Sunday, 22 June 2008

OPL on the "IHT/NYT identity crisis."

OPL is an IHT reader who knows his IHT history, and who owns the same books I do. I am therefore grateful to him for this thoughtful retrospective on the last time the NYT went head head to head with the IHT brand. Here's what he has to say, some thoughts from me below.

Your posting ("IHT/NYT identity crisis") hit the nail on the head Ian. These inconsistencies are indeed mounting. This is a fundamental problem the New York Times Company needs to face. I couldn't agree with you more on how the branding issue is confusing but differ with you on the importance of the IHT brand and how defining it is for the papers' future. This is a (or rather another) critical time in the IHT's history--and perhaps the final phase. I personally think that killing the IHT brand (instead of giving it the same independence as say the Boston Globe) is a mistake. After having been a witness of so much history spanning three centuries, should its survival depend on the whims (and self-fullness) of its current owners?

Have we forgotten what happened the last time the New York Times had an international edition? It could be wise for NYT Company top brass to look to the past to best understand what to expect in the future. The short lived venture (a mainly rebranded NY-edition) was not a success, so the only thing the Times could do was buy a piece of the market leader, the Paris Herald. That was back in the 1960s...

"The New York Times started an edition in Europe to compete with us [the NYHT-European Edition]. It was as dull as you could get, but the Times' owners demanded half the Marshall Plan subscriptions [that were previously allocated to the NYHT-European Edition]. The USIA had to give their share, but all hell broke loose with readers. Everyone from the British parliament to the French Foreign Office was furious that their subscription had been taken away and had been substituted by the Times, which was nothing more than a replate of the New York paper." Art Buchwald, I'll Always Have Paris

"...a paper [the international edition of the NYT] that was cold, gray, with no human quality... on the day that the Herald Tribune featured a banner headline about de Gaulle's rejection of British entry to the common market, the Times headline told about New York being blacked out by a power failure." Charles L. Robertson, The International Herald Tribune--The First Hundred Years

"...in New York, he said [New York Times Vice President, Ivan Veit] it is assumed that anything with the name "Times" on it is better... It was disconcerting to hear from Times (NY) devotees that they like the Paris Trib as well or better." Charles L. Robertson, The International Herald Tribune--The First Hundred Years

Apply the same NYC-centric view to the IHT today and the same could happen again. The IHT was able to attract non-American readers more than the Wall Street Journal or USA Today ever could. Not worth capitalizing on?

Nonetheless it is hard for me to argue against the New York Times--a company that has been commited to newspapers as more than just a business--after all, the IHT has relied so heavily on the NYT (along with the WP) for financial support and content over the past 40 years. And yes, the Times has invested more in IHT reporters than was ever done before (probably not since World War II). But why aren't these journalists identified in the paper as IHT journalists? Why aren't IHT editorials branded as such? Readers don't have a clue what they're reading and this further signals the Times' unwillingness to preserve the Herald. The IHT was a great platform to develop a truly global paper on, the NYT is not--just like it was not in the 1960s.

New York Times editorials are usually strong supporters of diversity in society at large. Surely the strength in the diversity symbolized by the world's first ever international daily is a valuable asset?


OK OPL, let me take these points one by one.

When the NYT took over the IHT they did a lot of research and spent a lot of money to find out what all senior IHT staffers were telling them - which would have saved them about US$1 million had they had the humility to listen: the NYT brand wasn't worth a bag of beans compared with the IHT brand.

But that research, carefully guarded amongst an inner few - it's locked up like the Holy Grail - looked primarily at existing readers of the IHT. The reasoning behind this was based on the infamous national edition expansion of the NYT research.

It went like this: interview existing readers of the NYT outside Manhattan, find out who they are, then go find more people like them. It seemed to work. Thus what was good for the U.S.A. was deemed good for the research programme of a newspaper operating in over 181 countries and territories.

Ummmm.

Either they've done more research or they simply don't care - back to Year Zero and build the NYT brand in a world of Murdoch/WSJ (the FT is a spent force for now; very possibly a NYT acquisition).

Now from a business perspective I can understand this, and until I see some solid research amongst NON IHT readers about the IHT brand, especially in the markets where newspapers are actually growing (not sinking), namely South America and Asia, I'm brand agnostic for now.

As much as you OPL, I love the heritage of the IHT. But the name isn't going to save the IHT UNLESS they can show (and I think the advertising department is doing a pretty good job of this) that the IHT brand = Upscale Luxury.

Here is the rub for IHT readers who are not HNWI (High Net Worth Individuals) - they don't want a newspaper that caters for the growing millionaire classes, talking about luxury, luxury, luxury, but the advertisers do.

Just take a look at the advertising in the paper. Take out industry related to the 'business of green' and you're left with luxury advertisers.

Now that category includes the likes of UBS private banking. They specifically DO NOT want to talk to Americans in something called the International New York Times, they want to talk to Europeans and Asians in the IHT. This was something they recently told a slack-jawed NYT ad chief, who despite being told this about 1,000 times by the IHT gang, had to hear it from the client itself. Only then did pennies begin to sink in.

(Honestly, hearing stories of the growing realisation of NYT execs about the IHT and something called 'the world' is like a story of man seeing someone making a fire for the first time. No way? Is that right? Can you do that? Let me get our strategic planning guys spend a couple of million dollars checking out this fire thing and we'll get back to you.)

So if we take a hard look, rather than a nostalgic look at the IHT brand today, it seems to represent, if anything, luxury.

