Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times had a hole where its “Big Picture” column, written by Patrick Goldstein, usually was; a note on the front page of the paper’s Calendar section said that the reason was Goldstein being “on assignment,” but according to LA Observed, the column that was set to run yesterday was actually spiked. Why? For laying out a pretty rational strategy where the Times could bolster its circulation and street cred by engaging in “covermount” promotions similar to the one Prince did with the Daily Mail in the UK. Luckily, LA Observed snagged the column in full, so we can see just how crazy Goldstein’s suggestions are:
Newspapers, as you may have heard, are in deep doo-doo. While the Times still is a profitable business, our revenue was down 10% in the second quarter while our cash flow was down, as our publisher put it the other day, a “whopping 27%, making it one of the worst quarters ever experienced.” Times are so hard at the Times that the publisher has proposed putting ads on the front page to generate new revenue.
So far we’ve made little headway developing imaginative strategies to bring back lost readers — or compete for younger readers who get their information from the Internet. The record business has been just as slow to provide fans online with new, convenient ways to hear music — the only visionary idea, Steve Jobs’ iTunes store, came from outside the business. Unless you are a mainstream pop artist, it’s hard to see how the old-fashioned record company model benefits your career anymore. If you’re a respected older performer — known in industry parlance as a heritage artist — your biggest challenge is finding a way to get your music heard.
Hmm, sounds promising so far! And the stats cited contain nothing we haven’t heard before.
Here’s how it might work. The Times would start a free-music series, offering music (either on a CD or via downloads) from respected artists willing to think outside the box — meaning anyone from Elvis Costello, Beck and Ryan Addams to Ry Cooder, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. Instead of paying the artist a fat fee, we’d recruit advertising sponsors who’d be delighted to be associated with classy artists and the imprint of the Times.
If you haven’t noticed, music has a powerful mojo for advertisers. TV commercials have used pop songs to sell product for years. Lexus currently has a series of TV ads featuring Costello and John Legend seated in a Lexus, simply talking about their favorite music (Elvis sings the praises of Beethoven). But what they’re really selling is coolness by association. The same association could apply to us via a giveaway series. It would encourage readers to see the paper in a new light, as not just a news-gathering organization but a cultural engine. If we surrounded the music with news, reviews and features from our staff, it could also expose new visitors to our formidable music critics and reporters.
Could this really work? For a reality check, I called Jim Guerinot, an industry free-thinker who manages Nine Inch Nails, Gwen Stefani and Social Distortion. “Are you kidding — that’s a great idea,” he says. “There are tons of these Hall-of-Fame quality heritage artists who don’t sell records anymore. It would be a real coup for them to reach their target demo through the newspaper and have the cachet of being an artist of the week or month.”
Having the Times showcase new music would do more than attract advertising — it would help transform the image of the paper. “It could redefine the paper by making it a destination site for music fans,” says Guerinot. “On the net, the big challenge is always about providing a filter for people. It would make the Times, with its critical voice, into a gatekeeper. People are looking for someone to show them the way — why shouldn’t it be the L.A. Times?”
Okay, more good points! Nice to see, also, that Nine Inch Nails’ manager would be on board–after all, his client isn’t too big of a fan of the current system. (And he actually embraces the idea of a “critical voice”! Be still my heart.)
There’s more outlining of the plan–why it might attract advertising, or new readers–in the rest of the column, as well as some of the possible drawbacks: Retail balking, etc. Here’s the column’s closing paragraph:
Giving music away doesn’t mean it has lost its value, just that its value is no longer moored to the price of a CD. Like it or not, the CD is dying, as is the culture of newsprint. People want their music — and their news — in new ways. It’s time we embraced change instead of always worrying if some brash new idea — like giving away music — would tarnish our sober minded image. When businesses are faced with radical change, they are usually forced to ask — is it a threat or an opportunity? Guess which choice is the right annswer.
But for Tribune, the Times‘ parent company, the “right answer” may not be so obvious–after all, the editorial higher-ups are the same folks who unleashed the lobotomized Red Eye, a delightful paper in Chicago that brings together the archaicness of newsprint with the brain-deadedness of omg.yahoo.com. Why entice your readers in a new way when you can condescend to them with whittled-to-the-bone wire copy?