I’ve been fielding a lot of emails about the Facebook – New York Times “deal” this week.
I don’t mean to sound snarky here but really, a deal like that changes nothing. Plus, it’s déjà vu all over again, this kind of thing has been going on forever. The Chicago Tribune and AOL. The Los Angeles Times and Prodigy. You mean you’ve never heard of Prodigy? And every time it happens, the transaction is framed with the very same gives and gets. Oh sure, the terms are dressed up in different clothes today, but I bet what they’re talking about looks a lot like this…
The digital player wants another reason to keep the visiting eyeball around and on-platform. Yes, even Facebook, with a time-spent number now up around 40 minutes a day, wants more engagement, the positive rub-off from an established news offering of perceived high quality, an improved “user experience.” And they’ll want to siphon off as much brand association value from the Times as they can while giving away as little as possible. Fair enough, you’d do the same.
On the other side of the table sits the legacy player, starved of eyeballs and hungry for more distribution. The Times talks a good game but it’s 20 years since the Netscape IPO and in that time it has attracted only about 700,000 domestic digital subscribers – about a third of the nightly Fox News Channel audience – and every new digital initiative has failed. Almost 60% of the revenue of the Times now comes from its readers and users, but at some point the game of transferring print subscribers to digital and calling that “growth” will be over for good. Even deep inside the artificial reality of the Renzo Piano building they’ve seen the growth from social distribution at Buzzfeed – and it must have dawned on them that its less about the bundle now and more about the story, less about the clicks and more about the sharing, less about the destination, more about the reach. On the face if it, Facebook might just be the answer.
To the deal guys, this looks like a match made in heaven. They always do look like that on the first date. But sometimes the engagement is broken off because the parties can’t agree on who sells what and how advertising revenue will be split. Or the relationship founders over who owns the user data and what can be done with it. That’s big in the context of this particular deal – social media is a misnomer, it’s actually personal media and Facebook is a revelatory treasure trove for marketers and product creators.
But more often than not the deal craters when the dealmakers return to the newspaper and run it by the disbelieving newsroom – which will be confronted here by the realization that their almighty paper has been reduced to a series of summary stories presented in Facebook fashion and lost amongst the memes and photos and weather forecasts and blog posts and puppy videos and messages and all the sundry detritus of multiple lives steaming by on the phone every second of every day. As CNN is to Comcast, no, as the Anderson Cooper show is to CNN is to Comcast, that what the New York Times becomes here.
The newsroom cannot accept such dramatic diminishment. And they instinctively reject the idea of consigning their fate to another. They’d rather huddle together at the empty station down at the end of the link. But these transactions take on a momentum of their own. The buzz outside the room generates its own propulsion too. So the deal gets done, crammed down on the newsroom, and each team goes out to a celebratory dinner to congratulate themselves on stealing so much in plain sight from the other guy. But then here’s the funny thing. Even though the digital player had all the leverage and got what it wanted without giving too much away, it always, always, comes to regret the deal.
It’s amazing. In my 25 years of observing or participating in these deals not one has ever panned out as intended for the digital property. Not one. Even the really simple ones, like the venture between newspapers and Yahoo! Turns out the digital property didn’t need the deal at all.
Turns out the digital guys tend to greatly over-estimate a couple of important things. Like the actual brand strength of the legacy property, and the real, underlying pulling power of its news product. Neither lives up to the promised or assumed expectation. They soon discover that the newspaper brand stands for little except yesterday, that it relies only on a fading historic attachment with an aging readership, and that the product carried little comparative value once the monopoly walls came down and it was exposed to endless digital competition.
But maybe this transaction will get done in spite of all that unpleasant historical precedent that hardly anybody else remembers except this jaundiced old observer and a couple of his elderly mates and so soon, stories of the Times and others will be hosted on Facebook, deep within its own app. Hosted there too, not just links but presence. But you know what? The fundamental problem that threatens the viability of the New York Times will still exist. This transaction won’t make a blind bit of difference to the essential challenge all newspapers face, including the Times, which is the existential digital challenge of how to differentiate their product and make it relevant for new audiences.
Facebook is attractive because it offers a potential source of traffic for publishers trying to reach an increasingly fragmented audience glued to their smartphones. The Times is hoping that Facebook will operate as a gigantic sampling mechanism, and that once a targeted Facebook user has tasted their news, they’ll be so blown away by the superior quality they’ll either sign-up for more or actively seek more Times stories independently, or whatever, consume and share more of what the Times has to offer.
But what, exactly, is the differentiated value the Times will deliver to Facebook? Quality news? Really? Quality is a tricky argument on which to hang your hat, one man’s quality is another man’s, well, liberal pretention. For years the Times sat in third place in its home market, behind the Post and the Daily News. And according to comScore’s 2015 U.S. Digital Future in Focus report, the New York Post Network was one of the fastest-growing digital products last year. It grew its unique visitors by 105%. Vice grew that base by 173%. Buzzfeed and Gawker each grew uniques by about 43%. It will take more than raw exposure to their “quality” news for the Times to discover growth like that.
Even if its elevated market and brand position is the accidental result of its own pretentions, of becoming over time the journal of record for an older, New York-oriented, self-appointed elite, it’s still a nice niche if you happen into it, with a high demo and a good income profile. But can it be leveraged nationally? The Times has always pretended it was a “national” brand – while 75% of its circulation was rooted in the Tri-State area. Will the reach of Facebook alone fix that?
More important, can the Times use Facebook profiles to extend that narrow appeal into a national audience of young adults? Can it refresh brand and audience? So far, every attempt to attract a younger audience and replenish the franchise has been a bust, something about talking down to the audience, I suspect, rather than talking with. Do the recent new management hires in there have the product and marketing chops – and the running room – to do that? If they don’t, the Times will be stranded in the same old place, catering to that same old newspaper demo. You know where that’s going to end, right? Nature will see to that.
Three words define a successful digital news business today: Mobile. Social. And, Millennial. It’s that third one there, millennial, that gets newspapers every time.
Newspapers are still programming the news for old people just like me.