Friday, 18 January 2008

Golden Goodbye's at the International Herald Tribune

Here's the thing: you blog about a subject no one else does; then something actually newsworthy happens and you are miles from your computer (in my case up a mountain), when someone sends you a text message from a meeting they are actually in at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, during which it is being announced that:

a) Michael Golden is stepping down as publisher of the IHT;
b) Stephen Dunbar-Johnson is becoming the new publisher.

That all happened this morning at 10.30 at a meeting scheduled by Golden yesterday for this morning in Paris (rumours were flying last night of impending lay-offs). And no, I don't have a mobile phone with which I can update my blog.

Golden is going back to NY to be VP for International Development or Strategy or something with the word international in it (never a healthy sign at the NYT for you career - normally means you are being booted off to Paris because you didn't make the cut for the top slots in NY or in the case of Didier Brun, who had the word international in his job title, booted off the paper).

SDJ, a 40-something Brit, is to become the second ex-FT, Brit to become publisher of the IHT.

My sources told me he looked visibly aged at the meeting but they weren't sure if this was because they hadn't seen him in the flesh for a while or if the announcement had had a dramatic physical effect on him (all of Brun's hair turned grey and then more or less fell out within a year or two of being made Circulation Director, so there's a lesson there).

What does Golden's departure tell us?

Well, firstly he's one hell of an expensive cost on the IHT bottome line, shortly to be flying off in a(nother) expensive first class flight to NY and his luxury apartment can be turned over to Stephen.

Actually, I doubt SDJ will get the apart. - sadly for him, this isn't the Paris Mayor's office, but Golden sure can't have been a cheap item to have on your P&L: a NYT family member serving as the company's ambassador to Europe in the guise of actually running the IHT, paid for by the IHT.

Interestingly, in the meeting when this announcement was made, and a host of positive figures were wheeled out about increases in advertising (read luxury) and steady circulation (read everyone else's is going down, so that's good) staff were informed by SDJ that the paper was now within a hair's breath of profitability.

I'd be interested to know if that statement was predicated on Golden now being off the cost column OR if the budget for next year can be revised upwards to break even, now that Golden is gone.

Why they had a commercial supermo (SDJ) and a publisher (Golden) was beyond me, but then it was beyond me why they also at one point had Golden (Publisher), Wooldridge (COO) AND TWO very expensive senior execs (Didier and Stephen).

When all that was needed was one smart guy at the top with the clout to deliver.

They now have one smart guy, but the question is, does he have the clout to deliver?

The first question the new publisher was asked in this morning's meeting was:

"What's your strategy?"

SDJ replied, in short, "more of the same": namely cut more costs, sell more advertising, and maintain a steady circulation.

We could spend some time arguing whether that constitutes a strategy or a tactic (a strategy being a plan to meet a long term aim, which I have to presume is a certain level of profitibality) but all I am going to say for now is that no, that's not a strategy, and selling more advertising next year is going to be very hard.

(Nor by the way, is a strategy being thankful that the paper, as a non-financial one like its competitors the FT and the WSJ, is less exposed to downturns in subprime-busted financial advertising budgets - not that in fairness SDJ claimed that as a strategy, more a passing snippet of morale boosting good news. Luxury IS good because all those people who run those sovereign wealth funds bailing out Merril Lynch et al, well they all read the IHT, apparently).

As to sharing with you all what the strategy should be; well that would require me to spend a lot of time typing out ideas to be read by the paper's competitors (not something I really want to do as they probably haven't got a really good one either and I don't want to put the paper I love on the back foot).

What I will say is this:

Unless the publisher of the IHT is given the clout to force the editor to synchronise the content of the paper with the interests of the readers that the publisher is pursuing, and hence the advertisers the publisher is pursuing, the publisher will fail and so will the IHT.

Yes, that means telling the editor what the publisher wants - no, let me be clear: NEEDS - and the editor delivering it.

This has NEVER been the case at the IHT, not even under Golden who was a family member.

Goldmark claimed that power, which was of course laughable and what made his resignation and accompanying speech so embarrassing.

I am not talking about the publisher's interference in how individual stories are covered and the end of church and state structures and walls.

I am talking about publisher and editor being on the same STRATEGIC page.

As the editor is not involved in keeping costs down, selling more advertising, or keeping circulation steady the editor is not, by default, involved in this declared strategy of the newspaper and the guiding star of any strategy - the content of the newspaper - remains outside of the effective strategic control of the publisher.

That has never been a problem back in NY because of the market the NTY operated in, what the NYT brand was and what the competiton was. So no one had to confront this thorny issue. How very convenient, and lovely a position for everyone to preach from.

It wasn't ever confronted at the IHT either because the IHT never had to make money. Now apparently it does.

But, things have changed.

Mr. Murdoch's editors are his publishers in all but name. That's why by and large he succeeds. Does Col Allen at the NYPost have to worry about a publisher? No. Does the publisher jump at what Col wants? Yes. Why? Because Col is News Int all the way and that means, even as an editor, he is intimately concerned about how the NYPost can increase circulation and make more money. That is his No. 1 priority, not how many Pulitzers he wins.

These things are not the No. 1 priority of Mr. Oreskes or any IHT editor.

For results, please compare performance of these two newspapers.

So, for now, I wish SDJ well: he's his own man, he's bright, affable, honest, direct and CRUCIALLY for the first time in the history of the IHT we have a publisher who:

a) hasn't just got off the boat from NY or London and is faced with an enormous, minimum 2 year learning curve just to work out where the loos are, nor how to hold his knife and fork in upscale European company;
b) he IS an IHT reader to the very bone;
c) he is the first publisher meeting points a and b above who is expected to make the paper make money.

In fact, providing his appointment isn't just window dressing (where he has no policy or strategic say at all), I would rate today's news as about the most important thing to happen at the IHT since the WP were pushed out.

And it has been a long time coming.

If they could skip a generation of editors over night and put in charge as editor someone of SDJ's age and sensibility like Crampton, Fuller Carjval, Kanter (who also doesn't get off the boat from Manhattan) then things could really motor, but here I dream....

Back to reality: does he have the strategic say, and if he does, does that include leverage over the editorial direction of the newspaper?

If all of those boxes can be ticked, then it's a very happy day for the IHT.

"I think the IHT is the best newspaper in the world and I have always thought so," he said today in the meeting, and I agree with him.

But he, the NYT company and the IHT are still going to need one of those strategy thingies.

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