Mark Cuban is well known as the brash, combative owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team, the guy who looks like a big kid and sometimes acts like one. His outbursts can obscure his most notable attribute—he is an astute businessman.
Cuban made his fortune building and selling two businesses—the first a computer-services company and the second an Internet streaming-media firm named broadcast.com. It was the media company that made him wealthy, and he has remained engaged in media since selling it to Yahoo more than a decade ago.
He’s an entrepreneur, first, and maybe last, and not by any stretch a journalist, but Cuban is the majority-owner of a cable channel, HDNet, whose regular lineup features a Dan Rather investigative series; two websites whose sole tasks are to ferret out corporate and government malfeasance (sharesleuth.com and bailoutsleuth.com); and HDNet Films, the movie production company behind the prize-winning documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
Cuban is media-savvy. He tweets (@mcuban); he blogs (at http://blogmaverick.com); he dances with the stars. He writes and talks about broad themes in digital media and is especially interested in what is the most pressing issue facing the contemporary news media—how to monetize its prodigious output. Put more simply: Can the news make money?
CJR Encore Fellow Terry McDermott engaged in an extended e-mail correspondence with Cuban, who answered questions on his Android-enabled telephone. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.
What is the future of journalism, assuming it has one? How can journalism monetize the web? I pay $9 a month for Netflix. Why won’t I pay the same for good journalism?
The future of journalism will be tethered to the future of profitability of the news business. If there are ways to create profits using news created by journalists, as opposed to partisan shouting, then it will prosper. The good news is that there are many upcoming opportunities for news organizations. One will be subscription models on portable devices. If iTunes offers subscriptions, it might—and the key word is “might”—create a new future for journalism. Another option might be a Netflix for news.
At its heart, Netflix is an arbitrage-based business. Netflix pays up front for content against an amount per viewing. They then sell subscriptions to the content. It’s not inconceivable that someone could do the same thing with news. Go to the big newspapers and offer them an amount that is equal to their net margins for their online businesses (online revenues minus costs) in exchange for the right to exclusively present the content to its subscribers. It would leave the right to newspapers to offer the same content behind a paywall, but not for free. It then could go offer a subscription with a monthly fee to the service.
So, for $7.95 per month, I would go to this site and get all the news I wanted for no additional charge. The service would learn from usage and pay more for the most-read content, less for less-read (knowing that some content providers may withdraw if the amount is not high enough). The real challenge would be in selling enough subscriptions. Do you need 1 million, 10 million? Is $7.95 too high or too low? I don’t know, but it’s a business someone—not me—should explore. Or possibly it is one that the major paper ownership groups should consider creating.
What would you do if you woke up tomorrow and found someone had made you CEO of Tribune Company? I mean, what would you do once you stopped crying?
I don’t think I would cry at all. I don’t know their expense levels, but they certainly have enough content to leverage and quite a few monetization opportunities.
Assuming you own Tribune Company: you could be both the content creator and the Netflix analog, correct?
The role would be of aggregator and sales organization. I don’t know if Tribune has the skill set to acquire and market a subscription product, but they can probably partner with someone who can. The former Netflix CFO is out there.