Tom Brady fans, Guild members, Harvard snobs, Irishmen everywhere, MIT geeks, Big Dig employees (all million of you, even the ones who never showed up), Kennedy groupies, current and future owners, bald-headed men carrying brown paper bags full of unmarked hundred dollar bills around the state house, even the poor MDC employees who had to fish Governor Weld out of the Charles River: the Sox may be in first place, but the dinosaur which is the Globe is dead. Drive a stake through the newsroom's heart. The monopoly ad business as subsidy for civic journalist, which thrived for two centuries, is over. And that means our little metropolis (we like to think we are more important than NYC but we are number 23 in the U.S. by population) has to figure out a new model.
Here's a thought. Use the 300,000 daily subscribers to the Boston Globe as a marketing tool. Leave the Sunday paper alone for now. I'm talking about Monday through Saturday, which are the least profitable days of the week for any paper. Take the dozens of daily printed pages that currently get delivered to doorsteps across New England and shrink it down to one dozen. Something akin to the fax version of the New York Times that you get on holiday overseas: headlines, a paragraph or two about the biggest stories. The very best of the paper in condensed form focused on metro, sports and opinion where the Globe still has a chance to dominate the news.
This new slimmed-down daily paper would feed the daily habit of people over 40 who still need a physical news fix and, much more important, drive traffic to the Web. Every story in the physical paper would lead the reader to a much more detailed story online. Think of it as TV Guide for Internet news. The real problem for the Globe, truth be told, is that neither their readers nor their reporters have fully grasped the fact that news reporting is a thousand times better online. As any blogger will tell you, simple text comes alive online because you can link related stories, pictures, video right into the story. Instead of just reading one person's report on an earthquake, you can see, feel and touch the whole event in a single online news story. Once you grasp this fact you will never go back. That's why so many people spend their evenings on FaceBook (and Huffington!) rather than watching crap television.
Behind the slimmed down physical paper has to be a completely new news delivery strategy online. The beauty of the Web is that it provides objective and instantaneous feedback on your success. You can tell exactly how many people have looked at your content and for how long. This allows minute accountability, something sorely lacking from the old system. In the new world, reporters become multi-media producers whose success is measured by ratings. Great reporting isn't great if no one cares. Sorry, that's the economic truth. Reset compensation with a reasonable base salary and performance compensation tied to online views. Some reporters will thrive in the new world and some will not. Those that don't thrive have to leave...kind of like American Idol. The readers would have the ultimate power.
From a revenue perspective, the Globe would build a model around four revenue streams: the Sunday paper as is, a sponsorship model for the daily paper (one advertiser paying big bucks for exclusivity), online advertising and a subscription package which includes both physical and virtual content ($1 a day?). Here's the radical part. No one gets access to the online paper without paying. Simple as that. Build an impenetrable firewall. No economic model will work as long as the paper is giving away the crown jewels for free.
In the end, the 300,000 daily subscribers will fall. But if the result is a business whose biggest single expense is no longer paper (didn't these guys read Al Gore's book, for goodness sakes!) that would be progress. I would be willing to bet big money that the Globe would actually add subscribers in the crucial under-40 cohort. The over-40 citizens, like me, are a pretty insular lot who, truth be told, love our paper and would pay to support the transition to the new world.
Analysts estimate the Globe will do around $400 million in revenue in 2009 and lose $50 million. Even if subscribers fall by a third under the new model, $73 million of online subscriber revenue (200k times $1 per day) is a lot better than chasing print ads and blowing the budget on paper and ink. No doubt costs would have to be slashed across the board but the core business would be an inherently profitable one (providing great news content on the web to paying customers) rather than a sinking ship. The Sunday paper, weekday sponsorship and online ads would just be gravy.
The Globe would be the first old-line newspaper to successfully make the transition to an online focused news gathering organization, a model for others to follow. Content promoted the old-fashioned way but created on the web utilizing multi-media. A reliable revenue stream built on loyal subscribers with real power for the first time (dirty little secret, up until now its all been about the ADVERTISERS!) since their viewership patterns would directly impact the reporter economics giving ultimate power to the people. Management would finally have the ability to manage costs, create direct accountability and build a profitable franchise for the future.
That's a Boston Globe I would certainly pay to receive. Frankly, I might even invest in that model, given the opportunity.
The author was the 31 year-old CFO who constructed the controversial sale of the then 176 year-old Providence Journal for $2 billion in 1997. He's always suffered pangs of guilt but has recently been thinking that the deal -- heavily criticized by shareholders, reporters, politicians and citizens alike -- wasn't all that sinful after all.