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My Crazy Plan to Save the Newspaper Business
But it only sounds crazy—if you actually did it, you could change all the rules of journalism
A friend asked me, how would I save the newspaper business?
That’s a tall order, because this industry has been in decline for decades. Since 2005, around 2,500 newspapers have closed down in the US. During the pandemic alone, more than 350 newspapers disappeared, and they continue to shut down at the rate of two per week.
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Over one-fifth of people in the US now live in a local news desert, where coverage of their communities either doesn’t exist, or will soon disappear. And even the newspapers that still survive are much smaller than they once were—downsized with fewer people and less reporting.
There are many reasons for this collapse. For a start, Google eats up the advertisers the way whales swallow Old Testament prophets. But I also blame the newspapers themselves, who knew about the digital future more than 40 years ago, but still weren’t prepared when it arrived.
Check out this video—which laid out the future of journalism back in 1981. They correctly predicted the future, but still weren’t prepared when it arrived.
Now newspapers are in collapse. Just look at these numbers—they’re a rockier horror show than The Rocky Horror Show.
That’s not just a decline—that’s a total collapse of an industry.
So my friend asks me, how would I save the newspaper business? My reply was evasive.
“Well, yes, I think it’s possible to solve this problem. But if you implemented my plan the end result won’t look anything like today’s newspapers.”
“But if it works—and I’m confident it will—it creates good-paying jobs and ensures high quality reporting. And we can make money too, lots of money.
“This requires some radical steps. When I’m done, we will be operating in an entirely different world from the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the Minnesota Star Tribune.”
He pressed for details, and I gave them. But, my dear readers, I always think of you, too.
So here’s my business plan for the “newspaper of the future.”
THE NEWSPAPER OF THE FUTURE
The plan outlined below will create one of the best news organizations in the world, and be profitable within 24-36 months.
This will probably cost $150 million to launch, but I want to raise $250 million from investors (or philanthropic sponsors), to give me a cushion. Most of that money will go to salaries—and it will be paid to actual journalists/creators, not admin and bureaucrats.
Let’s start with the building. It will look very different from a traditional newspaper headquarters.
My newspaper-of-the-future will operate out of a facility that looks more like a college campus than a printing or publishing business. I need offices, but I also need lecture halls, meeting rooms that can also serve as classrooms, and an attractive environment.
That’s because people will pay to come to this facility—for talks, courses, consultations, etc. These will be a key contributors to the income stream for the newspaper-of-the-future.
In other words, my plan recognizes that journalism is about access to valuable information. Providing that in the digital age requires a whole different mindset and physical facility.
(Consider, for example, this Substack newsletter that saw subscriptions take off when it started setting aside office hours—in order to thrive as a journalist, the author needed to act more like a college professor.)
Maybe there’s a bankrupt small college that will rent me their facilities on the cheap. I want everything to look nice, but without building something from scratch. I prefer to rent, not own. But at the end of the day, I will have a home for my news organization that will draw people like a magnet.
Now let’s turn to the heart-and-soul of the business.
THE 100 SMART PEOPLE
I’m going to hire 100 smart people—and I’m planning to pay them a lot of money. This will be the single biggest expense in my budget. If possible, I want the 100 smartest people.
That’s because everything in my new business model depends on these 100 smart people. They will provide my competitive advantage.
If they’re smart, I will win this game. If they aren’t smart enough, I lose.
In a moment, I will tell you who these people are, and what their job requires them to do. But first I need to explain why they are the key to my newspaper-of-the-future.
If you plan to reinvent an industry, you must identify the key weakness of your competitors. If you can’t find one, you move on to something else. Just imitating what everyone else does isn’t enough—you have to pinpoint the stupid move the existing players are making.
Then you exploit it.
And that’s the great advantage about reinventing the newspaper business—the current players have been making boneheaded strategy decisions for decades. For example, they still haven’t figured out a smart strategy to manage their paywalls. And they still don’t have a strategy for holding on to advertisers in the face of Google and Craigslist. And even worse, they responded to new competitors by cutting back their coverage and dumbing down their articles—which simply accelerated the rate of their decline.
But their worst mistake is how they manage people. Journalism jobs have never paid well—and for the simple reason of supply and demand. A lot of people want to be journalists, and newspapers can pay low salaries (or offer meager freelancing terms) and still have plenty of writers to choose from.
But you get what you pay for.
Newspapers never paid enough to attract consistently the smartest and most talented people in the economy. Occasionally they hired super-talented people by chance, but that could never be part of their core mission—simply because the salaries weren’t very high.
And, let’s be honest, until recently, newspapers didn’t need to hire Einsteins, because they didn’t actually compete against each other. The major newspapers enjoyed quasi-monopolies in their local market.
Until the rise of the digital age, the LA Times didn’t really compete with the San Francisco Chronicle—just as it didn’t compete with the Chicago Tribune or the Dallas Morning News or the Portland Oregonian. When I lived in LA, I read the LA Times every morning, and when I moved to the Bay Area, I switched to the San Francisco Chronicle—in both instances they were entrenched as dominant morning newspapers.
