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Free Press


Who is the market for a new New York Sunday paper?

The shopping, job-seeking, apartment-renting, home-buying, restaurant-eating, traveling, moviegoing, computer-buying world. This is the Times' world, but you can see it more inclusively. It's every Times reader but also that big group among the 14-to-30 set who don't get the Times thing. (It is true that the plan excludes people who do not shop, seek jobs, rent or buy homes, eat in restaurants, travel, go to movies, or compute, but hey.)

Now, you want these readers all to yourself. You don't want them to read the Times too. We are not a second read. Advertisers won't pay twice to reach the same person. Therefore, in our free Sunday paper we have to offer everything the Times offers.

For a long time, the conventional wisdom has been that the Times has erected an almost insurmountable barrier to entry. An alternative or start-up paper could never compete with the depth of the Times' news-gathering operation. How do you go up against worldwide bureaus, hundreds of correspondents, Pulitzer Prizes galore, Washington reporters who actually might have gotten coffee for Scotty Reston, etc.?

This is the point in the business plan where you argue the detriments and liabilities of what we in the new economy call the burden of our competitor's installed base. In the old economy, installed base -- infrastructure, capital expenditure, skill sets, experience, institutional memory -- was a central asset of a business. In the new economy, this installed base is just an impediment to new technology, work styles, and business models.

The point is not that the Times has bureaus, correspondents, and tried-and-true ways of doing things but that it's stuck with them -- indeed, even screwed because of them. The Times makes the case as often as possible that, by virtue of its vast resources and well-known standards, it brings a special authority -- reliability, veracity, family trust, etc. -- to its presentation of the news. But this becomes just a bit of pomposity in an info-hip world.

The fact is, the Times, as an organization of generalists, now has to compete with the easy availability of specialized coverage. The Times' business pages, for instance, much to the consternation of people at the Times, have increasingly become a second or third read. After the Journal, after a real-time market site, even after a specialty-news site, then you get to the Times.

What's more, the Times' own emphasis has changed. Although it still maintains the infrastructure of a vast news-gathering organization, it relies more and more heavily on the talents of pundits and opiners and analysts who are watching CNN like everyone else.

That's the competitive advantage: In the new information world, it is possible to offer a stew of perspective and sensibility and behind-the-scenes insights, plus cover the news of the day, and do it without the infrastructure that the Times is paying for. Duh.

I'd put the Voice and the Observer together. The Observer has become sort of the real alternative paper after all. It is punditry run amok. Indeed, it begins to suggest what alternative can mean in a post-ideological age. To this the Voice would bring a sumptuous feast of entertainment and classified advertising (you'd probably want to get rid of most of the Voice's editorial mutterings). With the Observer and the Voice, you'd have a sophisticated broadsheet wrapped around an entertainment-oriented tabloid. Now all we need to add is a traditional-news skin, perhaps a travel section, business, and maybe fashion (forget the magazine and book review). But content is cheap -- and getting cheaper.

Why report the news when you can make deals for the news? What is a Sunday newspaper anyway but a horizontal portal? Horizontal portals, of course, turn to vertical portals to provide their content. In fact, online content providers will gladly offer their content for offline use for a little cross-marketing promotion. (Really, who pays for content anymore?)

If Mort Zuckerman weren't so preoccupied with the troubles at his other media properties, I'd say here was a plan that could solve the Daily News Sunday problem. Forget the News and its no-win battle with the Post, and use this new vehicle -- the Voice-Observer combo -- to go after the Times, which would play well on The Charlie Rose Show. But I'm afraid Mort might no longer have the dough.

Conrad Black, then. It is unclear, though, what happened the first time around when he tried to buy the Observer. The deal was announced, then unannounced. Someone's nose got out of joint, no doubt. But press lords are never permanently rebuffed. Black, who tried to buy the News before Zuckerman snapped it up, is coming to New York somehow.

I actually like Tony O'Reilly, the former Heinz CEO and Euro-media mogul who shows an interest in the U.S., for this. Foreigners still have some fighting spirit when it comes to newspapers -- and this would be an old-fashioned newspaper war.

And you can count on it: The other side wouldn't even know the war was going on until it was too late.

This is the age of business plans. Everyone has one (and who doesn't send theirs to me?). Deep vertical portals. Horizontal portals as far as the eye can see. But no one's going to have a great deal of fun with those ideas.

Not like starting a newspaper in New York. Upsetting the New York Times. Overthrowing the new-media paradigm for old media.

And while I know what I've promised my wife, still . . .

If you're serious, call me.



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