Might Thomson Reuters try to buy The New York Times?
As noted yesterday by my august colleague Philip Preville, the Globe and Mail has, in its infinite wisdom, eliminated one of the ways it annoys the readers of its print manifestation. They have officially ended the idiotic practice of charging for double-dipping—that is, charging for Web access to their premium material. The New York Times, a somewhat more essential read, has been free since September and the Wall Street Journal—from which the Globe still takes sloppy seconds in the business section—is moving more and more in that direction. The Globe’s archive is another matter; it remains behind a pay wall whereas the Times is mostly gratis. Still, for the Globe, it’s a start.
The background to these manoeuvrings is the so-called secular decline in newspapers across the board. And yet, for all the doom and gloom, there is still a ferocious journalistic competition (Times vs. Journal) and plenty at stake commercially (e.g., the recent three-way bidding war between the Dolans, Mort Zuckerman and Murdoch for Newsday, arguably New York’s fifth daily read).
In order to improve my understanding of this vast and untidy media battlefield, I sat down last week with Richard Siklos. The former Timesman, FP fixture and Conrad Black biographer has just settled on the left coast, where he acts as Fortune magazine’s man in Los Angeles. I was struck particularly by his take on the prospects of The New York Times’ battle with the Wall Street Journal. Regarding the much-rumoured possibility that the Sulzbergers, faced with mighty Murdoch, will go the way of the Bancrofts and cash in their trust-funded chips, Siklos mused on potential buyers of the Times. He pointed out that the field of absurdly rich people interested in buying high-quality publications isn’t exactly limitless. He bruited on the prospects of Google bazillionaires Sergey Brin and Larry Page having a go. Pointing to their so-called agnostic attitude toward content, Siklos said, “I doubt, given Google’s claim that they are the ubiquitous platform, that they would buy it corporately. Why would they identify their content that closely with nytimes.com?”
On the other hand, they could buy it as individuals, hold it as a “public trust” and reap the benefits of being associated with the Times without feeling any commercial pressure to set that relationship in stone. This would be not unlike the relationship between the Thomson family and the Globe; the former separates its 40 per cent holding in the latter from Thomson Reuters via the family holding company, Woodbridge. Local readers should be interested in knowing that the possibility exists of Thomson Reuters taking a run at the Times should the Sulzbergers decide to vacate the premises. From a corporate perspective it’s not a bad fit, but any takeover will depend on whether, in his heart of hearts, David Thomson truly wants it.