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The [Tuesday] Papers

By Steve Rhodes / Posted on May 24, 2016

"Billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, a biotechnology pioneer, wants to bring the print newspaper back to life," Bloomberg reports.

"On Monday, Tribune Publishing Co. said Soon-Shiong's Nant Capital had made a $70.5 million investment in the publisher, a move seen as an attempt to fend off a hostile takeover by Gannett Co. Soon-Shiong will become vice chairman of the board, and Nant Capital will have a 12.9 percent stake, making it Tribune's second-largest shareholder.

"In an interview, Soon-Shiong, a 63-year-old surgeon and chief executive officer of NantKwest Inc., a cancer-research firm, said he wants to use 'machine vision' technology he's developed to transform the experience of reading a print newspaper."

Uh-oh.

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I have always believed that print has a role in news - I've written and spoken many times about the possibilities of a weekly photo paper/magazine, for example. A wealth of possible new niche products uniquely suited to print and its advertisers. But mostly, I've argued that newsrooms should go about their (digital) business every day and every night a team of editors should scrounge through the content and piece together the next morning's print newspaper. That's exactly what it sounds like the New York Times is ready to do.

"I also want to underscore how enormous - and transformational - an undertaking it is to create a print hub, a desk designed to build the best print paper each night," Times editor Dean Baquet wrote in a memo to his staff last week.

"Assigning editors, in the very near future, will not worry about filling space. They will worry over coverage, and the best ways to tell stories. The print hub, a dedicated group of designers and editors, will then construct the print paper out of the great wealth of journalism."

Reporters, then, would be charged with producing digital journalism from the get-go. Links, for example, would be stripped out for the print version (and therefore made inferior to the "real", or digital, version.) That's not just digital-first thinking, it's thinking. The daily print product should be an afterthought to most reporters and editors producing the news and left, as it seems it will be at the Times, to another group of journalists who may find their own way to create magic with their new product.

The print newspaper should not in any way be at the forefront of the thinking of a news organization's $70 million man invited to serve as the board's vice-chairman and made the the company's second-largest shareholder to form a united front with a controlling shareholder who can't pick a strategic lane and stick with it, much less execute with any level of skill.

Reviving the newspaper? That's reminiscent to me of when General Mills executive Mark Willes took over the Los Angeles Times in 1995 and announced he would grow print circulation by 500,000 or even 1 million subscribers.

"In Willes, Times Mirror got a brainy, reserved, and self-assured leader who vowed to reinvent the business - a radical in a gray-flannel suit," Fortune noted in 2000.

"The son of a Salt Lake City banker, Willes earned a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia, taught at Wharton, and spent 11 years as a banker with the Federal Reserve. He then rose to become vice chairman of General Mills, the maker of Cheerios and Hamburger Helper. Journalists were less than wowed by that resume - one media critic at Harvard sneered that Willes' ideas came from 'putting yellow boxes on grocery shelves.'

"Willes seemed to confirm their worst fears when he shut down New York Newsday and the Baltimore Evening Sun and eliminated 700 jobs at the Los Angeles Times, including 150 in the newsroom. Headline writers dubbed him 'Cap'n Crunch' and the 'Cereal Killer.'

"Then he did something unexpected. He sold off Times Mirror's legal, educational, and medical publishing companies, art book publisher Harry N. Abrams, the National Journal, and stakes in the Speedvision and Outdoor Life cable networks. By shedding businesses in which, he said, the company couldn't lead, he made a big bet on - of all things - newspapers."

I know it sounds facile, but it's true: These guys are all the same.

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But there's something even more harrowingly reminiscent in the opening statements of Soon-Shiong, which no doubt reflect the thinking of Trib chairman Michael Ferro:

"In an interview, Soon-Shiong, a 63-year-old surgeon and chief executive officer of NantKwest Inc., a cancer-research firm, said he wants to use 'machine vision' technology he's developed to transform the experience of reading a print newspaper . . . For example, a reader could pan a camera across a physical newspaper and the photos could be turned into video. Focus the camera on a photo of basketball star Kevin Durant or Donald Trump and 'you'd hear him speaking or Kevin Durant would be dunking,' he said.

