The Future of Media Gradually Coming Into Focus

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by: Larry Kramer

Suddenly there are a lot of moving parts on the media landscape. And what’s really interesting is that they all seem to be moving in the same direction.

We have old media coming toward new media: Rupert Murdoch and Steve Jobs building an IPad-only newspaper.

We have new media moving toward old media: Gawker’s Nick Denton, Newser’s Michael Wolff, Talking Points Memo and Digg all changing their look to add curation and perspective to their pages, and make them behave more like traditional media, editors and all.

We have a huge example of old and new media merging to create, well, newer media: Tina Brown riding her Daily Beast up a steep slope to take over and merge with Newsweek.

What we really have is the beginning of what promises to be a very exciting chapter in the transformation of the media industry.

To be sure, we still have more questions than answers. But what is enormously positive about this latest round of efforts is that they all seem to be moving in the same direction: To create and curate quality content on multiple platforms with multiple revenue streams.

Newsrooms of the future are likely to be built around the topics they cover (Wall Street, Sports, New York City) instead of the medium they are in (newspapers, television, radio) because they will likely have to transcend any one medium and distribute on several so they can highlight their strength of coverage of their particular subject matter and bring in the revenue they need to support a healthy news organization.

It’s not an accident that outdraws the Chicago Tribune’s sports offerings on the web. They have a single purpose and great content, and their brand is more important sports fans than that of a newspaper that hasn’t invested in beefing up its content.

These new products also have to listen closely to their viewers/readers and give them more than just information. Providing a community for them to interact with each other and the journalists and perhaps even the subjects of the coverage will make the site “stickier” by bringing the level of engagement with readers.

Providing timely “perspective” on the news is essential to the future of the platform, including the curation of all news of interest to consumers are a growing part of the mix. Targeting local advertising and content and you will really see the future.

Murdoch is reportedly investing $30 million in his new paper. Brown, Barry Diller and Sydney Harmon are facing down collectively more than $30 million in losses over the next year before turning around what could be a hugely profitable media battleship.

All of this is good news for an industry that has seen a maelstrom of change over the past few years. Ravaged by a parlay of the recession and technological breakthroughs that effectively gutted many of their revenue sources, media companies have been in panic mode about shifting and future business models.

What we are now seeing is a two-pronged attack: how to reach consumers on the new platform and how to charge for content, or find another business model, on all platforms. Trying to charge for content that has been given out for free, however, has the feel of putting the genie back into the bottle…it’s just not going to happen easily.

If there is an all-purpose business model for media, no one has found it, and it’s unlikely anyone will. This pessimism is not because the business of media has hopelessly changed, but because in some ways it remains as it was. The business models for traditional media, such as the bundle of different sorts of advertising that kept newspapers profitable, were accidents that varied according to the specific medium. Radio, for example, never had classified ads.

The answer will come in a patchwork of partial solutions specific to the kind of content being delivered, and the habits and preference of the particular audience that wants it. Just as in the past, in the future there will be no one solid and rational system, but rather a collection of improvised arrangements based on lucky alignments of buyers and sellers needs.

What bodes well for the Murdoch IPad newspaper is that he will launch it as a pay product and therefore never have to deal with an audience that had been getting that content for free. He has also paid a price, a partnership with Steve Jobs, to be able to launch a product on a successful e-commerce platform, iTunes.

They should be able to educate news consumers that paying for content something that is in consumers’ best interest. When Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) launched iTunes, the conventional wisdom held that “young people won’t pay for music anymore,” as they’d grown used to downloading it for free. And while iTunes certainly hasn’t solved all the problems of the music industry, it made paying for music cool again by offering a stylish “one-button” solution. (At the time, MP3 players were in part a way to show you were enough “in the know” to get your music for free.) The IPad can provide the same experience for producers of news and information content.

And as the recently launched NYPost app proves, traditional news organizations are starting to be able to produce and display content in a way that maintains the reputation, look and feel for their original product, and at the same time be extremely functional interactively, taking advantage of the new platform.

Our second phenomena is the coming of age of several new media businesses. Gawker Media President Nick Denton recently proclaimed, “I don’t want to be the No. 1 blog network anymore, That’s like being kind of the playground.” So, he said, his network of several popular blog websites would be abandoning the trademark of blogs…the placing of the latest blog on top of the postings.

Instead, they will adapt they style of more traditional journalistic enterprises, where presentation is aimed to give the reader a sense of context or perspective on stories. It’s designed, frankly, to help the reader figure out which stores are more importat, or even better, than others. Bloggers have typically eschewed curating their work and that of others. Until now, bloggers were eager to let their readers decide what they think is important.

This move by Denton, coming on the heels of several other sites reaching the same conclusion and ordering redesigns that will give their readers indications from editors of how they would place stories in the scheme of the day. Newser, Talking Points Memo and aggregation site Digg have all made similar announcements in recent weeks.

In the early days of web content, MarketWatch succeeded and built a brand because most of the competition didn’t understand the need to build a personality on the Web or to exercise news judgment beyond story selection. The front page itself carried only headlines and subheads; every story started on its own page. So the value of that front page was clearly about passing along the editorial intelligence of the MarketWatch staff, and the perspective they brought to the news of the day. The team of editors curated the business day for their readers in real-time, around the clock. To this day, MarketWatch’s front page is it’s most read page by a long shot.

In those days, and even since, most existing media companies bought off-the-shelf technology that re-purposed content online from their primary business (newspapers, TV, radio, etc.) in very mundane ways that required little human intervention. Stacks of headlines appeared everywhere. Web front pages displayed little, if any, attempt to put perspective on a story and its importance.

One of the best examples of a new media startup that avoided many of these problems is the DailyBeast. This media business brought together original content, perspective, curation and community when it launched. Which brings us to the third element of this rapidly changing landscape.

In the third example of the rapidly changing media landscape, Tina Brown will, for the first time, attempt to merge a totally new media brand with a storied, and deeply troubled, old media brand. The question at hand will be can she pull together and highlight the best of both, or will the cultural divide be too great. Can the brand value of the Daily Beast translate into print and can the journalism that made Newsweek a successful old media institution that attracted readers and advertisers be resurrected and translated into a profitable business in the new media landscape.

In the end, her success or failure of all these efforts will depend upon a simple question: Did the customers get what they wanted? That includes advertisers as well as consumers. Brands are shortcuts to defining products. Strong brands are those that have an easy to understand value-proposition. In media, those would be something like The New York Times, 60 minutes or Vogue. They project their value proposition to readers/viewers AND advertisers.

News Corp’s. (NASDAQ:NWS) The Daily has huge promise but will have to build value for both consumers, who will pay for it, and advertisers, who will also pay for it.

The Bloggers will hope that by creating a personality and a brand identity they can attract much more advertiser than they have had, and gain more engagement from readers for the added value they will be providing.

For BeastWeek, Tina hopes that the long-standing relationship with Newsweek that advertisers have will rub off a bit on the Beast, which has been on the long road to building a reputation that attracts top flight advertisers. It has shown a good deal of success lately, but it’s a slow build And, she will hope that the huge loyal readership she has built at the Beast will carry over to Newsweek and resurrect it’s audience around the common themes that existed at both: Quality journalism, investigative reporting, the ability to pinpoint what people are talking about and add to the conversation. There are ways that the print medium can better tell a story, and Tina Brown knows how to use that medium. Over the past few years she has also learned about the value of the digital platform. It will be exciting to see if she can somehow use both at their best and give readers and advertisers alike a better experience.