The Thomson Reuters’ model is similar—in fact, the company has been striking a balance between professional and consumer news since its inception nearly a century and a half ago. “At 100,000 feet, the two companies are doing exactly the same thing,” said Devin Wenig, ceo of the Thomson Reuters markets division (and my boss’s boss). “We have a core news engine that exists for one purpose, and that is to help our clients make money.” News supports all of the market division’s business, but just $365 million of the unit’s $7.5 billion in revenue in 2009 came directly from its traditional media and consumer operations (mostly from syndication and its public Web site).
But like Winkler, Wenig thinks a strong consumer presence has helped that core professional business by winning over sources: “It helps us to get access to people that matter.” More consumer visibility appeals to reporters, too. “It helps us hire good people,” Wenig said, citing Jim Impoco, a former New York Times editor who leads enterprise reporting for Reuters in New York.
Edging into the consumer market is appealing for these two private-content firms for one other reason: since they already have the manpower, it is cheap, particularly relative to the cost of business for the legacy players. “If you look at the mastheads of Bloomberg Businessweek and Bloomberg Markets, there aren’t a lot of people there,” Winkler notes. But since the magazines are an extension of Bloomberg News, “the reporters in our 148 bureaus around the world” can contribute.
Wenig agreed: “The marginal cost of putting our content into a consumer environment is almost zero. I wouldn’t be running a 2,800-person news organization just to build a consumer product, but that is the organization I have.”
For mass news organizations, the big question is how much news they can pull back behind an online veil. Reuters and Bloomberg grapple with the opposite issue—how much ankle they can expose to a mass audience without reducing the value of the information they offer to their high-paying, private client base. “There are constant discussions about it,” Winkler said. “You have to give people just enough so they appreciate what you’ve done, but not so much that it could in any way replicate a Bloomberg. You put enough scoops in front of people to say, ‘That’s a great Web site.’ But you don’t give them every scoop. The time delays are a part of it.”
Moving into the consumer space—particularly at a time when legacy consumer media companies are fighting for their financial survival—is a natural step for cash-rich professional, electronic information firms, particularly in the business sector where information can translate into a business advantage. Meanwhile, some legacy print-based news organizations are trying to move in the opposite direction, into the private-news space. One of them is the Financial Times (disclosure: where I worked for fifteen years). Increasingly, the FT newspaper and Web site are the public, consumer face of a company whose highest margin enterprises are affiliated businesses that sell exclusive information to a niche, professional audience.
John Ridding, CEO of the FT and FT.com (and my former boss’s boss), faces constraints on the price he can charge for his newspaper, but far fewer limits on the price of professional information. Ridding argues that the FT and FT.com can be profitable on their own, “but these niches, drawing on the value of the brand and their infrastructure, can be extremely profitable. If you go from the newsstand to Medley [a high-end professional analysis service] there is quite a difference in price!
“What you have is the reach and the global audience of the FT brand that supports and drives these niche publications,” he said. “They can be organic, like China Confidential [an electronic newsletter edited by a former FT Beijing bureau chief], or they can be acquisitions like Medley or Money Media [an aggregation and reporting service aimed at money managers].” The FT’s shift was underscored in May when an executive from Pearson, the FT’s owner, told a media conference that within five years the FT is likely to have largely abandoned its flagship consumer product, the print edition of the newspaper—although a Pearson spokesperson said afterwards that was not true.