Here's a Transformational Idea: Adapt Web Aggregation to Print

With an Eye Toward Margins, Newspapers Should Outsource Their News Holes

By Published on .

It's small comfort, I know, that the media industry is far from alone in encountering unprecedented disruption. We are indeed in transformational times (that sounds like the title of a new magazine), and industries as disparate as automobiles and the investment world are feeling the heat.

The trouble with the word "transform" is that it doesn't give any assurance that we have a good idea of what we are transforming to. The dictionary says transform means "to change in form, appearance or structure; metamorphose." A second definition is "to change into another substance, transmute."

Last week's election certainly qualifies as "transformational." We know what we are transforming from, but we're not nearly so sure what we're transforming to.

But as in any transformation, there's no turning back. The auto industry, we desperately hope, finally realizes there is no choice but to make the difficult transition from gas guzzlers to gas sippers and then to gas-free vehicles. And the investment community, after years of irresponsible risk-taking, realizes it is entering a world of more regulation and much less tolerance for risk.

The election is a different kettle of fish. Whereas the old days of autos, investment banking and the media were highly successful, we can't say the same for the last eight years of the presidency. Voters were willing to roll the dice with an unproven candidate because they figured he couldn't be much worse than the current occupant of the White House.

But the transformation of key business segments is much more problematic. The issue: whether what we had will be as profitable and successful as what is still to come. Over the years the U.S. auto guys have made their big bucks on SUVs and pickup trucks, and they haven't yet come up with the formula to make good money on smaller cars that get much better gas mileage. A compounding problem, of course, is that most American consumers don't believe U.S. automakers can produce high-quality cars, after years of neglect in this segment.

I would never underestimate the ability of Wall Street to make stacks of money, but the current lockdown of the economy will most likely end up putting severe restrictions on its heretofore almost limitless upside. But new investment entities will no doubt emerge to assume new risk-taking possibilities, so the Wall Street transformation has just begun.

The media business, on the other hand, has been living with its transformation for most of this decade. As in all the other transformations (with the exception of our country's recent leadership), the problem is that the old way of doing things isn't as profitable as the new way.

The objective, in the case of newspapers, is to keep print profitable and stable and their websites profitable and growing.

The real challenge is how to maintain margins on newspapers without losing more readers. The answer, I have come to believe, is for them to become aggregators of information by outsourcing their news holes to others already producing the material.

Already, firms such as CNN and Bloomberg are gearing up to offer such services, and niche magazines could supply features for lifestyle pages, including fashion and home furnishings.

My own field, the trade press, could provide expert business coverage from a unique what-it-means perspective. Trade papers give their readers inside, behind-the-ropes views of industry developments. What newspaper wouldn't want a piece from Women's Wear Daily on fashion trends or from Oil & Gas Journal on where the price of oil is going, or, I modestly submit, from our own Automotive News on why the General Motors/Chrysler merger is not a good idea?

Aggregation is the key to success on the internet. Why shouldn't the same be true for print?
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