. Briefly they are:
Farm it – The Buffett Model. Buy and hold…and hope!
Feed It – Rupert Murdoch Model. Give the fire some fuel and oxygen and hope that it creates a sustainable blaze. After having split his media empire into digital and non-digital, this may be a real key for many to follow. Especially to those public companies that have to report their financials. Print is no longer a growing methodology, and as such, is dead to public companies as a forward-looking model. Even Harte-Hanks, who pioneered the advertising-only Pennysaver model to millions and millions of circulation, has seen the light and is reported to looking for buyers for their huge franchise. It can still generate some good cash flow, but looks horrible on quarterly 10K reports. “Time to set those doggies free” my buddy Bill would say.
Milk It – Newhouse Model. Why bother to feed the cow, just keep milking it for all you’ve got until it runs dry. Hope you don’t grab a bull…that could be bad. This is how those in the industry see most of the changes for newspapers, and what they see in New Orleans is not pleasing to the palate of the N.O. residents and readers.
My Experience there – I during the 90s I was in advertising director at The Orange County register. Those were truly the best of times, when newspapers were at their zenith, and competition kept us strong. It was fun to compete with The Los Angels Times, and to add a number of specialty products to our overall marketing mix. At one time, there were as many as 7 OC Register sales representatives who could be calling on any potential advertiser in Orange County. The favorite expression of senior management was quoted” time to impose our will”. Sadly, that was what we did with rates, and that was the beginning of a long downward slide for the Orange County Register, and a number of other newspapers that followed the strategy. Newspapers were still mini-monopolies, and the profits flowed.
Revenues peaked during the early part of the next decade encouraging the family ownership to seek an opportunity to cash out. They did and several of those in the family who took the buyout are still smiling today. Those family members who did not and stayed with freedom communications ultimately lost everything in the recent bankruptcy. In talking with some of the recent employees I hear and almost Universal joy and optimism based on their initial meetings with the new ownership group.
However, most also said it’s too soon to tell how things will actually shake out. They’re also saying that they think there will be a change in the editorial focus of the newspaper, and hoping to see a return to a more centrist albeit still Libertarian viewpoint of the paper. Over the last several years, under the new ownership and management, the paper had gone strongly to the right and far beyond the historical Libertarian viewpoints of the founding families. This was also not reflected in the larger viewpoint of a changing and dynamic Orange County, which is not the singular conservative bastion from the days of John Wayne. A strict editorial slant, either left or right is not a positive factor in the newspaper world that is searching for the largest audience possible, even the Hoiles family, had understood that factor and kept their politics in check.
Based on everything I have seen and heard I think it is still too soon to tell exactly which model the OC Register is likely to follow, though I think we can rule out the Newhouse – Milk It model. New ownership would not have invested to simply let it go without some kind of fight. New money in, especially from someone outside of the established print community as the new owners as probably signals they want to accomplish something, and also want a return on their investment dollars – something unique in print today.
That leaves Feed It or Farm It! Based on a strong foothold in Orange County we are still a highly desirable market that will rise again when housing takes off in the future. For now I’ll go with my heart in hand and say they will “Feed It” and try to do everything they can to build a strong multi-media franchise with the paper as the core product. This fits the community, and what I think is a great opportunity. They will not be able to impose their will, or dictate a political bent, but I think they can make small gobs of money, year after year if they play their cards right. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.