Print media has never been at a lower point of general business disregard. Its cultural standing as a vox populi adviser and barometer is, after the Trump election, in tatters. It has all but been forsaken by advertisers, its main source of revenue. And its stated effort to save itself through digital transformation so far shows little success.
Trolling for bargains
One way to look at this is as a bottomed-out moment. Print media is now cheap enough for new money to take a chance on. After all, many newspapers and magazines are still profitable. The huge margins of the past may be gone, but reasonable profits still exist. The problem with that view, however, is that revenues continue to fall, often more precipitously than expected, and, many argue, prices, however lower, still don’t reflect the worst-case reality. It isn’t a fire sale yet.
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There is, of course, a new-money hubris which says we can manage better than the guys before. Even if we are managing decline — even if print does eventually go belly up — we can cut costs and squeeze out enough profits on legacy revenues to get a decent return on our investment. Or, more optimistically, and perhaps with no less hubris, we can improve efficiencies to such an extent that we can reach a new self-sustaining economic model. After all, who does not believe that Time Inc., after decades and decades of adding ever-more layers of fat, and with less than a decade of paring, can’t be slimmed down even more?
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And yet, if The Washington Post, transformed from years of also-ran irrelevancy back to its place as, against The New York Times, the upstart best paper in the country, is now the standard of print rejuvenation, the message there is the opposite one: The path to rebirth is to invest as though money means very little to you. Curiously, it may be that seeming lack of concern for economic realities on the part of Jeff Bezos which is helping to inspire would-be print buyers.
In some sense, this still reflects the digital dream. That’s the logic that says even though digital is a long way from replacing print revenues, someday digital has to pay off. How could it not? And if people have been saying that for 20 years, well, give it 25. The Tronc investors have made digital hopefulness, despite quite some wide ridicule, their raison d’être. Time Inc., after its spin-off in 2014 from Time Warner, put digital at the center of its business plan, so far without notable success. And now, its prospective buyers seem to suggest, despite digital’s falling ad rates and increasing traffic costs, that this could be their magic formula for reanimating the business.
Real news has real value
In fact, all of these relative rationalizations may be cover for something that is much harder to express. The bet here may be more from the gut, one pointedly reinforced by the Trump election — with its fake news scares, social media tumult and enmity for the media. It’s a business perception that sees no reasonable path to making new, powerful and trusted news brands. The brands that now exist, with long histories of influence, respect and audience loyalty, are what we have, no matter their economic decline and the opprobrium Donald Trump heaps on them (indeed, that opprobrium is a curious sign of their continuing power). No new meaningful news brands are going to emerge from the scattered random interests of digital traffic. Indeed, the point of the brands that have powerfully emerged — Google, Facebook, Twitter — is that they have no meaning. The world of infinite aggregation is an ever more flattened world.
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Hence, Time magazine, and Fortune, and Sports Illustrated and The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times. While these brands may have been diminished, and seem awfully hoary for the coolest Millennials, no new brands have risen to truly challenge their pride of place. There has been no cultural replacement. If you buy them, you own a portion of what’s left of news trust and identity.
That is, of course, not an uncomplicated business proposition, understanding that value exists but not knowing how to unlock it. Still, it isn’t an entirely silly business bet, buying authority, aware that there is certain demand for it, and confident that it isn’t going to be replicated.
This article comes from usatoday edit released