Don’t let Zell fool you: The Trib isn’t opposed to giving it away for free

Sam Zell’s recent interview with Bloomberg News is getting a lot of attention because he’s calling his purchase of TribCo “a mistake.” But it was this quote that stuck with me:

“I think we’re looking at every option at the Tribune Co.,” he said. “It’s very obvious that the newspaper model in its current form is not working. And the sooner we all acknowledge that the better. Whether it be home delivery, whether it be giving away content for free, I mean these are critical issues.”

This isn’t the first time Zell has complained about “giving away content for free.” In 2007, he said:

“If all the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content for nothing, what would Google do? We have a situation today where effectively the content is being paid for by the newspapers and stolen by Google…That can last for a short time, but it can’t last forever.”

The Beachwood Reporter columnist Sam Singer takes Zell to task from a legal perspective over the folly of trying to fight Google on this and says:

“Their best bet, I believe, is to embrace aggregation, to invest in optimization strategies that will ensure their content a more prominent place among the search results.”

The thing is, the Trib is already doing this. In fact, it did this on Bloomberg’s Zell story, effectively taking advantage of the strategy just as its Chairman and CEO railed against it.

Right now, the Trib article is the first result in Google News if you search for “Sam Zell.”:

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This isn’t an accident. It’s because the Trib has a well-executed SEO strategy (just ask this guy, he’ll tell you), and it uses services like Google News (the kinds of services Zell is referring to when he talks about giving away content for free) to build revenue. More traffic to the Trib makes its website more attractive to advertisers. And speaking of ads:

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That’s the Trib article in question; I’ve sloppily highlighted a few areas on the page. Those are ads the Trib is selling against content that’s comprised mainly of an interview by another news organization. And they did this – hang on, this is shocking – to make money. Against content that’s “given away for free.”

In a previous column on Beachwood Reporter, Steve Rhodes had this to say:

As I’ve written before, newspapers sell ads against content created by others all the time, be it Oprah, the Cubs or American Idol. Not only is it mutually beneficial, but it’s the responsibility of a news organization insofar as cultural criticism – including that of the media – is warranted.

He’s right, of course. Newspapers have been making money this way since they began, and now many of them have figured out how to do it online. None of this is sneaky or underhanded. It’s industry standard at this point. And it’s how media companies monetize their content. The Zell story is one of many on the Trib site alone (every time you read the headlines on their movie reviews, you see their keyword strategy at work to hilarious effect), not to mention many many other sites.

So when Sam Zell says “giving content away for free” isn’t working, he only means they’re not making enough money on it yet. Not that they’re not making any.

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