Jon Fine Gets Grim on Media and Use of the Word “Content” 1

By Kyle Austin

Over the last couple weeks I’ve managed to distract BusinessWeek’s media columnist Jon Fine from the market tumult and presidential election (which he blames for everything these days) long enough to answer some questions for a Q&A. Here is a bit of our email exchange.

RaceTalk: I Caught your recent back and forth with the Grim Reaper (from Magazine Death Pool) on your blog, in which you discuss how the current market crisis could affect ad budgets and magazines. As you noted, his/her outlook on the market’s affect on ad budgets is far more “grim” than yours.

Jon Fine: In retrospect, Grim’s assessment was also wiser than mine.

RT: Which media outlets are best positioned to avoid being hit by ad budget cuts?

JF: In classic recessionary terms, the economic downturn hasn’t even happened yet. But that’s just academic. It’s universally expected. And 2008 was a lousy year for advertising even without it. Barring a miraculous recovery, the next several months are going to be a very ugly environment for virtually all ad-supported media. If I may crib from some analysts who follow this, just about every medium will have a down year for advertising in ’09, with the exception of online and cable TV, and even those will have see their prior growth rates significantly attenuated (And not all cable networks will stay in positive territory). If you’re Google, you’re probably OK. If you cater exclusively to the high-high end and you’ve been around a while, you’re probably OK. If you derive all of your advertising from simple food products—Campbell’s Soup, that sort of thing—you’re probably OK. Live sporting events will be OK. One potential sign the roof is absolutely caving in is if Super Bowl advertisers end up paying significantly less for ad time than they have in recent years. Cheerful stuff, huh?

RT: It seems that marketers turn their attention to online advertising when their budgets get crunched, because of the nearly real-time measurable ROI. Do you think digital outlets will fair better then print / digital combinations?

JF: Probably. If they’re not profitable yet and they’re burning cash, though, well, good luck trying to raise more funding.

RT: In your eyes is Google a media company?

JF: Depends on how you define it. Can you be a media company without actually producing some, uh, “content?”  (A word that should be killed, but there’s no easy analogue to it. “Programming”? “Stuff”?) Once the answer to the question was no. But then Google bought YouTube, and you’d have to see YouTube is a media property, even if Google doesn’t actually make anything that appears on that site besides the ads.

RT: What are your current thoughts on what Rupert has done with the Wall Street Journal in making it into the bizarro (conservative) New York Times?

JF: This is a shibboleth. I don’t see any particular conservative tilt showing up in its news pages. Bear in mind that the editorial page is historically far to the right of where Murdoch himself is these days.

RT: Will it pay off down the road?

JF: The risky move was buying a business that derives a great deal of revenue from a newspaper. The bet, of course, is that the Journal’s journalism has untapped value. I agree with this—but, of course, I kind of have to, as I’ve pretty much bet my career on there being some as yet untapped long-term value in the kind of topnotch content produced by the BusinessWeek’s of the world. Will it pay off down the road? I have no idea. I hope so, because a world with an impoverished Wall Street Journal is not one I’d like to live in.

On a slightly different topic: I’ve made this point before, but Murdoch buying Dow Jones was the best possible realistic outcome for the Journal. They’ve got an owner who plainly adores the property, who is willing to tolerate losses and less than stellar returns at his newspapers, and who has enormous resources. It is hard to see how a still-independent Dow Jones would not have gotten crushed by the kind of downturn we may be facing, and harder still to imagine them getting through said downturn without massive layoffs at the Journal and elsewhere. On the other hand, look at what’s happened to News Corp’s stock (NWS) since Rupert bought Dow Jones.

RT: How do you think the Journal’s Journal Community compares to BusinessWeek’s Business Exchange? (In your unbiased opinion)

JF: I am a huge fan of the Business Exchange. Hard to answer the back half of this question, since the Journal doesn’t really have any analogous community features.

RT: What channel did you tune into for the presidential debates, without Olbermann and Matthews on MSNBC anymore?

JF: CNN for all debates. The novelty of the focus group meter didn’t wear off on me this election cycle.

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