If a newspaper in Pittsburgh or Atlanta had better journalists, I didn’t even know about it. And even if I knew about it, I wasn’t going to switch newspapers. They didn’t deliver the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in my neighborhood. This made newspapers very complacent about managing talent.
But then everything changed, and it happened quickly.
With the rise of the Internet, all the newspapers were suddenly competing for the same online readers. But they never changed their hiring practices—in fact, they started paying journalists even less, and relying on freelancers even more. They still operated like they had some kind of monopoly on their territory.
This was a huge mistake, because they didn’t. So they never fully grasped how much journalism is a talent and expertise business. And more so now than ever before.
In this way, journalism is much like an advertising agency, which lives and dies by the skills of its creative team. Or it’s like a consulting business, and I saw firsthand in my own early career how the firms with the smartest people dominate that field—and for the simple reason that this is precisely why clients hire them. In fact, journalists nowadays aren’t much different from portfolio managers at mutual funds, who also need to be experts in what’s happening right now. If your business depends on expertise of this sort, you must pay for the high-priced talent that can deliver it.
Or, put differently, journalism in the current moment is starting to resemble a Hollywood studio, where hit movies rely on superstar talent.
At least, that’s how I see it.
My hypothesis is that journalism in the digital age increasingly resembles these other talent-driven businesses. The key assets go home at night, and are much more important than a printing press or physical distribution network.
I will win at this game because I will hire the 100 smartest people for my creative team. I might not even call them journalists, because (as you will see below) they will spend only 40% of their time writing articles.
That’s right: writing is less than half the job at my newspaper-of-the-future.
And that’s because having these 100 smart people is going to allow me to enter all sorts of other talent-driven businesses. My newspaper will be integrated into these other businesses.
So I’m planning to pay my talent as much as a Harvard professor makes—which is probably four times the salary of a typical career journalist—or even more, if I have to. I expect that these 100 people will cost me $25 million per year, more or less, but it will be money well spent, because they will pay for themselves.
WHO ARE THESE 100 PEOPLE?
My requirements are simple. But very demanding.
I want them to have four skills: (1) Thinking skills; (2) Writing skills; (3) Speaking skills, and (4) Deep expertise in their field—ideally they should be one of the top experts in the country.
That’s because each of these 100 people will have a special area of expertise related to some aspect of the news. But I’m not taking chances on wannabes. My food writer, for example, has to be one of the leading experts on culinary matters in the country. I can’t get Anthony Bourdain, because he is dead, but I want somebody who plausibly could be the next Anthony Bourdain, and I will pay what it takes to hire that person.
Here's one possible breakdown of the 100 people:
5 Economists or Finance Experts
5 Legal Experts or Criminologists
5 Political Scientists
5 Experts in Science and Medicine
10 Experts on Global Regions (Asia, Europe, Africa, etc.)
10 Arts and Entertainment Critics
10 Sports Writers
10 Opinion Leaders/Commentators
10 General Purpose Reporters
5 Skilled General Purpose Interviewers
5 Culinary & Food Writers
5 Fashion/Style/Lifestyle Experts
2 Statisticians or pollsters
1 person to handle the crossword puzzle and other games/diversions
10 Thinkers-in-Residence (rotating positions for outsiders, and the people holding these positions will change every year)
You can argue with the breakdown. But the basic idea is that every kind of news story will have a resident expert.
We need a tiny group of administrators (or senior editors, let’s call them) to supervise and manage these people—but this group will be as small as I can make it. Whenever possible, my superstars will manage themselves or each other. The model here is a university, where the head of the department is just one of the professors—a first among equals.
But there will be a large support staff. I will hire another 100-200 professionals to work with my 100 smart people. They will be researchers, analysts, videographers, copy writers, etc. Many of them will be interns on short-term stints. Others will be young people who want mentoring and guidance from our 100 key people. Some will be professionals with specialized skills (database research, for example).
These people will be paid well, but not extravagantly well—because they are going to have amazing job and mentoring experiences. Working in this environment will give them advantages for the rest of their career. People will kill just to get one of these ‘support’ jobs.
I also need other employees—for human resources, finance, selling advertising, etc.—but whenever possible I will outsource. I hate overhead. These functions will be kept as small as possible. The one exception is technology staff, because (as you will see) we need to have top-notch studios for podcasting, video production, etc. on our campus headquarters.
All this is expensive. I’m now spending $50 million per year just on people.
But the one thing I’m not spending money on is printing presses and paper. Because my newspaper-of-the-future doesn’t use paper. Everything is digital.
And because I don’t sell printed media, I don’t need any physical distribution capacities. All the warehouses and delivery trucks just disappear—along with their associated costs.
Now let me tell you what this amazing team does.
WHAT DO THE 100 SMART PEOPLE DO?
They write articles—but, as mentioned above, that’s only 40% of their time allocation. I have many other ways to monetize this talent.
At least 20% of their time is devoted to podcasting and videos. Now you understand why speaking skills were one of my four job requirements. Each of these 100 people will have a podcast and a YouTube video channel—and we aim to dominate those formats. Hey, with the high-powered talent we’re hiring, we should expect no less.
