Tom Mohr’s ‘Digital Switzerland’

Earlier this year I ran into Tom Mohr at an Editor & Publisher conference. Tom was then the outgoing president of Knight Ridder Digital. At the event he pitched me on the idea of a common platform for online newspapers hosted by a third party. He has now elaborated that thinking into a full-blown strategy document or “manifesto,” as he’s calling it, for the industry:

To win, industry leaders must adopt a Marshall Plan embodying two key objectives: the migration to common platforms, and the acquisition of the ability to sell top-quality online product to our advertisers. To fulfill these objectives, the independent companies of a proud industry must aggregate into an industry-wide network. In this network, each company must cede some control over its digital future into a “Switzerland” organization that manages the network.

This will require a degree of cooperation and trust rarely seen before in the newspaper business, and therefore will only be achieved through the active, visionary leadership of the industry’s captains. But, if they pursue this path and plug into the power of network economics, they will tap into $4 billion of revenue upside for the industry by 2010.

I agree with Tom that newspapers need to be competitive online to survive and that newspaper survival is tied to the US remaining an open, democratic society. As overblown as that sounds, I genuinely believe that.

Here is the full list of Mohr’s recommendations:

— Local newspapers will not be the innovation source for top online products.

— “Local” is not, in itself, defensible online.

— The big money is not in newspaper websites, but in gaining access to top-tier product via partnerships with vertical online leaders.

— Moving newspaper websites onto common platforms will deliver improvements in quality, cost reduction, traffic and revenue.

— When networked, newspapers bring critical assets to the table that strengthen their competitive position vs. online-only players.

— The window of opportunity is closing; failure to act will compromise the future of the business.

— Ultimately, the key is leadership at the highest levels.

He elaborates on each one in the article. While I don’t agree with 100% of his recommendations and the practical challenges involved in bringing together the newspaper industry are huge (maybe insurmountable), there is a good deal I do agree with. For those interested, it’s provocative and a big vision and worth reading.

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5 Responses to “Tom Mohr’s ‘Digital Switzerland’”

  1. Howard Owens Says:

    Yes, let’s all get together and sing Kumbaya.

    What does he mean: “Local isn’t defensible”? That sounds more like rhetoric than a deep philosophy. Local may be the last defensible outpost.

    Knight-Ridder tried centralization and look where it ended up. Meanwhile, Scripps and McClatchy have been growing online operations sans heavy centralization (only where it makes sense, such as a common CMS and key verticals, but still giving individual properties latitude to innovate).

    The problem with the newspaper industry isn’t the failure of New Century Network. It is a failure to invest heavily in R&D and deeply disruptive product ideas, such as craigslist, YouTube and MySpace. Those are failures that fall at the feet of individual corporate leaders. I don’t see how some conglomerate approach is going to solve that problem.

    I would also add that something like Lawrence.com is great evidence of newspaper companies doing some things right. It doesn’t get the headlines of YouTube because its purely local and not easy to duplicate in other markets, but there are examples out there of newspaper sites doing some good things — all which will fall below the radar of large national initiatives, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of praise.

    How will a common platform deliver more traffic and more revenue? I don’t see a point A to point B connection. What’s the evidence that, as a blanket statement, is true? There are probably some worthy experiments within that notion, but I’m not sure corporate newspaper companies are ready to throw in the towel on their own efforts and embrace a conglomerate approach (if anti-trust laws would even allow it).

    I actually think there is some hope in the Yahoo! Local approach and Google’s archive search to help extend the reach of individual paper content, but when I think about national and international news — I’m not sure I see a clear path to Tom’s strategy. That’s already a crowded market. What is unique is local news. So the challenge remains: Driving traffic to local news and information. How does Switzerland Inc. help with that?

  2. Greg Sterling Says:

    Good comments all. I agree with you that local is the differentiator for content, the non-commoditized part of online news.

  3. Greg Sterling Says:

    From a marketer’s point of view, more efficient access to newspaper ad inventory (i.e., a network of some kind) is critical if newspapers are going to compete with portals and search for ad dollars.

  4. Howard Owens Says:

    Greg, thanks for responding …

    If you’re talking national advertisers, yes, efficiency is great, but for a local publisher, so far, those group buys tend to be low CPMs. You can get higher CPMs from pure local advertisers.

    And if you’re going to make local self-serve and CPC work, it’s going to take local promotional/relationships to make it work (I think I’ve addressed this issue in previous comments on your site).

    Sure, CareerBuilder has been great, but that doesn’t mean a local solution can’t work. We did very well in Ventura with a locally produced recruitment product. It eventually went away merely because the code was getting stale and there were no longer resources for an update, but it was still quite profitable.

    I’m not really arguing against anything Tom is proposing — just casting a skeptical glance.

  5. Web X.0 Says:

    Yahoo, Newspapers and Quigo

    Finally some good news for Yahoo… Today it announced a partnership with 176 newspapers. Coverage on TechCrunch, NY Times, PaidContent, and others. From the NY Times:A consortium of seven newspaper chains representing 176 daily papers across the count…

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