In a remarkably honest piece in the FT last week, the truth was at last revealed about the future of newspapers: they don't have one.
In the past six years, as the article points out, newspaper revenues in the US and the UK have fallen dramatically, and show no sign of improving. Not only have ad revenues in the printed paper declined, but 'digital revenues' which were once going to be the saving grace of the newspaper business fared even worse. And now, the very real prospect of online digital ad blockers may prove the final blow to the already anemic newspaper industry.
There is no question, at least from a sociological point of view, that having a vibrant 'newspaper' industry is important to society. It is the way that we inform ourselves about important issues. It's the very foundation of public discourse. But if there is no revenue, there is no journalism, and if there is no journalism, then people are going to start making decisions in a vacuum.
If advertising, whether in print or online is not going to pay the bills for the journalism, then what is?
Newspapers are, if nothing else, magnets for content creators and centers for content creation. That is, after all, what the paper is at the end of the day - content.
The question thus is 'how to monetize the content', and the solution, it seems to me, is to follow the money.
And where is the money today in the content business?
It is very much in television, whether that is broadcast, cable or the newly emerging online platforms like Netflix and Amazon. These are places that people are still willing to pay for content, and places that are themselves, as platforms, willing pay for content that people want watch.
Who says newspapers have to be paper?
And who says the video that newspapers increasingly make, has to appear on the papers' websites?
Does the content that Pie Town, a major US TV production company appear on the Pie Town website?
But it doesn't.
And I bet you never even heard of Pie Town.
But I bet you have heard of House Hunters and House Hunters International on HGTV.
That's becaue the stuff that Pie Town makes appears in a place where people want to watch it, and where HGTV wants to pay for it.
And they pay a lot.
And a lot of people watch it.
It's a very good and healthy partnership.
Now, bear with me.
Do you think that a newspaper like The New York Times, which has some pretty extensive knowledge and contacts in the world of real estate, could create something like House Hunters?
I bet they could.
I bet they could do it with their eyes closed.
And do you think that if they did that, that HGTV would want to buy the programming from them?
I bet they would.
In fact, if you think about it, newspapers are about a lot more than just breaking news. They also are about real estate, homes, fashion, food, culture, music, arts, movies, personal problems, family life, health... in short, the whole spectrum of human interests.
So, now back to the newspaper revenue problem.
Do you think that a newspaper could take their video capability, and instead of making online videos with those terrible pre-rolls, could that take that capability - that ability to create video content, and turn it into something that a) millions of people would want to watch and b) something that cable and broadcast and OTT live streaming services would want to pay for?
I think so.
And if... if they were able to produce a few hit series (which generate a LOT of money) could they then use part of that massive revenue to underwrite the journalism part of their business?
I bet they could.
In fact, I know they could, because I did this myself.
In 1994, I sold a company I had formed called Video News International to The New York Times Company. It became New York Times Television. My original idea was that we would create a video news business. But Joe Lelyveld, who ran the paper, cut us off from the news and the newsroom.
So, instead, we discovered Reality TV. We began to produce shows like Trauma, Life in the ER for cable companies like TLC. And in a few years, we were producing a LOT of shows. For a lot of cable channels. In fact, NY Times TV became the largest non-fiction TV production company on the East Coast, producing lots of revenue for the paper.
But the paper didn't need lots of revenue in those days. in fact, the paper used to call us 'Pariah Pictures'. They were mortified by what we had done. The 'blatent commercialism'.
But all the pieces are there to save the papers and make them very profitable again.
But it isn't in the paper.
And it isn't really in the news.
But it is in the building.
If only they could see it.