Oh, dear. Why, O why, when business models fail, do bankers and businessmen fall victim to the idea that if we did things bigger, cheaper, or louder then the old magic would return? These thoughts came to mind while attending Marco Rodzynek’s wonderful NOAH investment show this week: inside the hall we were all pondering how to invest in innovation, while our newscreens were full of images of David Montgomery, looking as inscrutably Calvinist as ever, getting ready to cut jobs and take the hard decisions necessary to keep the newspaper industry alive. Local World, the Montgomery vehicle, is prepared to absorb Northcliffe and the tiny Iliffe – as long as Lord Rothermere and Lord Iliffe leave some money on the table – and just about everyone else in British regional papers. The idea is that if one builds Size, and removes any local overlaps, and removes the distraction of too many advertising opportunities, and concentrate production in a handful of regional centres, and raise prices, then the regional press will once again become an attractive possibility for UK investors. Trinity Mirror are reported as havering, Johnston Press have said “no” (Ashley Highfield, its CEO, remains my best bet for “Inventor of Whatever It Is Which Replaces Local Newspapers” – remember you read it here first!). And I have to add that the last Montgomery vehicle, Mecom, did valiantly with this idea in Northern Europe before it too succumbed to circulation falls, advertising downturns, and the sad, underlying truth that not enough people of the right age like local newspapers anymore. A German victim of this process once claimed to me that Monty did  more damage to the German newspaper industry than the eponymous Field Marshal did to the German economy, but for a brief while it looked all right. Then it looked all wrong and hit the buffers.

So Local World has form. But does it have a chance? My own view, after the Fish4 experiment of the 1990s, is that the UK regional press has lost touch with “local” – and rather than rationalization, it needs to rediscover the proximity, recency and inter-activity which will characterize the services that they next offer. Just “going digital” doesn’t cut it. You can “migrate” into a cul de sac on the web – as Johnston Press have demonstrated. You can “transition” into pure opacity, as Trinity Mirror have shown. If your future is on the screen of a smartphone then even laying claim to being a newspaper may be pointless. But these businesses need to do something while they still have profits (aka re-invention time) to shelter them into the next phase. The £1 bn plus price for Northcliffe that DMGT’s board refused just six years ago now equates to a £200 m stake in Monty’s Local World. Surely that is a sign of the sands of time running out quicker towards the end of the game?

Now if Mr Montgomery had taken time out from all of this exciting dealmaking he could have encountered the future at NOAH. Not the future as described by people like Rupert Murdoch, whose online newspaper, The Daily, appears to be losing touch with its targets. The Independent last month reported it as having 120,000 unique users, while it needs, after 9 months, some 650,000 subscribers at $39.9 to break even. Smaller than the Ohio paper, the Toledo Blade, sneered the Indie, from the advantageous position of being smaller than both. They should all have sat still and listened to Jens Mueffelmann, Head of Digital at Axel Springer Verlag. Here the game is partnership and investment – not picking winners, but getting some skin in lots of activities which, as they iterate, will give direction and confidence to building futures. Can you do this as a sideshow? No, they have invested over 1 billion euro in 140 companies. Do they own everything? By no means. They always leave the management with a stake, and now partner with General Atlantic, who have 30% of the business for 237 m euro. This in turn enlarges the investment pot and brings more skills to bear on further acquisition. Axel Springer Digital Classifieds now dominate classifieds in Europe as the largest European player with 80 million uniques per month. With revenues forecast at 982 m euro, and EBITDA now edging up towards 30% something really interesting is happening here, and happening at real scale. But throughout the session the keywords were “experimentation” and “collaboration” – we are not the “colonial masters” in this new empire, said the speaker – we are a digital shareholder learning as we go.

And yet, of course, parts of Axel Springer, owner of Bild and Die Welt, really are traditional media. But they are run by businessmen prepared to stand back, listen, and catch at the drift of history. Later in the day I listened to a panel talking about television, and once more found myself  astonished by the confidence that existing players have in brands and positioning – and the enduring power of channel and broadcast and intrusive advertising. All that the television world lacks is really good metadata in order to enable a programme guide which would allow you to follow the television that you like, and arrange it into time patterns that suit you. Once that tagging can be ascribed automatically, we shall be able to test whether most people really do want to see the event when it is broadcast – or cheaper and later and ad-free. This panel was superbly complacent about piracy, and had no thought that their industry was overpricing, over-bundling, and too inflexible to change. In fact, just like the newspaper industry of the 1990s. Or the music industry. In the next three years these forerunners will seem mild exemplars compared to what happens when television unravels in the networks. Then Mr Murdoch really won’t know which section of his empire is the Good bank and which is the Bad!

