On Friday Bloomberg reported that the venerable New York Times Company now seeks a tech-savvy CEO to help turn things around after six years of rapidly declining revenues. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt was named as a NYT board 'aspirational pick', alongside Akamai CEO Paul Sagan, Gordon Crovitz and Mark Thompson, the outgoing director general of the BBC.
An interesting debate sprung up on Quora on the question of what exactly will this new CEO will have to do. Consider these two very different responses.
In one corner, J.C. Hewitt:
Three steps to turning around The New York Times:
1. The new CEO needs to murder the company's chief source of revenue – print advertising – and replace it with improved digital ads. Halt the presses and fire everyone who works on putting ink to paper.
2. The company needs to crush its union. No modern tech company is unionized. Unions are far too inflexible to allow for the rapid change that's necessary for a company to stay technologically current.
3. The company needs to cut the Sulzberger family off, so that they will need to sell their horses to glue manufacturers to stay in their estates. Buy them out. If it's going to be a serious company, it can't be a piggy bank for feckless heirs and heiresses. Fire anyone on staff with 'Sulzberger' in their name, even if they're not related to the real Sulzbergers, just to make sure.
After those three (hard) steps, the NYT could be a fierce competitor. I don't think any of these ideas are particularly controversial. A 'tech-savvy CEO' with integrity wouldn't take the job unless he could do steps 1-3 at a minimum.
Taking the company private might be a necessity to execute step 1, but it's possible that public investors could be brought on board.
#2 is probably the most important one. If tech were unionized, Local COBOL Workers #182 wold be striking in Mountain View right now. Instead, we have an orderly labor market with people retraining and/or retiring as technology changes.
That sounds an awful lot like Marc Andressen's response to the question awhile ago.
In the other corner, though, is Stephanie Vardavas:
The New York Times Company is not just a company.
It is a sacred trust. It is The New York Times. It is also The Boston Globe and some other interests.
There is no name in American journalism as valuable and well respected as The New York Times.
Those union members J.C. Hewitt is talking about produce the content that creates the value.
The Sulzberger family have done their best to protect the editorial content from commercial pressures for well over 100 years.
The New York Times Company can, should, and must look for additional ways to monetize the content and other value inherent in the property. But to try and turn it into a "modern tech company" will destroy it.
The new CEO should look for more media partnerships to help lay off some of the cost of the very expensive business of running a first class newspaper. I wish they would offer to reverse the high-handed way they kicked The Washington Post out of its 50% ownership of the International Herald Tribune. (I wonder if Don Graham would want it back.) The new CEO should be open to identifying new ways to help advertisers reach the very desirable faithful readers of the paper. But to focus strictly on the economics will destroy the real value, and then the economics will follow.
Which approach do you think is smarter?