You can certainly build traffic through your areas of expertise. But I don’t think that producing a paper that’s great at 30 percent of the subjects it covers and OK at the other 70 percent really has much of a future on the Web, because it’s just too hard to compete. We’re in this social media world now where if I’m on Twitter or I’m on Facebook and someone sends me an article, three pieces of information come with that: what friend of mine sent me the article, what the headline says, and who produced the article. And I would argue that who produced the article is by far the least important of the three. If the first two things click, I don’t care if it’s produced by The New York Times, the Guardian, or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I think that’s what a lot of media companies are struggling with right now, which is the brand name itself, while certainly relevant still, does not carry the weight it did fifteen years ago.
GM: In an interview in early 2008, you said: “The key is matching enough journalists working to the readers to take advantage of all the information out there. Once we figure out the sticky question of revenue models for the web, hopefully there’ll be a building back up of newsrooms, as well as for the investigative staff, that have suffered in past 5 years.” So that was a year and a half ago. Have we made any progress answering that “sticky question”?
JB: I don’t think the answers have clearly been solved yet on that front. I’m bullish that the real answer down the road is there, and that it’s going to be a combination of multiple revenue streams. It’s going to have to be largely display ad driven for awhile, I think you can supplement it with some premium stuff, and I think the one opportunity that newspapers and media companies really need to be doing stuff with the next couple years is mobile.
You look at a mobile phone, you have a built-in payment system. You have people who are willing to spend $2.99 to get a ten-second snippet of a song as a ringtone; they can buy the whole song for two dollars less on iTunes. People are willing to spend on phones, and it’s easy to do so. Especially with GPS location-type stuff coming up there’s a lot of opportunities for local newspapers to build local services people will pay for. So I think mobile will open up a lot of doors. Will it solve the whole problem? No, but I think media companies need to get out of this idea that there’s one huge revenue stream out there. There is no one silver bullet—it’s going to be shrapnel; it’s going to be a lot of pieces of a bullet. But I’m still confident that we’ll be looking back in 15 years thinking, ‘Isn’t it funny, we thought this would never come back together again?’ I’m confident that it will, although it will be a very different world.
GM: Setting aside the revenue question, what are the biggest remaining challenges for newspapers in terms of continuing to make the transition editorially to the Web and developing the culture that’s needed to do that?
JB: I think that’s the problem, developing the culture. What the recession has done in the last year is to force people to put their eye back on the print side of the operation, because it is still throwing off a lot more money than the Web. My own fear is that in the last year I’ve seen a lot less innovation journalistically on the Web than we saw the previous couple of years. I felt like we’d turned the corner. The Times had launched their R&D unit, they were doing all this really cool stuff—which they still are. But a lot of other organizations were starting to hire people, more videographers, more database developers, and were putting more emphasis on getting the journalists who were at the newspaper doing stuff for the Web site. I feel like that’s taken a step back with the financial tsunami that’s hit in the last year. It seems like there’s less innovation going on across the board in newsrooms right now. That’s probably the biggest concern, is that the recession set the transition to the Web back.