Saturday, February 27, 2010


I was sorting through some of my father’s belonging recently and came across the 1941 souvenir edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Jan 8, 1941), “The March of Hawaii.” Its lead story was the reorganization and strengthening of the Pacific Fleet and the appointment of Admiral H.E. Kimmel to head it.

My father acquired the paper while stationed in Hawaii with the Army Air Corps. Eleven months later the U.S. was at war, with Kimmel taking heat for having the bulk of his capital ships anchored in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack.

I was reminded of the find this week while reading the news that Gannett has agreed to sell the Honolulu Advertiser to the Star-Bulletin. The two have a 130-year history of competition, somewhat muffled until they escaped their relatively difficult marriage in a joint operating agreement between 1960s and the millennium. Now the smaller paper is buying the bigger paper, if it can comply with or skirt antitrust provisions.

We are now in the last throes of consolidation of the newspaper industry, brought on by audiences shifting to television, cable channels, and the Internet for news and information, and advertisers following audiences. The consequence is the newspapering has become a monopoly business in more than 1360 cities and towns and big city papers—even when they are monopolies—are having difficulties competing for advertising dollars. Only two percent of cities have competing dailies.

This change calls into the question the traditional view that a competing press is the foundation of democracy. If competition among perspectives on news and information is necessary for democratic functions, we have to think of it beyond the printed press and begin recognizing the important functions provided by other providers of news, information, and commentary.

Rather than constantly challenging their abilities to carry out functions in the same way as the press once did, we need to find ways to support and improve their activities—whether they be broadcast or Internet based. And we need to find ways to ensure that the papers remaining in place reevaluate their democratic functions and find ways to provide service to the spectrum of observations and ideas that has been diminished by the newspapers monopolies that now dominate our land.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


The struggle to control prices of digital content sold online continues, with producers and distributors battling over prices for downloads of books and music.

In the latest skirmish, Amazon removed Macmillan books from its website after the company protested that online retail was using monopoly power to force publishers to accept prices no higher than $9.99. Macmillan and other publishers have now signed distribution deals with Apple that allows them to price downloads at $12.99 and $14.99.

Producers, of course, want higher prices because they produce higher revenue and better profits.

The struggle to control prices is not unique to the online environment. In the offline world, producers of books, magazines, CDs, and DVDs have long struggled to gain limited shelf space because there is a large oversupply of products and retailers’ have selection preferences for popular, rapidly selling products.

Large national and retailers have also used their bargaining power to push wholesale and manufacturer suggested retail prices downwards. Wal-Mart, now the number one music retailer in the World, uses its purchasing and sales power to sell large quantities of music at the lowest price possible—the basic price/quantity model for all the products it carries.

What is new in the offline world is that the conflict does not merely involve struggles over the price and quantity strategies of retailers, but that the retailers are using the media content as a joint product with their proprietary digital hardware.

Amazon wants content prices low not merely to sell more books, but because it helps it sell Kindle, its e-book reader. To date, it has been able to do so because it was the leading seller of both products—something it learned from Apple’s strategy with i-Tunes and i-Pod.

Competition in distributing content, even just a little competition, helps shift some of the power away from the retailer and back to the producer. Apple was forced to back away from its enforced price of 89 cents for a download when recording companies made deals with other download providers and threatened to end the rights for Apple to see their popular music. Apple is now playing spoiler to Amazon in the book downloads and Amazon has agreed to carry Macmillan books again.

Newspaper publishers are now seriously testing and considering a variety of e-readers as ways to reduce production and distribution costs. As part of their strategies, however, they would do well to learn from the experience of the music and book business. They need to remember that a basic rule of business is that if you don’t control price, you don’t control your business.