It happens to us all. You wake up in the middle of the night and
suddenly freak out as you remember that you forgot to set the alarm,
e-mail your copy in or build a new-media division for your newspaper
Poor Conrad Black. He comes across as a man fevered with the sudden
realisation that he is in the wrong game. Maybe it is true, as other
commentators have suggested, that he was so consumed with The
Telegraph’s punishing newspaper price war against Rupert Murdoch’s Times
that he took his eye off the puck (trying to be Canadian about this) and
let the future of his newspaper empire slip his mind.
It’s a shame because, in the UK at least, Black’s Hollinger
International, through its Telegraph Group subsidiary, was early to
market with the Electronic Telegraph. The website showed promise but
strategically there was no growth.
The Electronic Telegraph went so far and then stopped like it had run
out of gas. The group produced no other online developments until its
more recent joint venture projects such as handbag.com.
Within the past couple of months the fuse has been relit and departures
and appointments have come swift and fast. Danny Meadows-Klue, the
long-time head of the Electronic Telegraph, was out and Kim Fletcher,
the former Independent on Sunday editor, was in.
With the changes in personnel there was talk of multi-million pound
investments and the introduction of new e-commerce-focused channels.
These were to draw on the traditional strengths of the Telegraph brand
(travel, motoring, property and jobs). All good stuff and, though late
in the day, not as late as some people might suppose.
The Hollinger experience looks similar to that of many other newspaper
companies around the world. Newspapers, in their efforts to develop
online, are both blessed and damned by the mantra that content is king.
What to do with all that content?
Some have attempted to translate it into endless content-based sites
that remain under-used and, worse still, seem to lack any commercial
raison d’etre. They do not seem to have asked the question: which of my
sites would a venture capitalist fund?
This does seem to be changing though. The Telegraph now has its list of
to-be-launched e-commerce sites, while News International has come up
with its entertainment auction site, firedup.com.
The issue, however, is not just about whether to build alliances with
television, cable, telephone and other businesses, just as it is not
about whether newspapers will be killed off (as if). It is about making
some economic and commercial sense out of content with the aim of
building balanced businesses. If this issue is not grasped, newspaper
publishers will find themselves sidelined by the more even marriage of
content and e-business being offered by hungry start-ups.