"'You'd be bringing to life whatever you see on the newspaper,' Soon-Shiong said. 'Every page, every picture, every commercial is merely a TV channel activated by the picture itself through machine vision recognition.'"

There's another technology that already does that, and it's quite popular: It's called the cell phone. You can hear players speak and watch their highlights right beside the article you are reading about them! Or I could buy a newspaper, spread it out and then use my phone to scan the newspaper for the same result. But what a pain on the train!

The reminiscent part? CueCat.

"CueCat was a handheld device that looked like an elongated computer mouse. It could read bar codes printed in newspapers and connect its users with an Internet site containing more information about stories or advertisements," Donald Shanor explained in News From Abroad.

CueCat became an industry laughingstock, as reflected in the tone of this Jim Romenesko item from 2003: "Man Who Got Belo To Invest Millions In CueCat Has A New Gig."

To wit:

"J. Jovan Philyaw, the Texas entrepreneur who convinced Belo to sink nearly $40 million into the failed CueCat scanning device, is calling himself J. Hutton Pulitzer these days, according to Eric Celeste. His new job is peddling crystals."

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Or:

"When was the last time you scanned a QR code?"

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Suggested name for new Tribune product: The Copy Cat.

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Back to Bloomberg:

"Soon-Shiong said he's known Tribune Chairman Michael Ferro for years. After Ferro became Tribune's top shareholder earlier this year, the publishing executive visited Soon-Shiong in Los Angeles and saw the company's technology first-hand, Soon-Shiong said.

"The entrepreneur said his technology has helped blind people recognize print money and encouraged children to brush their teeth via an app called the Disney Magic Timer.

"'We thought we could take this amazing technology and transition from what I'm doing in health care into the future of publishing,' he said."

So, a sticker every time someone reads a newspaper?

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"Soon-Shiong also is a co-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, a marquee professional sports team in Tribune's biggest media market. Soon-Shiong said he planned to speak with LA Times management about how the paper and team could work together."

Like I said, these guys are all the same.

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P.S.: "Theories aside, the immediate effect of Ferro and Soon-Shiong's deal is to screw the rest of Tribune Publishing's shareholders," Rick Edmonds writes for the Poynter Institute. "For the second time this year (Ferro's own $44 million investment was the first) the value of their stock has been diluted by issuance of more shares."

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P.P.S.:

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Chicagoetry: The Conversation
Two teenagers on the Blue Line.

$2 A Day In Chicago
Bill Clinton didn't reform welfare, he killed it.

NFL Tried To Fix Concussion Study
And stuck taxpayers with the cost.

Lobbyist Wrote Pro-Hillary Op-Ed
Super PAC edited it.

24 Hours With XFHS TV
Xfinity help and support.

The Weekend In Chicago Rock
Featuring: Tupper Ware Remix Party, The Obsessed, Rhys Chatham, The Great Ache, Walking On Cars, Moderat, Boston, and Matt Corby.

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Catching up with . . .

Last Week In Chicago Rock
Featuring: A Giant Dog, Lord Mantis, Hivelords, Tombs, Lykanthea, Fastness, The Looking, Bernhoft, Enter Shikari, Sixx:A.M., Miss May I, For Today, Memphis May Fire, Casey Abrams, The Used, Organsm, HENRYxCHINASKI, The Misfits, and Patti Smith.

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BeachBook

Gina Schock.

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Disappointingly, this article didn't mention the demo version included on the remastered 25th anniversary edition of Agents of Fortune. It's phenomenal. See also my Bin Dive of the record.

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TweetWood
A sampling.

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The Beachwood Tip Line: Copy your work.

Permalink


MUSIC - The Weekend In Chicago Rock.
TV - 24 Hours With XFHS.
POLITICS - Lobbyist Wrote Atlanta Mayor's Pro-Hillary Op-Ed.
SPORTS - NFL Tried To Fix Concussion Study.

BOOKS - $2 A Day In Chicago.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Chicagoetry: The Conversation.


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