opening banquet: thoughtful advice and a lead for acquisitions

David Simon, MacArthur Fellow; author and producer, "The Wire" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" was our opening banquet speaker—a brilliant idea from Johns Hopkins University Press!

It was hard to know what to expect; harder still to parse (before breakfast) the wisdom and talent evident in what he said and didn’t say to us. I'll just say quickly what we were given.

Publishing advice; cogent analysis of two other communications industries responding to new models and new technologies (the missteps, impacts, and fallouts for each) with an insightful acquisitions lead born of those analyses and bespoken to our situation—in under 30 minutes. 

The unifying theme, “copyright has to be fought for;” i.e., developing worthy intellectual property requires an investment, and maintaining a program of publishing such property (regardless of media) calls for viable commitment (sustainability).

Longtime star reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Simon gave us a privileged view into the precipitous demise of investigative, print journalism in the US in the late nineties for the perspective of a deeply invested participant. Simon’s candor and frustration was palpable as he explained that although the Internet changed newspapers’ competitive landscape, what prevented them from competing on the new format had happened in the years prior—and was perhaps embedded in the value system that lead to actions taken.

Paraphrasing substantially: corporate conglomerates had bought up most all major newspapers in the US, and in an attempt to maximize profits, they cut standing bureaus and reporting staff—brutally. Simon was among the buyouts ordered by Wall Street-minded consultants. Per his analysis, newspapers didn’t keep their commitment to quality IP development and as a result failed to maintain what had made them viably unique and had afforded them a sustainable competitive advantage. They didn’t protect copyright [enough].

Fast forward only a few years sans competitive distinctiveness to when the Internet came along, with its blossom of day-trading pundits and unqualified/un-vetted/over-caffeinated bloggers (e.g., me), and they found that they lacked the confidence in their content to charge money for it online—to hold it successfully apart from free offerings—which in turn hamstrung their ability to “staff up” or otherwise invest to address the problem.

Strategy is about trade offs, and they traded away baby and the bathwater, keeping only the shiny plastic tub to plaster advertising on.

Simon then dovetailed this study with a broad-strokes overview of the rise of pay TV—tracking a successful evolution of b-models, complete with beneficial social and artistic fallout, taking new delivery systems as read.

Paraphrasing again, with ugly language added (mine) to underscore inferences taken: TV content on a free-view model; once you adopt the platform, you can have all the content in the system; broadcasters made their money on advertising alongside the content. With the advent of pay TV, revenue shifted from advertising to subscription, and this changed everything.

When advertisers held sway, eyeballs were all that mattered; hence, pressure from all side to develop content that offended no one, regardless of whether is was deeply meaningful, relevant, or attractive to none. Under the subscription model, content developers shifted to the latter emphasis, holding that deeply interested niche markets would be encouraged to “pull the trigger” to subscribe, so long as some content mattered to them deeply.

The bell curve inverted; minority reports were distributed and read; and strange and wonderful programming, that had been impossible to imagine under the old eye-balls paradigm, ensued (e.g., Simon’s work). 

Across both industries, Simon noted that a suite of decisions had unexpected consequences, one set unfavorable with negative cultural impact; the other, downright bountiful with culturally enriching results. However, with a deft nod to caution via juxtaposition, we were allowed to consider that each industry had made investment decisions based one what it felt would drive revenue, given a chosen/perceived business model.

Simon’s acquisitions lead, born of his early analysis, was to note that a need existed in the vacuum created by the demise of viable investigative print journalism; one that perhaps university presses were uniquely suited to fill?

With our access to peer review, our publishing strength, and our credibility, might we be able to offer journalists a new platform in which to work; namely, and in step with our regional commitment, could we find area journalists who are committed to digging deep and writing important, investigative work, vet it with our access to sociologists, economists, and anthropologists, and bring it forth to social benefit and, possibly, to our greater fiscal advantage.

He closed by noted that we were in a tough spot overall and that choices on either side could lead to negative outcomes. Quoting a Woody Allen, which I will need to look up and correct: ‘You can choose between a quick, excruciatingly painful death or a long, drawn-out, agonizing crawl to grave.’ 

Takeaway: Fortune rarely favors the risk-averse.