Each of these superstar 100 people has the potential to attract millions of YouTube subscribers. Some of our YouTube channels will have five or ten times the subscriber base as the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal.
This is very doable. There are more than 600 YouTube channels with more subscribers than the New York Times. We aim to place at least 5 or 10 of our channels in that elite group. And that’s why we are paying for top talent.
Not everybody in our elite 100 will reach our ambitious targets. So we will aggressively cross-promote the podcasts and channels. Our leading economist will, for example, be a guest on the Asia region expert’s podcast, or vice versa. So if one of our 100 smart people achieves Ted-Talk-ish or Joe-Rogan-ish numbers, we will use this to raise the profile of the other 99. Etc. etc.
Another 20% of the 100 smart people’s work week will be allocated to events—high-profile talks, courses (online and in-person), press conferences, appearances on TV shows, etc.
You will see their faces everywhere. It would be nice if they’re good-looking, but we’re not requiring that. If we have to choose, we always pick ability over window-dressing.
And we still have 20% of their time still available. So what do they do with it?
Hah—here’s the big money-maker.
They spend one day per week doing consulting and advising for private clients and our sponsors.
WHO ARE THESE SPONSORS?
Corporate sponsors who pay us $1 million per year get access to the 100 smartest people. Don’t laugh—they will pay it. And they will get their money’s worth.
Wouldn’t you pay to hang out with 100 super smart people with expertise covering every aspect of modern life? I would. And I’m sure the CEOs of the biggest banks, consumer product companies, tech platforms, etc. will do the same.
If we get 25 sponsors, we have already covered the cost of our smart people.
But we still have so many other ways of making money.
HOW DO WE MAKE MONEY? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS
For just $100 per year readers get access to the publications of all 100 of our smart people—and when we hit one or two million subscribers, this alone will make us profitable, even without the sponsors and all of other income sources below.
But we will also sell bundled subscriptions to individual writers or groups of writers—so you can get focused coverage of sports, music, food, politics, whatever.
We will also sell advertising for the articles—this, too, will be a meaningful source of income. But the beautiful thing about this model is that advertising will never be more than 5-10 percent of our revenues. Hence advertisers will never have influence over our editorial decisions. This alone gives us an edge versus traditional newspapers.
Of course, we will also make money from our 100 YouTube channels.
And our podcasts will provide an additional source of income.
If we want, we can also sell advertising on our videos and podcasts too, and get money beyond click fees.
Courses, conferences, and other events will bring in revenues, and the same material used for the podcasts and videos will often be repackaged into online and in-person courses. In fact, one of the key advantages of this integrated business plan is that so much of what we create will work across multiple platforms and business concepts.
Finally, there’s all those consulting fees for any spare hours not used up by corporate sponsors and the other tasks listed above. We will charge a lot by the hour—and will get away with it because (again) of our unique in-house expertise.
You now understand why we are paying people so much money. They will be very busy—but also pursuing extremely exciting careers that are much cooler than teaching at a university or working for a legacy newspaper.
You also know now why I said this newspaper-of-the-future won’t really look like a newspaper. Yes, we will publish thousands of articles every year, but this is really just a tiny part of a larger business—which aims to monetize our 100 smart people in manifold ways.
The end result will look like a newspaper combined with a think tank, broadcasting business, consulting firm, and education outfit. That’s only possible because of those 100 smart people.
COULD THIS REALLY WORK?
This obviously will work, because many people are making huge amounts of money doing all these things already. But nobody has put together the entire package and monetized the synergies.
There’s oodles of cash in podcasting and videos and consulting and paywalled information.
But the newspapers aren’t getting it, and never will because of how they manage their people. As a result, this money is currently going to sole proprietors—smart people working as individuals.
I’m simply identifying 100 people with that level of ability, and bringing them together. The results will be off-the-charts.
You’re last question is the same one that is always asked in these instances:
If this is such a smart idea, why isn’t anybody doing it already.
And the answer here is the same as it always is: It’s a smart idea precisely because nobody is doing it.
Some have commented that real news organizations don’t take money from corporate sponsors. Hah! I invite them to do a Google search for “NPR sponsors”—they will find several illuminating documents. For example, one list of NPR corporate sponsors (published by NPR itself) that’s downloadable online went on for nine pages.
Here’s a tiny snapshot.
Yes, you read it right—everybody from General Motors to Citibank to British Petroleum is on the list. The notion that the current journalism establishment doesn’t take corporate money is a pure fantasy.
A second issue in the comments is local news coverage. The plan presented here aims to create a national news organization comparable to CNN, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, etc. But it can easily encompass local offshoots, spinoffs, and partnerships.
Both the national organization and the local initiatives will benefit from the network effects. There are many models here. For example, CBS news has a national organization which enjoys synergistic relations with city broadcasters, some of which are “owned and operated” by CBS while others are “affiliates.” The key driver here is to have local offshoots of a healthy and thriving larger operation, not a moribund one.