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December, 2005

What Have You Done for Me Lately?

[Editor's Note: This is kind of part three in a series on unbundled media (see part one and part two). Here I take a step back and try to explain the unbundling process on a media-wide level.]

"Revenue isn't the problem; audience is the problem." At least according to Terry Heatona it is. He of unbundled media fame claims that it's the number one thing he tells his clients. It's not that surprising to read Jeff Jarvis echoing the same sentiments in his amazing epitaph for the newspaper industry. In the piece, Jarvis quotes Herbert Burda, a German media mogul a bit more in touch with digital technology than your average publisher. "Printing will not go away, but I do not plan to open a single new printing plant," Burda said. "We now concentrate on using social software to build closer relations with the communities of readers around our magazines."

To which Jarvis replied, "I’ll say it again: Distribution is not king. Content is not king. Conversation is the kingdom. It’s about relationships." His emphatic reply not only summarizes the state of the newspaper industry, but also offers a glimpse to the state of big media in general. The game is changing. Newspapers ruled the roost because they were an incredibly efficient way to distribute a great deal of news daily. Just think about how cheap the paper is: the ink rubs off onto your fingers for goodness sake! Television and radio came along, but neither were direct competitors as it's generally easier to deeply comprehend something when we read it. But then the internet came along, and all of a sudden the newspaper industry's monopoly over the quickly delivered written word came to a screeching halt.

Instead of accepting their shortcomings, however, newspapers have tried to keep stuffing the same product down customers' throats: in the process missing larger trends that were happening. Yeah, people were reading fewer newspapers, but at the same time they were reading more news. They happened to be doing it on via screen rather than an unwieldy gray thing, but they were reading it nonetheless. Those that have embraced the net have seen it help shape their fortunes. The Washington Post, for example, has embraced the web, a factor Jay Rosen cited when he explained, "The New York Times is not any longer--in my mind--the greatest newspaper in the land. Nor is it the base line for the public narrative that it once was. Some time in the last year or so I moved the Washington Post into that position..." In our digital world, where competition is feverish, relationships are all the more important. By avoiding things like TimesSelect, the Washington Post is building relationships that could last a lifetime. The same lifetime, I might add, that could very well see the end of the broadsheet daily and the prestige that comes along with it. At that point, what will The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal be left with?

If I'm a newspaper publisher at this point I'm asking, "what should I do about it?" Well, start by reading Jarvis' article and following his advice, he ends it with thoughts on how to save the newspaper industry piece by piece. Beyond that, though, it's important to think about how you can add value to the consumer. With the net at their fingertips, they're in the driver's seat, not you. Burda explains further, "News has now become a commodity, thanks to the Internet, so we must differentiate ourselves in other ways," Burda said. "Content alone can no longer win. You must build and interact with audiences." That message goes to the media industry in general and brings us back around to Terry Heaton's quote which opened this article, "Revenue isn't the problem; audience is the problem." In a Field of Dreams sort of way, if you build the audience, the revenue will come. So figure it out.

Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson suggests following this four-step process:

1 - Microchunk it - Reduce the content to its simplest form.
2 - Free it - Put it out there without walls around it or strings on it.
3 - Syndicate it - Let anyone take it and run with it.
4 - Monetize it - Put the monetization and tracking systems into the microchunk.

I mentioned it last time, but it seems even more appropriate now to talk about the Washington Post Remix blog, which features other people's mash ups using Post content. In the introduction to the blog, they write: "Why are we doing this? Because we want to foster innovation, and because we want to see your ideas about new ways of displaying news and information on the Web."

You're not going to beat the technology, so you might as well embrace it and start developing some real relationships with your customers. Because otherwise, they're just going to find the next guy who will.

Questions to answer in the next installment: Where are the marketing opportunities in all this? Do they lay more on the media or advertiser side? Where does TV and the thirty-second spot fall in? What about online advertising? And I'm sure there are more . . .

December 11, 2005
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.