16 January 2009

Route Cause

Knowledge@Wharton has delivered just what we need—one more wakeup call for the publishing industry: And no, don’t reach for the snooze button.

The report, “Urgent Deadline for Publishers: Find a New Business Plan before You Vanish,” quotes a number of Whartonians from various disciplines. It was published: January 07, 2009. We thank Bob Sacks for distributing it.

The lead paragraph sets a tone:

If 2008 were an ordinary year -- one during which iconic American firms like General Motors didn't teeter on the verge of bankruptcy, the stock market didn't lose a third of its value, and foreclosures, hemorrhaging 401(k)s and holiday retail blight weren't in every headline -- the precipitous decline of the nation's newspaper business might have been the biggest financial story.

After some No-the-sky-really-is-falling statistics, the piece offers a bouquet of alternate business routes. They include philanthropic, niche, pay, participation, commercial.

The pay route, suggested by  marketing professor Eric Bradlow, co-director of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative, is particularly interesting. The report summarizes his view this way:

subscriber strategies aren't always doomed. Companies from Dow Jones, which publishes the Wall Street Journal, to any number of small trade magazines that offer highly specialized information to affluent subscribers manage to keep content behind a for-pay firewall, defying the conventional wisdom about an Internet audience that demands freebies. The key is a degree of specialization, whether by locality or by subject matter, that the traditional general-interest paper didn't deliver.

It’s more correct to term this approach the “proprietary route.” It’s not that the publication’s information and/or unique expression are for sale (which they are). It’s that the consumer can only get this material in one place. If content is king, exclusivity of content is emperor.

Not included in the pay or proprietary route was the notion of delivering the publication directly to a consumer's portable reader and bypassing the web entirely.

The report focuses on newspapers but it doesn’t take a great stretch to apply it to magazines. More than anything else, this Wharton report is a great shot of caffeine. Now is not the time to slow your roll.

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