ViewPass, the Video Game Version, and the Parking Lot Plan

Yesterday at Newsosaur, the venerable Alan Mutter outed himself for having actual commercial bones in his body.  FOR SHAME!!!  Just kidding.

As it turns out,  alongside  Steve Brill and Merrill Brown hawking their Journalism Online project, Alan was pitching a solution called “ViewPass” at the O’Hare Hilton newspaper equivalent of the meeting of the Five Families (I bet the wine was a whole lot better at the original).

Mutter explains ViewPass here.  I like it better than JO probably because I don’t think I fully understand it (the promiscuous curse of the venture capitalist).  But I still don’t think it will work, mainly because of the reasons raised in the extensive comments his post attracts.   And perhaps really, because it strikes me as the “video game version” rather than the full-contact affair.  VP brings together some concepts that sound good (targeting, cooperation, a strong consumer-facing brand) but are really, really tough to pull off.

Whereas JO wants to charge more (or something) for content, ViewPass wants to charge advertisers more for more targeted eyeballs.  But there are enormous hurdles to this.  For starters, zillions and zillions of venture dollars have gone into every manner of click tracking and behavioral/contextual/olfactory personalization scheme you can imagine (except for precisely this one) dating back to about 1996.   Results?  Not much.

Second, it’s not at all clear what the opt-in proposition is for the consumer. More targeted ads?  It’s already well characterized that the consumer won’t waste a single click to help marketers target him more effectively.  It’s just not even debatable. Or is it that VP member sites won’t let me on unless I opt in? Don’t these guys remember how requiring registration killed traffic to their sites?  How will VP build the brand–and how much will it cost–that makes me trust it enough to for publishers to make that sort of all or nothing bet?  And good gravy:  how long would it take?

Third and most damningly, VP would seem to require even more cooperation among flailing newspapers than would JO.  Mercy, folks.  You are drowning. Do you really think that clinging to one another will get you to shore?  

To mix metaphors, JO and VP both bring to mind an old New Yorker cartoon.  A poor sap is crawling across the desert, obviously down to his last gasp.  Suddenly, a well dressed group appears, sitting at a conference table.  “Just what I need, he croaks.  A panel of experts!!”

What if instead, each of the papers put all of their employees in the parking lot, and then started letting them back in one by one based on their importance to the value of the the enterprise in 5 years?   The Parking Lot Plan.  It’s been around as long as corporate restarts have been an unpleasant necessity of capitalism.

It strikes me that the choice faced by newspaper execs is not unlike the one that guys like me face all the time when we’ve invested in a company that hasn’t quite worked.  (And yes, it happens a lot more than the typical vc will admit).  Although mistakes have been made, scads of good work has been done by marvelously talented people, but dogs don’t like our food and we’re almost broke.  To give the investors confidence to let the company fight to another day, somebody invariably suggests that we form a partnership with company x, merge with company y, and recruit a new sales exec from company z.  

That, friends, is the video game version.  

The VGV ignores messy things like egos, conflicting agendas, differing strategies and capabilities.  It allows an intensely warped but short-lived sense of temporal thinking, such that everyone is convinced that the turnaround will take  x days precisely until they walk to their cars, when they realize it’ll be more like 5x.  The Video Game Version never, ever, ever works.  And yet hundreds of new Video Game Versions will be launched in corporate board rooms large and small by close of business on Monday.  Hundreds of millions of shareholder dollars go poof every year due to the dreaded VGV.

I’m probably stretching the various analogies.  But it strikes me that both Journalism Online and View Pass have waaay too many video game characteristics.  Given the choice, I’ll bet on the parking lot plan every time.

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