When Is $3 Billion Really $800 Million? Ask the New York Times

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What if the New York Times, roughly a $3 billion business, became and $800 million business?

That is the question posed earlier this year at a small event I went to by a guy I thought was wacko. It’s now being asked by Editor and Publisher in an article today. So, I recalled the meeting.

I attened an IAB event where Michael Wolff spoke. He is the author of Burn Rate had just come out with a new book Autumn of the Moguls: My Misadventures With the Titans, Poseurs, and Money Guys Who Mastered and Messed Up Big Media. He outlined the scenario above in a way that took all our breaths away. First, he described the junkets Vanity Fair would sent him on. First class $10,000 tickets to London. Suites at the Claridges. Yes, he was smug, but he was also talking in the self-deprecating tones of a man who knows his world is ending. He also described the money spent, by Vanity Fair, the New York Times and others, to keep reporters around the world, in places like Afghanistan and Bagdad.

The New York Times, he said, makes roughly $3 billion in its print circulation. Let’s advance the clock. Print circulation continues to decline. More and more people read online. Maybe they even read on new electronic devices. As people move to electronic media and away from print, online CPMs climb. But how high? Wolf, on a white pad, sketched out a substantial rise in online CPMs. Squeak, squeak, squeak went the marker. At the same time, advertising becomes more measureable, he postulated. The old saw “half your dollars are wasted, you just don’t know which half” goes away, taking out the bloat. His conclusion: In a forseeable scenario, one that is neither too rosy, nor too dim, if a substatial part of the New York Times’ business transitioned to online, the company would end up as an $800 million business, down from $3 billion. Does that, he asked, pay for reporters in Bagdad?

“The internet is subsidized by the old media business, but it is in the process of putting old media out of business,” Wolfe concluded.

It’s a scary picture, one all the best minds in media and content need to work on. And perhaps, those enjoying the bloat need to be more honest with their customers, before the whole house of cards collapses around us.