Monday, 10 December 2007

More Buzz on the IHT/Reuters deal

Opinions are coming in thick and fast from the blogosphere on the deal struck today between the International Herald Tribune and Reuters.

This is what Jeff Jarvis of the Buzz Machine has to say: It's worth quoting in full:

The aggregated newspaperDecember 10th, 2007
The Reuters
deal to provide business content to the International Herald Tribune online and in print — and share revenue with associated advertising — could, I think, be a model for other news organizationst to take care of commodity news.
Why shouldn’t newspapers across the country — which have pretty universally bad business sections — do likewise for national and international business news? Why couldn’t ESPN provide them with national sports? People magazine with celebrity news? Prevention with health news. And so on and so on with brands and content from Consumer Reports to TMZ. It also makes sense for chains to centralize the editing and production of commodity news.
This is more than syndication: buying a piece of content. This is a form of outsourcing — you take care of that so I don’t have do (and so I can concentrate on my real value — hint: local). And it’s not unprecedented. When I was Sunday editor of the Daily News in New York, I worked to get the Tribune syndicate to take over not just the supplying of content for but the editing of all the paper’s TV listings and coverage so we could have taken the two headcount devoted to that and use them for more valuable reporting. This is also what a colleague of mine and I pushed the Associated Press to do online many years ago when they started a cobranded news destination site when we said they should have cut themselves up to be distributed wherever. It’s widgetthink and though CNET refuses to call what they’re doing widgets — I wouldn’t know why — it is also engaging in a distributed strategy, according to
It makes sense for both ends of the transaction: The creator of the content gets distributed and gets revenue without having to create a destination and market it and generate all its revenue there. The aggregator gets content at low cost and risk with a good brand and gets to devote resources to its unique value:
Do what you do best and link to the rest.

All interesting stuff, but it's not unprecedented for the IHT either. It already has a number of publishing partnerships with various national newspapers to provide local content, in English, supplied with the IHT.

These deals first came to light back in the mid-90s under the publisher, ex-Financial Times man Richard McClean, and the deal making was led by then Circulation Director, Didier Brun.

Didier recently got fired from the IHT for reasons which are not entirely clear. The given reason was cost-cutting, but there was duplication of roles with IHT commercial supremo Stephen Dunbar Johnson (it was always going to be a battle as to who got the top job on the commercial side), the fact that two high paid execs on the commercial side wasn't warranted, and the 'other reasons', never stated. But it's widely believed that Brun's relationship with a direct reportee didn't help his cause.

(Happily, Didier now has now got a new job and has married the person concerned.

Another footnote on this subject: In the unpleasantness surrounding Didier's dismissal it emerged that the then COO, Richard Wooldridge, reporting to Publisher Michael Golden, had also been identified - by who remains unclear - as another layer of very expensive management that could be shed. When Wooldridge found out about this AFTER the employees' committee - having such a committe is a company obligation under French law because the IHT is based in Paris - Wooldridge got extremely cross, as one might imagine he would, as he was the COO handling Didier Brun's 'retrechment'. The net result was probably a very expensive pay-out. How Wooldridge found out is the stuff of legend, but it did apparently involve an incredibly big clanger dropped by the newspaper's publisher, in an employees' committee meeting, Mr. Golden not remembering that notes of these meeting are made and soon found their way around the IHT's building in Neuilly, and eventually to the ears of one R. Wooldridge. Up until this moment Mr. Wooldridge was labouring under the impression, and also labouring very hard as Mr. Golden's goffer, that he and the publisher shared a very close and loyal working relationship. Apparently not.)

Back though to the idea of outsourcing content and publishing partnerships.

In 1994 I had come to the IHT from the Dutch financial newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad, where I had been instrumental in getting off the ground an English-language weekly called The Netherlander.

When I joined the IHT I sent a rather precious memo to McClean, copied to my boss Didier Brun, on how, given the IHT's then appallingly thin business coverage, and even worse performace on readership surveys of business people, making partnerships with national financial dailies might be a rather good idea. I was thanked for my memo and the next I heard of this carefully explained strategy was the announcement of a partnership with the Israeli general interest daily newspaper Ha'aretz.

More deals were to follow, but the idea of going with business information publishers was not followed. What emerged was a mish-mash of differently structured deals with business papers, centre left general interest papers, centre right general interest papers and the net result was a complete mess. Revenue and circulation targets on which these deals were developed were wildly optimisitic, the IHT lost control of its brand and even its distribution in some key markets, but everyone was happy because circulation was going up.

The advertising department were screaming for any good news to counter the reader survery results, so they were happy, and in all the excitement no one looked too closely at the contracts, relationships, revenue and profitibality projections until it was all way too late. Many of these deals collapsed, including ones with Het Financieele Dagblad and the German media giant FAZ.

There is some suggestion that a head had to roll because of all this, and given McClean was long gone, as was his successor Peter Goldmark, it fell to Richard Wooldridge to find a fall guy and the fall guy was Didier Brun. I don't think that's exactly how it was, but that's the corporate rumour mill for you.

In short, the IHT has been here before with what is described above as 'outsourcing content', and it hasn't been necessarily very pretty. What lessons have been learnt remains to be seen, including from the deal with Bloomberg.

If the IHT is to concentrate on what it does best - as Mr. Jarvis suggests some newspapers should, outsourcing other content to specialists - then what is it in fact that the IHT does best? What is its unique value?

Not aggregrating content I hope, although before the NYT pushed the Washington Post out of the door, this is exactly what it did do best - aggregrating content from those two sources plus the wire services, with very little in-house journalism of its own.

What it didn't do very well at the time was exactly what Jarvis (and presumably Reuters) thinks papers - or rather brands - like the IHT can do: creating a destination and a readership.

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