The Man in the (Times) Mirror

Before the web was spun, word that the Chicago Tribune Co. would acquire Times Mirror, publishers of the L.A. Times, Newsday and other papers, would have been big, big news.

To many people in the newspaper business it’s still big news. It’s seen as a sign of “continuing consolidation,” alongside the AOL-Time merger, pointing toward a day when all major media are in just a few hands.

First, let’s get one thing straight. Mergers happen, even among the best of companies, but that doesn’t always mean monopoly is imminent, because new companies are always being born. In the media area, for instance, we now have Yahoo, Lycos, CNET and Excite; put them together and you have lots more market capital than found in this or any other “old media” combination of recent years.

Second, let’s look at what this merger is all about, which I think proves the previous point. The two firms are really interested in building a big online news company and think combining their assets will do that.

Jeff Scherb, president of Tribune Interactive, told Newsbytes that if you combine the visitor numbers of the two companies’ sites, you have something in the top 20 among news and information sites, “way ahead of things like The New York Times.”

This is indeed Internet thinking, but it’s flawed Internet thinking. A few months after Excite, then the number-five site, bought Blue Mountain Arts, often the number-nine site, its rank on the Media Metrix list was… fifth! Blue Mountain, which offers free greeting cards, is still holding its own Excite is continuing to fall.

The fact is that putting two sick companies together, or putting a sick company over a healthy one, won’t result in a big, healthy company.

If the new Tribune wants a few free clues, I can give them several (not that I expect them to listen):

  • Respect the Net Encourage not just feedback but crosstalk everywhere.
  • Respect the web You don’t know it all, so hyperlink so readers can verify your stories on their own.
  • Don’t look at the looted news assets as a free good. Account for your newsgathering costs on your Internet balance sheet.
  • It’s not about viewers, it’s about commerce, and service, and loyalty.
  • Your job is to advocate and organize your local markets, not dominate them and not talk down to them.

Finally, this merger is going to happen in real time, over several months. Combining the assets will take several more months. Well, bad news, boys. Internet time waits for no man. While y’all are busy re-arranging the deck chairs, your ships have hit an iceberg. Classified revenues are leaking out, department stores are still failing (and not being replaced), and your share of market in every ad category is declining.

Merging with another failing company won’t fix your underlying problem. Stop assuming you know everything, stop pretending you own “news monopolies,” get out in the market and compete.

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