Thursday, July 1, 2010

Is 2010 the End of the Beginning for New Media?

There was a mind-boggling article in the New York Times recently opining that the only way for the Washington Post Company to sell Newsweek will probably be to pay someone to take it:

This surely is an inflexion point in the life of all of us who have lived - and loved - publishing for decades. It's right up there with the day that Encyclopedia Britannica realized that its Beyond Paper future lay not in CD-ROM editions but online. Newsweek, and perhaps any print weekly, is simply no longer financially viable...not as a physical magazine, anyhow.

This is a classic example of The Law of Unintended Consequences. If Tim Berners Lee had thought for a moment, back in 1990, that his invention at CERN of http + HTML + server + browser was going 20 years later to eliminate Newsweek from newsstands worldwide, he might have gone back to studying physics instead of ushering in the World Wide Web.

But what's done is done, and what interests me in this Times piece by David Carr is not so much the End-of-Newsweek story as the meta message of the article which is the contention that we now live in an age where the periodicity of publications has become a potential showstopper:

'But in the current digital news ecosystem, having “week” in your title is anachronistic in the extreme [my emphasis], what an investor would call negative equity.

And in a publishing landscape filled with the lame and infirm, weeklies are the most profoundly challenged. A weekly schedule, with its tight turnarounds and frenzied production, is costly as a matter of course. Monthlies can still do step-backs for readers who don’t expect to see what happened five minutes ago, and daily newspapers have co-opted the newsweekly formula to build in real-time analysis.'

I have to say, I am not at all certain that I buy that argument: "having 'week' in your title is anachronistic in the extreme," I mean. It sounds profound, but I think it's a crock. I created a feature for a weekly back in 1982, so very nearly thirty years ago, that to this day, were I to throw it up online, would probably be read by 100,000 people a week: it was called, simply, "The Week in Words."

Far from being a liability - not as long as a month, seven times longer than a day - the concept of a week remains in my view an almost perfect container: for thoughts as for deeds. Who does not view their life through the prism of the week? Who does not turn over a new page in their mind every Monday morning?

The comments David Carr makes about the math are interesting but they are hardly shocking. With a $40M subscription liability, he writes that any new owner would therefore be obligated to print Newsweek for the next 18 months at least - which makes no allowance at all for the possibility of "converting" subscribers in some way to another product or service..surely a manageable process given the known predilections of those individuals (thoughtful, probably high-income, influencers); why would they not be happy to be converted to a premium insight service, run as an online-only offering?
The other number Carr zeros in on is the reduction in the rate base from 2.5M to 1.6M. But no Web-based offering ever cuts back its rate base...managed correctly, anyway, a premium insight service will only ever grow its number of members...until it reaches a certain size anyway - which for commentary and analysis of this sort is surely greater than any member of the Graham family is able to comprehend.

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