It Takes White Space to Transition - Tribune Corporation and HuffingtonPost.com
"This is the future of media. Whether in print, over the air or online -- the delivery mechanism isn't as important as the unique, rich nature of the content provided." That's what the Tribune Corporation's COO, Randy Michaels, said in "Tribune Merges Conn. paper, stations" as reported on Crain's ChicagoBusiness.com. After filing bankruptcy, and seeing both newspaper subscribers and advertisers hacked away dramatically, Tribune is merging together all operations - newspaper and 2 TV stations - in Hartford, CT. They are cutting costs again.
We can hope Mr. Michaels means what he says, but excuse me if I'm doubtful. Despite the rapid acceleration of on-line news readership, and the fact that in most major markets Tribune has one or more TV stations as well as a newspaper, Tribune has never consolidated it's news operations or its advertising sales force. This is sort of remarkable. Going back at least 5 years, it made sense when gathering the news, or talking to an advertiser, to discuss how you could maximize his value for ad money spent. That meant a sharp company would have laid out programs showing how they could give advertisers access to eyeballs from all sources. But instead, at Tribune each station had its own salesforce, each newspaper, and each on-line edition of the newspaper. There was little effort to give the customer a good value for his spend - and no effort to discuss how he could transfer dollars between media to be a big winner. Even though Tribune was an early investor in the internet, it has not learned from its investment and migrated to a new Success Formula.
At a time when advertisers are unclear about how to justify their spending, a sharp media company would be explaining how many eyeballs in are in each format, the demographic profiles and the cost to reach those eyeballs. A company that really is "media independent" would have a big advantage over one trying to sell only the legacy products, because it isn't learning from the marketplace how to offer the best product at the best price and make a profit.
And Tribune had better move quickly. Arianna Huffington has announced the launch of the "Huffington Post Investigative Fund," as announced on the website HuffingtonPost.com. This is her effort to create a pool of investigative journalists for on-line sites who will do the kind of work we historically expected newspapers to do. She is throwing in $1.75million, and asking others to put up additional money. Thus giving this White Space project not only permission to figure out a "new age" model for investigative reporting, but hopefully the resources with which to experiment and learn. Whether this project will succeed or not is unclear, but that it is intended to make on-line news (and her website) more powerful and successful is clear. With each step like this, and this one she took all over the airwaves Monday discussing on multiple television stations, the case against quality of on-line news declines - and increases the on-line competition for eyeballs with television, radio and newspaper formats.
What we'd like to see is an announcement that the Tribune project in Hartford is a White Space project intended to figure out the Success Formula for future media. As we come ever closer to the "Max Headroom" world, depicted in the 1980s of a future where there is 24x7 news around all of us all the time, what no one knows for sure is how the profit model will work. Those who experiment first, and learn the fastest, will be in a strong position to be the leader.
Unfortunately, the Tribune announcement does not look like White Space. The Tribune leadership has still not Disrupted its grip on the old Success Formula. The project in Hartford looks more like a cost-saving effort, trying to defend the old newspaper, than a learning proposition. The project seems to lack the permission to do whatever is necessary to succeed (like perhaps stop printing), and it has no resources coming its way with which to experiment as it keeps trying to maintain all 3 of the legacy business units. Rather than a learning environment, this looks more like an effort to save 3 troubled businesses by cost saving - a Defend practice that doesn't work when markets shift and new competitors are trying all kinds of new things.