Now back in the day, with most big business to business advertising going into financial press, this was a problem for the IHT. Now however, much of it has migrated to the internet (UK internet spending this year will exceed for the first time TV), so that battle isn't there to be lost. And judging by the huge number of luxury events, and adverts, the IHT seems to be doing reasonably well on luxury. Plus, demand for luxury goods are exploding accross Asia and many other parts of the world. Affluenza is a global epidemic, so why not surf the wave?

So, if you're a NYT planner, and you've finally worked out that the IHT simply cannot compete for European and Asian business people against the combination (depending on the market) of the FT and the WSJ, then why would you dump the brand that is delivering advertising that it can get - the luxury advertising through the luxury perception IHT brand. (And for those who are nostalgic, and have read the above mentioned books, the IHT was the Belle Epoque uber-luxury brand.)

And why would you think that an American general interest newspaper brand, with no track record in Europe or Asia, is suddenly going to deliver senior business decision makers in a way the IHT has consistently failed to do.

Let's be frank here: Rupert bought the WALL STREET JOURNAL because it said BUSINESS. He didn't express any interest in buying a newspaper that said to most of the (admittedly ill-informed) world: PAROCHIAL CITY NEWSPAPER.

So the IHT luxury ride is all good provided you believe:
a) the luxury brand advertising will stay when Suzy Menkes goes;
b) the luxury crowd care about being informed and being active public intellectuals.


Which would suggest to me that the IHT might be well advised to:
a) line up a plan for situation 'a' above;
b) start thinking about the brand as a luxury brand (not as a NEWS brand - as currently - poorly and pointlessly and hopelessly - presented).

It's all quite doable, especially if you consider that the luxury crowd will read whatever they are given if they think the paper in their hands is a luxury brand, and the non-luxury crowd, who don't pay much attention to adverts for multi-thousand dollar watches etc, don't care what ads are in the paper provided the content stays much the same.

However, if the travel sections, and property sections start catering to a purely luxury crowd (as seems to be increasingly the case) then you will have some existing reader dissatisfaction.

I say too bad. That's the price you're going to have to pay to continue to get solid front of the book news, analysis and opinion. The back of the book, I am afraid, has to go the way of the luxury gang in this context.

(And let's be honest, with Suzy and Souren on Art it already has - anybody bought at US$16 million painting recently? No, nor have I, but it's still quite interesting to read about people who do and why. Ditto where they go on holiday and the crappy condos they buy in over-priced golf resorts in Central America that is the new Eldorado.)

All of the above is predicated on the belief that the luxury wave will grow and grow, especially in markets where newspapers are growing (India for example) and that the IHT brand says cosmopolitan, global luxury lifestyle, and the NYT says, well, New York.

This is the very hard fact for the Manhattan Gang to grasp. In the US they are an icon of America's best reporting. Elsewhere? Well, we'd all need to read the research report to comment further on that.

Perhaps they've secretly commissioned a second one, in line with a certain tendency among West coast elites to find the facts to fit the story when it comes to international ventures. (cf. Last Attempt to Launch International NYT, cf Last Attempt to Invade Large Middle Eastern Oil Reserve, two ventures enthusiastically backed by the editorial board of the NYT.)

Now, as to "why aren't IHT journalists identified in the paper as IHT journalists and why aren't IHT editorials branded as such?"

Ironically, back when the IHT advertising department was fighting the perception that it was read largely by US expats (still largely true) people like me argued endlessly to drop the NYT identification of journalists because it didn't serve our cause. Of course the NYT refused.

Now they don't want IHT journalists identified because they are techincally correspondents of the global edition of the NYT, often on NYT contracts. How the world turns.

"Readers don't have a clue what they're reading"; that's correct. For example, OPL seems to think the IHT writes its own editorials. It doesn't. Nor does it identify which opinion pieces are coming from the NYT (the majority) and which are submitted to the IHT (not enough, and not enough non-American voices).

And of course, way too much of the paper remains wire copy.

Whether "this further signals the Times' unwillingness to preserve the Herald" I don't know.

"The IHT was a great platform to develop a truly global paper on, the NYT is not--just like it was not in the 1960s."

That I do agree with....if handled smartly. (Content, brand marketing, design.)

But for the IHT to be a truly global paper it needs to keep its independence from the NYT and employ its own journalists. Frankly, this would be the case if the NYT went with the NYT brand for its global play. Ultimately, it comes down to who writes for and edits the paper. Not what it's called.

Seriously, OPL, you refer to the paper as the Herald, the International Herald Tribune marketing gang want you to call it the IHT; IHT old timer edit staff call it the Trib, the French call it the Herald, the Germans the Tribune, the NYT gang call it any of the above; it's a complete mess.

If the trade off for a genuinely independent global newspaper, favouring no one national constituency (US college basketball, I think not) is that it's called the International NYT, so be it. I can understand the thinking, I'd like to see a little more data.

But if they think a slightly doctored NYT is going to cut it (which I CAN'T believe they do, but then I was one of the people who assumed Rumfeld had a plan for D-Day + 5) they are sorely off the mark.

And if www.iht.com is cut, and becomes part of www.nytimes.com then the designers at the NYT are going to have to take this on-board: despite thinking that Madison Avenue and American newspaper design is the center of world design standards, most of Europe and Asia think of the NYT design values as about 30 years out of date, crusty, grey, dull, dense and frankly wouldn't get a pass grade from any leading design school in Europe.

www.nytimes.com might look just dandy to an American who has never left Illinois.

To anyone of any interest to advertisers outside the USA it looks like a dropped bottle of ink.










1 comment:

OPL said...

Your points on iht.com/nytimes.com were spot on (http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/06/23/business/iht.php). Someone at the IHT is definitely reading this blog ;)