What is an alternative newspaper? I have been trying, without luck, to lay my hands on The Village Voice's confidential "black book," that description of its marketing mission and financial history now circulating among potential buyers of the paper, to see how the Voice's investment bankers define alternative.
Russ Smith's New York Press is clearly the alternative to the Voice, but the Voice is the alternative to what? I wonder if the Voice's owner, Hartz Mountain CEO Leonard Stern, and his children, who he says have no interest in inheriting and running the paper, aren't also bothered by this question -- hence their decision to sell the Voice (along with the handful of other alternative weeklies Stern has acquired). Where's the excitement and pride in owning an alternative-to-nothing alternative paper, even a profitable one?
Similar issues of future proprietorship are no doubt on the mind of Arthur Carter, the 67-year-old owner of the gleeful and eccentric, albeit unprofitable, New York Observer. For all its sizzle, it has, after twelve years, been unable to become much more than a rich man's diversion (it is hard to bequeath a diversion). Earlier this year, Carter came perilously close to selling the paper to Canadian news lord Conrad Black, in an aborted deal that, if anything, indicates the paper is for sale.
New York has traditionally managed to maintain a variety of papers largely by the grace and vanity of what a prominent investment banker terms "small rich men." But the fact that the younger generation of wealth seems to have much less interest in being press lords (don't count on the Murdoch heirs' determination to support the money-losing New York Post, for instance), together with the ever-expanding capital requirements and the fact that newspapers grow more and more painfully anachronistic, unread, and economically threatened every day, not to mention the abuse that is heaped upon owners of publications by writers at other publications (such as this one), means that even rich men need a little more -- more respect, more money, more power.
The real problem, the real sense of drift, the real lack of respect, money, and power, come, I believe, from the difficulties in defining alternative. Because the answer to the alternative-to-what question is painfully obvious. But even for the richest of men, there is terror in admitting that the real dream, and the only significant business opportunity for a newspaper in New York, is to be the alternative to the Times.
And who would take that on?
Well, I have a plan.
As it happens, the reason I am a happily married media columnist instead of a would-be media mogul is that my wife has elicited a promise from me that I will write no more business plans (let alone raise capital, enter into partnerships, hire people, launch into start-up mode of any kind), so I offer this plan to all adventurous media entrepreneurs; to any small rich man with press-baron aspirations; or even to a cyber-gazillionaire who wants to hold something real in his hands (though that sort seem more interested in sports franchises).
Are you ready?
The executive summary of the business plan I have forsworn writing would begin: "This is a proposal to create a free Sunday newspaper in New York. . . ."
While newspapers are fast becoming something like the drive-in, a part of the America that once was, there is an aspect of the newspaper business that is happily thriving everywhere. That is the Sunday paper. The Sunday paper finds America at a given time, in a predictable place, and in a receptive mood. On Sunday mornings (despite the great talk of a spiritual revival in America, church remains a drag), nobody (except golfers) has anything to do. Television is at its lowest ratings moment; traffic on the Internet is subdued; many retail outlets don't open till noon (or even at all). In the old-fashioned model, media was powerful because it had a more or less captive audience (indeed, the media business is in turmoil precisely because this is no longer true). On Sunday mornings in New York as well as across America, this has not changed. The Sunday paper still owns you.
Now make it free.
Free is painful for publishers, but inexorably, it is one of those love-it-or-leave-it, make-lemonade kinds of things. Indeed, it seems increasingly clear that among the greatest revolutions of this time of more or less great revolutions is that information has become free. First it was a minor amount of information on television, and then, more recently, pretty much all information. In fact, most newspapers and magazines now give away online what they charge for on the street. And yet, at the same time, these same publications willfully resist the reality that sooner or later it won't be so easy to get people to pay for what they can otherwise get free.
There are some things it is useless to resist.
Television achieved ubiquity in less than ten years. Why?
The Internet, an underperforming technology, has captured the imagination of the world. Why? Hello?
Indeed, The Village Voice, forced to go free by the upstart New York Press, now claims a greater circulation in Manhattan than the Times.
In a market-share world, free is some incredible weapon.
And free makes this, it should forcefully be argued in the business plan, a new-media play. Profits won't be allowed to constrain our growth -- a big selling point when we get to the public offering. (Price is also the oldest of old-media plays -- dropping the price is how newspapers sucker-punch their rivals; Murdoch's 25-cent Sunday Post is bedeviling the 50-cent Sunday News.)
See how the New York Times deals with free!