January 04, 2005

The Times Buys Another Container

If you’re still having difficulty believing that in the future of news, as so aptly phrased by Associated Press boss Tom Curley and so generously thought through by Jay Rosen, “content will be more important than its container,” then consider these two related events:

A little more 10 years ago, in 1993, the New York Times Company bought the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion. The purchase was the largest, single newspaper merger and acquisition in U.S. history.

Yesterday, the Times bought 49 percent of Metro Boston, described in this Times story as a “free daily newspaper aimed primarily at commuters in their 20's and 30's.” The Times paid $16.5 million for its half-share.

In other words, in the interval since the Times bet one-third of its annual revenue on a revered, but stodgy top 10 American newspaper, the U.S. news media landscape has been so irrevocably altered that the company, in order to secure its New England franchise, is investing in the competition -- a 3-and-a-half year old free tabloid launched by a Swedish company that believes the future of newspaper profits lies in giving away the news.

In 1993, when the Internet was just beginning its transformation from a back channel conduit for academic wonks and compiler freaks into a popular global medium, when cable TV was still burning the booster rockets ignited by CNN during Gulf War I, when personal media still meant an output-only Walkman, I’m sure the Boston Globe seemed as a solid a newspaper investment as any, even considering that by then U.S. newspaper industry was deep into a 40-year decline.

Since 1993, the circulation of the Boston Globe has trickled steadily downward, losing more than 50,000 Sunday readers alone (about 1 percent a year) since 1998. By comparison, the free Metro’s claims an (unaudited) circulation of 300,000, most of them, as described in today’s Times story, “younger consumers who might not otherwise read a newspaper.”

Interestingly, the Times story points out that Express, a Metro-style paper launched by the Washington Post in August with a press run of 125,000 copies, has been credited (or blamed, depending on your point of view) for partly causing a drop in Post circulation (along with online readership of the Post.).

It seems disingenuous, then, that Janet Robinson, Times Company CEO, says she is unconcerned about the Boston Metro having a similar negative impact on Globe readership. Clearly, the Times is buying into the Metro because company bottom-liners believe it is affecting the Globe’s appeal in the marketplace and the Times wants a piece of the action.

To return to the point made by Tom Curley and Jay Rosen (and myself – Read: There’s Nothing Left but the Journalism), the future of news media is the content, whether it be strong, in-depth journalism, witless pap or cogent analysis and conversation. The container, the vehicle that moves that content from producer to consumer (and remember, that distinction now is more and more a semantic one), is completely fungible.

Adaptation, flexibility, innovation, intentional decision-making, distinctive content, recognizable point of view – these are the qualities of the news organizations that will flourish in the coming decade. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic, self-preservational culture of most newspaper companies is fallow breeding ground for these characteristics. That is why I continually push leadership change as the starting point for newspaper change.

The New York Times is gazing into its crystal ball and seeing that in order to replace its prime readers, the very Baby Boomers who are now beginning to fill its obit columns, that it must compete on more than one level. Good for them.

UPDATE: As soon as I finished posting, I noticed his link on Romenesko: Local Chain Rolling Out D.C. Tabloid. Journal Newspapers, owned by Philip Anschutz, the Denver billionaire who pulled the San Francisco Examiner off the scrap heap on which it had been tossed by the Hearst Corp., is going to roll out a free daily called (suprise!) the Examiner. Anschutz last month filed for trademark protection on the name Examiner in 69 cities.

Posted by Tim Porter at January 4, 2005 10:37 AM


I assume that your last link was intended to refer readers to an article (The Times Buys Another Container) on your website First Draft. If that was your intention the link should direct readers to the story rather than a blank comment section - like this:



Posted by: Jozef Imrich on January 5, 2005 12:27 AM
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