Anyone who has spent time in a newsroom lately is familiar with the conversation—generally conducted in the “hushed tone you use for someone who’s just been through rehab or divorce,” as Bill Keller once put it—about the future of the news business. We’ve all figured out that Craigslist, Google, and other digital predators have decimated the print-advertising model, and that no matter how brilliant our Web sites, the shiny digital-advertising dime doesn’t replace that old print dollar. This leaves us looking to subscription payments, particularly online, where readership remains strong. But charging for digital content reduces traffic, which might jeopardize that meager yet growing digital advertising revenue (though some hope that charging more to a smaller, but more devoted, subscription-paying audience can make up for that loss).
So for much of the media, finding the right income-stream balance—between advertising and subscriptions—has become an existential question. The discussion about the tradeoffs is sure to accelerate next year, when The New York Times plans to put some of its online content behind a paywall. Meanwhile new technology—the iPad and beyond—will inspire creative riffs on the subject, as CJR’s cover story makes clear.
But there is another wrinkle to consider. Some of the companies faring best in the news business today have built an entirely different model, what we might call private news, and are working on an entirely different balancing act. Their challenge is to determine the right mix of focused, professional content—sold to a relatively small client base, usually bundled with data, for extremely high rates—with consumer content, which brings in less money but reaches a bigger audience.
The big question for these organizations is the inverse of the one troubling the mass news outlets in a digital world: their concern isn’t to find a model that allows their influential newsrooms to keep humming along; it is to achieve public influence commensurate with the size and ambition of the newsrooms their already-profitable business model has built. This is a balancing act I have come to know from the inside, and it comes with both promise and peril.
While the model has been around for some time at such entities as the CQ-Roll Call Group, which offers a mix of public and private content, it has been edging a little further into the spotlight lately. In 2009, The Wall Street Journal introduced The Wall Street Journal Professional Edition, which for extra money offers search and organizing capabilities of both Journal articles and other material that is not available free on the Web. And in CJR’s July/August 2009 issue, Michael Shapiro argued in “Open for Business” that many daily newspapers could identify specific subjects for which readers would pay, and thus support their free general news. Think the Detroit Free Press on automobiles.
The biggest examples of this phenomenon are Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters (where I work). The cash-generating power of Bloomberg’s model is obvious to any visitor to the company’s gleaming Upper East Side headquarters. The centrality of Bloomberg’s eponymous terminals to that enterprise is equally apparent—look up anywhere in the building and chances are you’ll see a screen tracking terminal installations. Some 290,000 Bloomberg clients pay some $20,000 per year for these boxes full of private news and data.
Most of Bloomberg’s journalistic firepower is poured into those boxes. Over the past twelve months, however, the news operation has made a push into the consumer space: acquiring, rebranding, and redesigning what is now Bloomberg Businessweek; revamping Bloomberg TV; and previewing, in beta, a jazzier version of the free Bloomberg Web site.
Feeding the terminals remains the heart of the business plan. Matt Winkler, the founding editor of Bloomberg News, said that Bloomberg’s moves into the consumer space all “increase the awareness of the value of Bloomberg.” That awareness, in turn, strengthens the company’s core terminal business in two ways. It helps Bloomberg reporters get better access to sources, he says, because as sources become more likely to talk to Bloomberg “the Bloomberg terminal becomes more valuable.” Winkler cites a February interview with President Obama—conducted by Bloomberg News veterans Albert Hunt, Julianna Goldman, and Michael Tackett, as well as recently hired Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel, and unrolled across the company’s public Web sites and Bloomberg Businessweek—as an example of the access the company’s consumer presence hopes to deliver.
Second, the exposure helps sell terminals. Winkler’s current favorite illustration is a retired broker named Michael Robbins, who had let his terminal subscription lapse. Robbins so enjoyed a March review—on the free Web site—of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, written by arts and leisure editor Manuela Hoelterhoff, that he told me it “was a major catalyst” in his decision to ask his former partners, for whom he is consulting, to renew his subscription.