Free Press

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… .”


Sunday. Free.

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!

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.


Free Press