Mark Thompson faces a defining and daunting challenge: Lead The New York Times on that thin tightrope to a new stability, one tethered to the digital world. We’ve seen lots of good ideas already freely offered to the incoming NYT CEO. Let me offer a new one.
Let’s imagine what a New York Times/CNN combination would look like — and what it could do for both companies. Combination? Yes, a purposely squishy word. I’m not talking about a merger of the companies. I’m thinking about what each company offers the other strategically, at this point in media history, and how each could see its business advanced. We’ll leave the messy details of corporate development, of partnership, of joint venture, for a later day.
So why put these two entities closer together? Two big reasons provide some logic.
First, the marketplace is pushing companies toward convergence. The worlds of completely separate TV (video), newspapers/magazines (text), and radio (audio) have simply been overwhelmed by the reality of consumption devices that bring all three together for us — the iPad being the current crown of creation. But the legacy roots of each medium has made it really tough to either (re-)build truly multi-platform companies or forge newspaper/TV alliances (Tampa, Chicago, etc.) that work. Logic compels greater multi-platform creation; inevitably that will mean new combinations of legacy companies, even as legacy companies try to remake themselves internally.
Second, both CNN and The New York Times fill in numerous of the other’s weaknesses. At this digital moment when “mobile” and the tablet are tossing old habits up in the air and forcing consumers to re-form new ones, it’s a great time for both the Times and CNN to double down on their native advantages, and make their products no-brainer top-three places to go in the news everywhere-and-anywhere world.
For CNN, a partnership could be part of a strategy to reclaim its mojo after seeing TV ratings drop to 21-year lows. For the Times, having turned small corners in the last year, it’s a way to increase its sense of momentum, separating itself from the pack of other top news sources.
The timing is near-perfect. Mark Thompson, after all, comes to the Times as a broadcaster. With a 33-year TV career, he knows TV, and he knows the Times is just beginning to escape its print roots. Scaling the wall of video/TV, where huge revenues still exist, is one of his daunting challenges. He is one of the few people who could have taken the job who brings both a broadcast background and one of airtight news credibility, given the BBC’s standards. He is the perfect person to imagine a strong video/TV presence for the next-gen Times. The Times is looking currently at what a major investment in video would look like; how does it climb the incremental mountain with the next generations of TimesCasts?
CNN is searching for recently resigned president Jim Walton’s successor. While the 32-year-old network’s staff debates the realities and fantasies, and CNN-directed truths, of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” the once top-of-the-heap TV news source faces a fundamental identity crisis and big strategic moment. It has wavered along hard/soft news lines and in programming choices, spun into a dither by Fox News’ Roger Ailes and MSNBC’s Phil Griffin.
Now the next CNN president must renew brand purpose and internal pride. Focus on news — especially adding to its forte of who, what, and where the why and how aspects of news as it has been edging into (The Freedom Project, an award-winning series on human trafficking, and Saving Aesha, for example) — or play with more entertainment/personality positioning? Worry about the Foxes and the MSNBCs, or grab the moment of the greatest potential global news reach technology and literacy has ever made possible?
There are smaller plays for both, to be sure. CNN’s been around the block with CBS News, talking news merger, but those talks foundered on issues of control and culture. The Times has tried all manner of tests, from longer-standing ones with Google to newer ones with Flipboard.
