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The NY Times Needs to Think Outside of the (Content) Box

As occasionally happens, my Bnet media industry colleague, Cathy Taylor, and I, have chosen to cover the same topic today. As her post is already up, I urge you to give it a read, as she does an excellent job of reporting the substance of yesterday's management-to-staff presentation at The New York Times, as captured by a reporter via Twitter.
Pulling up and away from the detail, I'm struck by the tone of management at The Times. Clearly, they get it. They get that the old business model is broken and beyond repair.

That's the good news. You've got to know what isn't working before you will ever be able to figure out what might work. And some of the solutions they are purportedly exploring sound good, like selling research to corporations, and (perhaps) tiered membership programs for subscribers.

But, what I don't see, frankly, is enough thinking outside of the box -- the content box. For example, management is still reviewing why its attempt to place certain content behind a pay wall in the TimesSelect debacle, failed. There is the suggestion that they simply marketed the project badly, that maybe the public thought that the whole online version of The Times was no longer free.

Beyond the obvious here -- blaming the messenger -- this is patent nonsense. The Times simply does not have any content that a substantial number of online users are going to pay for, period.

What these executives, many of whom are clearly very smart and capable people, need to consider is that they will only be able to squeeze so much revenue out of their advertising and subscription streams going forward. However good a job they do at maximizing these sources, it will not be enough to save the overall business.

So, what are they to do?

Re-imagine their product.

Stop thinking like a newspaper and start thinking like a service business that delivers utility to its user base. People won't pay much for news, but they will gladly click on a "buy" link positioned next to a book, CD, or cellphone product review. And don't mention that hoary old concept of the "church-state line" to me. It was always only a fabrication and for heaven's sake, placing contextualized "buy" buttons doesn't cheapen the content; all it does is maximize its utility to users.

Remember, commerce is a good thing. And the consumer, not the journalist, will make the decision whether to click on that button. The journalist should feel no compunction whatsoever in panning bad products and endorsing good ones -- that's what they get paid to do (write honestly).

Another move newspapers better make very quickly is to explore placing sponsored links on their content as it migrates onto mobile platforms. In fact, the options exist to print simple keyword links in the print version of the product that can be entered in iPhone apps that allow users to browse the website version for updates and/or make purchases via the affiliate marketing programs already in place with Apple, Amazon, et. al.

In other words, newspapers are leaving incremental revenue on the table right now, relatively early in the transition to mobile, which is sweeping through consumer culture like the massive firestorm it truly is.

These are just a couple of (to me) obvious ideas. For an extended look at why there is no one "magic bullet" to save newspapers, please check out Mark Potts' excellent piece from yesterday.
Oh, and a note to Jennifer 8. Lee, who Tweeted the Times meeting: Nice move!

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