Everybody knows that newspapering is a business in desperate straits right now. So why is that financial opinion columns seem to be proliferating? Historically, there was just one, in the FT: Lex. As of next week, Lex alumni will be providing very similar content in both the Wall Street Journal, with its Heard on the Street page, and the New York Times, which is picking up Breakingviews.
Breakingviews can’t have its habitual Lex-like back-page presence in the NYT, because the NYT’s business section often doesn’t have a back page. (They’re consolidating sections with abandon these days.) So instead it will appear in the upper left hand corner of the second page of the Business Day section, every weekday.
That’s frankly the first thing which puzzles me: although the NYT has a seamless seven-day operation, the Breakingviews deal is only five days a week.
On the other hand, Breakingviews is becoming ever so slightly webbier with this deal. The NYT’s Dealbook blog will link to breakingviews.com, which in turn will see an uptick in the amount of analysis it publishes for free.
There’s nothing revolutionary here: Breakingviews is still being run very much on a subscription model — at an extremely high price which isn’t even disclosed on the website — and it makes very little money from its newspaper deals, which act more as free advertising for the rest of its content. As a result, Breakingviews is very reluctant — too reluctant, frankly — to give away too much of the shop. But it will have more free stuff on its website, which is good, and I’m told that it might even have the occasional external hyperlink, too!
From the perspective of Breakingviews, this deal is great: it gets into the most prestigious newspaper in America, as well as getting global distribution in the International Herald Tribune.
But what’s in it for the New York Times? Are they incapable of coming up with this kind of analysis themselves? In the press release announcing the deal, NYT business editor Larry Ingrassia said that the column "is a perfect complement to both our leading news coverage of finance and business and our roster of award-winning columnists". He’s right — the columns appear weekly, which makes it hard for the columnists to be particularly timely, and they tend to cover one subject in reported depth, which leaves a lot of other news uncovered from an opinionated-analysis perspective.
One of the reasons why I like the new-look Heard on the Street in the WSJ is that it takes this idea even further: while Lex and Breakingviews have pretty rigid guidelines about what and how they publish, with most articles coming in at around 350 words, Heard is happier to mix things up with much longer and much shorter pieces on a daily basis. If there’s lots of things going on, Heard can cover lots of things, while Lex and Breakingviews have to do more picking and choosing about which ones they’re going to concentrate on.
In any event, Breakingviews should help the NYT attract the kind of readers who don’t just want to know what’s going on but also what to make of it all, in relatively easy-to-digest bite-size chunks. The NYT’s Diane McNulty tells me that the nytimes.com website got a record 9 million visits on Tuesday, thanks to all the financial turmoil: clearly there’s huge amounts of appetite for finance-related content, especially when things are moving as fast as they are right now.
"Everyone’s going in the direction of high value added content," says Rob Cox of Breakingviews. "That’s opinion and analysis." Of course I’m liable to agree: as a financial blogger, that’s pretty much exactly what I do. But the fact is that this is still very much a newspaper deal first and foremost, with a bit of webbishness layered on top. The columns will appear daily, on a 24-hour news cycle, and once they appear they’ll just sit on the website without being updated as and when news breaks. Inevitably, they’ll often be overtaken by events.
And there are risks for the New York Times, too: people are going to consider this to be NYT content, and Breakingviews opinions are going to start appearing under the rubric "the New York Times says". Breakingviews as an organization tends to be significantly more market-friendly than the NYT, which means that with this deal, the NYT business section is tilting further towards the laissez-faire side of the spectrum.
There’s probably no harm in that, but maybe it helps explain why the Breakingviews column won’t appear on Sundays. With Gretchen Morgenson and Ben Stein holding down the fort in the biggest business section of the week, it will be hard to accuse the NYT of having too much in the way of free-market tendencies.