Writing a piece here in September (The Way Lawyers Work Now) drove me back to the sustaining works of Richard Susskind: “The Future of Law” (1996), “Transforming the Law” (2000), and “The End of Lawyers?” (2008). They remain a most impressive achievement, and as well a rare effort to forecast the future of work in a particular vertical market sector. The trends that are apparent now align closely with the Susskind theses, especially in terms of the moves into practice solutioning, where Lexis now pursue PLC much more closely in the UK, with the benefit of being able to support their solutions by invoking the whole research environment as well. Whether these moves support ideas of the democritization of access to the law – Richard quotes Shaw’s dictum that “all professions are a conspiracy against the laity” – is not the question for this blog. However, they certainly deliver a vision of deskilling and cost erosion, and thoughts that many corporate and individual clients may in future have a very different procedural access to the law and its requirements.

I was encouraged in this thinking by discovering that Lexis UK last month published some of their own research survey findings, under the title “Practice Points”. This was a very worthwhile process, though not so that we could learn that 66% of respondents forecast 10% growth per annum over the next two years. With so many UK law practices currently debating their status after the last government’s liberalization measures, no one contemplating incorporation of floatation would say anything else. What impressed me more was the high score that lawyers gave to increased competition associated with the ABS (Alternative Business Structures) legislation, and the increase in M&A activity that this foretold. In order to hold costs and even reduce them (those surveyed saw fixed fee not hourly rates as the future business model) the gearing had to change – they needed to recruit more support staff who were not going to share  profits or become partners. The way in which many would do this was by outsourcing to a fixed fee legal outsourcing company, often in the UK but sometimes offshore as well. And IT was the critical element – 60% looked to process automation to reduce costs and create the communications with clients and third party suppliers which will make this work.

This plays well with the line on practice solutions now being taken by Lexis and long held by PLC in the UK. PLC’s US expansion still appears on course, though moving more slowly in the recession. But I wondered about continental Europe, especially given the traditional positioning of German lawyers between clients, and provincial regulation, Federal law and EU requirements. Do not forget that both Thomson Reuters and Lexis, in various ways, quit this difficult marketplace in the last decade. So I was delighted at Frankfurt to find Christian Dirschl of Wolters Kluwer Germany on my panel, and to be able to ask him whether German law publishers were having to adjust their positioning and move towards new access models  alongside their existing commitment to research tools. And, since I have always found WK Deutschland very difficult to understand as an outsider, since it has 8 constituent law companies and another four tax imprints, I was hugely impressed by the answer: WK Germany has fully embraced semantic technologies by launching the Jurion interface (www.jurion.de) to make much of its own and growing amounts of third party content  accessible in a contextualizable environment.

There are a number of very striking points about Jurion. In the first instance WK have gone back and re-engineered their content acquisition, enrichment and bundling cycle. With their metadata ducks all in a row, and fundamental problems of delivery format and functionality solved, they have been able to invite third parties on to the platform to work through the same interface. So here you can get your Haufe content as well as your Lucterhand WK content, and if you are not a subscriber to the particular Haufe service, you can join up in 20 seconds. Then again they are members of the EU-supported LOD 2 project (http://lod2.eu), with 15 other companies in 12 countries. This lets Jurion swim in the world of EU Open Government (via the publicdata.eu platform), and provides not just another layer of content accessibility, but a context in which open source semantic technologies (DBpedia, Virtuoso, Sindice, Silk) can work jointly. Add to this rich stew a few more ingredients: their ability with semantic analysis and the LOD (linked open data) environments has propelled them into the development of major taxonomic instruments, with the legal thesauri now covering a large range of public/private content and WK becoming the effective gateway and standards setter for legal access. And then consider that at the same time they have integrated document construction and document location, using the same metadata. And then search all of this on legal terms and legal concepts. And then add, from the end of this year, web data as well as web content (look at the Wikipedia -style work accomplished here). Very impressive.

But what does it look like from the user screen? When I open my Jurion desktop I have options. jSearch is a normal law database environment with semantic search. jStore has the WK products, its partners’ products, fast purchase and – almost inevitably, a recommendation system which is likely to be very important. jLink will allow annotation sharing  and thus becomes a gateway to social media. jBook allows personalization and rebundling of content – and you can have it as an eBook or print copy too. jCreate allows content creation, metadata allocation and sharing – via jStore for a fee if necessary. And jDesk, which subsumes the lawyers user desktop, giving him indexation, and coverage of the whole or parts of the firm’s network. Here clients have OCR, citation recognition, topic classification, and document creation. This is not yet fully completed, but remains a startling step forward. It potentially transforms the competitive structure of the German law and tax market, and it is based on vital ideas of collaboration which have to underlie all of these developments in future.

WK Germany have gone horizontal in their effort to supply the lawyer in Germany with a complete access point. Lexis in the UK have gone vertical in their bid for practice solutions. Both of these legitimate approaches will one day end in the same place, with comprehensive and collaborative  service environments that eventually begin to democratize access to the law.

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