The ultimate “circle the wagons”

Tom Mohr, former president of Knight Ridder Digital, offers an interesting bit of strategy advice to newspapers in “Winning Online” — A Manifesto, published Monday in EDITOR&PUBLISHER. This is a smart fellow, and the nut of his manifesto is that newspapers need to band together to have any hope of winning against the Yahoo!s and Googles of the world. Here are his seven points:

– 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.

While it’s an interesting read, it’s not really good strategy, in my opinion, because it assumes that market economics in a 2.0 world are the same as they are in a 1.0 world. Aggregating large numbers of people together is what’s called mass marketing, and it’s naïve to force this on the internet, where the audience itself is in charge.

It’s all about the niche, folks. As Jeff Jarvis says, “Small is the new big.”

Moreover, and this is most important, this strategy is already being practiced in the television station arena with companies like WorldNow and IBS. Nobody argues with the network clout that these companies bring to the advertising table or how their use of verticals makes money, but the model centralizes control, and what that produces is neither lightweight nor flexible — two absolutely essential attributes necessary to compete online in a 2.0 world. And the money these networked portals bring in is nickels and dimes compared to what the local contributors need to offset loses in the 1.0 world.

I think, too, that the internet pure plays would actually smile if the newspaper industry adopted such a strategy, for it would send them off in a direction that would divert attention from the real issues of aggregated content, user customization and the personal media revolution. I believe what all local media companies need is a dual-path strategy, where 1.0 is maximized while 2.0 projects are being launched.

Mohr’s ideas, while compelling, are really just the ultimate in circling the wagons.

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