The Deal: Print Media Misses the Target

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Newspapers have been the target of so many potshots in recent years it hurts to see the best of them shoot themselves in the foot. Yet it has already happened now that All Things D, rather than cut a new deal with the newspaper that birthed it, The Wall Street Journal, has been cut loose not only from the Journal but from its News Corp. ( NWSA) parent. And with All Things D forced to find new and most likely better sponsorship, what's to keep The New York Times' Dealbook from seeking the same?

Both niche but high-profile websites began more than a decade ago as journalistic versions of brands within brands. Or, in the parlance of Madison Avenue, they began as ingredient brands of the sort "Intel Inside" popularized. Only these one-time ingredients of America's premier newspapers have since earned such authority, identity and prosperity that neither remains beholden to its benefactor.

Even before given the boot by the Journal on Thursday, All Things D had taken to flaunting a sense of free agentry by retaining boutique bank Code Advisors. The bank's brief, according to Fortune, was "to find outside investors at an enterprise value that could exceed the $25 million that AOL Inc. reportedly paid in 2010 for rival site TechCrunch."

News Corp., for its part, continued to deny the wholly owned site it acquired through its 2007 acquisition of Dow Jones was even for sale. This speaks to how confident or arrogant (or both) the creators and leaders of "All Things D" -- Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher -- had become. And it confers similar status, if only by extension, on Dealbook creator Andrew Ross Sorkin, whose ingredient brand in the Times preceded All Things D by a couple of years.

But don't hold these journalists accountable for attempting to better their lots. They've simply been reaching for the brass ring -- or at least contemplating as much -- because, well, they can. Of import here is the role played by the Journal and the Times as enablers.

Harken back to last month, when Amazon.com ( AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million. The sale that took the media completely by surprise nonetheless produced a torrent of media coverage, little of which was memorable. A rare insight that did stick appeared, not surprisingly, in the Times.

The insight's author, op-ed columnist Ross Douthat, began by acknowledging the Internet-era advantage afforded newspapers "that could brand themselves nationally and define themselves by their audience as much as their city." Douthat then posited that this advantage once gave the newspaper sold to Bezos a shot at being a profitable daily in perpetuity:

"It would have been entirely natural for the Post to become, in the new-media dispensation, the paper of record for political coverage -- the only must-read for people who run the country, who want to run it, who think they run it, etc. Instead, it's possible to date the moment when that opportunity slipped away: it happened in 2006, when John Harris and Jim VandeHei left the Post to found Politico."

The Post let Politico take over the political discussion, in other words, the consequences of which could be irreversible. Or, as Douthat concluded, "For the Post to thrive again, Politico must lose."

Having already committed even more resources to the Silicon Valley beat, the Journal knows better than to argue the digital economy meticulously addressed by All Things D isn't as essential to its profitability as politics is to the Post. The Times, meanwhile, may never have to resort to the defense that the world it covers is far vaster than the focus of Dealbook on Wall Street. If it does, though, it'll be at its peril.

A much better approach, at least while refining their extra-local identities, would be for both newspapers to walk the walk and not just talk the kind of talk that Times president and CEO Mark Thompson has so clearly mastered. As he put it this month while delivering Oxford University's Reuters Memorial lecture, his first major speech since joining the Times late last year:

"We want to concentrate all of our efforts on leveraging the talent of that newsroom and the reputational power of The New York Times to build a successful and sustainable business based on a single core brand and one integrated journalistic operation on all platforms and in all territories."

The latter part of this mission statement -- a single core brand and one integrated journalistic operation on all platforms -- suggests the Times, like the Journal, still has work to do. But at least Thompson knows the Times' place in the world, which is more than a Left Coast counterpart that shares the newspaper's name can say.

Indeed, in its coverage of a Hollywood trade's demise as a print product earlier this year, The Los Angeles Times opened with a quote from television mogul Les Moonves: " 'The first thing I do after getting out of the shower is pick up Daily Variety and have a cup of coffee,' the CBS ( CBS) chief executive said. 'It's a 30-year habit.'/" But that habit is ending, the article continued, at the behest of Variety's new owner -- described as "the 34-year-old son of auto parts billionaire Roger Penske, who acquired the publication last October for $25 million."

From this distance, at least, one can't help wondering if the L.A. Times didn't miss a singular chance to secure its own future. It seems all it had to do was cough up $26 million or so to continue providing the trade news so vital to Moonves and his thousands of wannabes when they got out of the shower. It also seems the newspaper could have simultaneously exploited and expanded on this base to create and curate a mainstream showbiz feed for the local, national and even global audience that, by virtue of location and orientation, is its birthright to serve.

Yet rather than shoot itself in the foot, the West Coast's largest daily chose, sadly in this instance, not to shoot at all.

-- Written by Richard Morgan in New York