What both need is a game changer: a move that will simultaneously do three things:
Before I get to how a game-changer may work, let’s try this as a simplified chart to compare the two companies:
|The New York Times||CNN|
|Brand||Ascendant; mobile apps have now separated NYT from other “newspapers”; digital circulation has newly marked NYT as innovator||Ubiquitous in U.S. and worldwide; its image — what it stands for — is unclear|
|Top leadership||CEO Mark Thompson begins in November||Search on for replacement for President Jim Walton|
|Audience||Top-five web site; newspaper circulation flat||Top-three web site; TV ratings at 21-year low|
|Revenue||Reader revenue, newly revived and growing, with all-access digital circulation programs; online advertising under pricing pressure, and by ad marketplace change; print advertising in 5-10 percent annual decline. Net loss of $39.7 million (2011)||Cable/satellite fees, increasingly threatened by low ratings and the potential unbundling of forced consumer packages; advertising, on air and online, both under pricing pressure by ad marketplace change. Profit of $600 million (est. 2012)|
|Global||Times moving that way, with ~10 percent of paying digital-only customers outside U.S.; new China site||By definition, global and recognized globally. Great worldwide distribution and name recognition|
|TV culture/experience||Experimenting, unevenly, with “video”||It’s a TV company|
|Text culture/experience||It’s a newspaper company||Experimenting, unevenly, with “text”|
|Content||Deep, authoritative, agenda-setting; fairly good breadth, but the deep web is exposing its areas of weakness||Immediate, wide, truly global, largely authoritative; good breadth, and worldwide, though subpar to AP|
|Access to TV platforms||Minimal||Ubiquitous|
|Revenue sources||Readers, advertisers||Cable/satellite cos., advertisers|
|Aggregator chops||Little developed; a powerful potential for adding breadth to its brand||Little developed, but it bought top-three tablet aggregator Zite|
|Community-generated content||Fledgling efforts have gone awry||CNN’s iReport is a prototype for user-generated reporting; if those CNN/Mashable talks work their way to completion, CNN would have a leg up on social media journalism|
|Wire||Longstanding NYT wire and syndicate are mature||Newer CNN wire fighting for place in market|
There’s clearly a complementarity here that makes sense — on paper. How might it work in reality?
It’s easiest to see how the two might exploit two green fields, areas so new neither has as much ego or business invested.
If we look at the coming five screens of access, it is the emerging two — connected TV and connected car — that are most virgin, while laptop/desktop, smartphone and tablet are already deeply competitive. Both connected TV and connected car offer many new product opportunities and access to new revenue. A partnership could focus on those two, as the least threatening way to combine smarts and assets.
More immediately, we could see a new focus on tablet and smartphone products. For starters:
Then, there’s the web in general and TV, the former where both engage in head-to-head combat and the latter in which CNN, though struggling, is the incumbent and NYT the wannabe. The hurdles to cooperation, there, are highest, though the payoff may be the greatest.
For CNN, the questions would be: How could TV people harness the added depth of The New York Times’ report and intelligence? How could it marry its video and text in new state-of-the-art ways?
While CNN is now much more profitable than the Times, the fragmentation and disruption of TV business models is happening quickly (see “The newsonomics of breakthrough digital TV, from Aereo to Dyle and MundoFox to Google Fiber TV”). A Times partnership could help CNN find ways to create new news and information products that consumers will pay for, as the Times has now nimbly done, with its digital circulation initiative.
For The New York Times, the questions would be: How could text-based journalists move into the next generation of multimedia storytelling, bringing over their craft and standards, but learning new skills? How could video be graft onto the Times DNA, make the Times the company it needs to be in the next age?
How could the Times tap into the revenue stream of TV access, either through programming that cable and satellite companies would pay then for, as they pay Time Warner/CNN? It isn’t as if Times reporters haven’t been well-used on broadcast. NPR does a masterful job of that, but the Times gets no revenue out of the relationship. That’s the key: wringing TV money out of a deal.
For both, the tasty intangible: Would a combination of two of the best brands in news world reinforce and heighten each side’s? Of course, there are lots of reasons why it wouldn’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t work. Yet, it if did, it would give real meaning to convergence — finally — as the old demarcations of print and TV fast erode.
It’s easy to tick off the numerous factors that make it difficult: control, valuation and culture top the list. It’s at least, though, a whiteboard exercise that allocates strengths and deficits, opportunities and challenges over a five-year time span. That’s the level of thinking, and timespan, that Mark Thompson will need to bring to the Times, as will CNN’s new chief when she or he arrives in Atlanta.