Peeking Under the Blanket

Let’s peek under the blanket because there’s a lot of people in the dark there. A widespread misconception is that taking printed or broadcast content and putting it online or wireless is new-media. This misconception blankets even many new-media executives.

No, taking printed or broadcast content and putting it online or wireless is as much new-media as microwaving hamburgers is new cuisine. It’s just the same old beef reheated a new way.

The reason this misconception is so widespread is that most people, including most media executives, are myopic. They might see the superficial changes underway but rarely the seismic changes that underlie and motivate the surface. They can’t perceive the forest because all the trees get in the way.

But the verb evolve probably better describes what’s going on than motivate.

Media ever evolves towards greater, more articulate distribution. Technology drives the evolution.

Note that the evolution has two dimensions: Greater. And more articulate.However, most media executives still see only one dimension: the greater distribution (i.e., greater reach). They fail to notice the newer dimension: More articulate distribution. They’re conditioned not to see it.

And why not? The first period of evolution led to the greatest distribution.

Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type allowed economical distribution of books, newspapers, and broadsides. The later invention of rotary presses, powered by steam and then electrical engines, allowed their mass production. Morse’s telegraph extended the reach of text. Marconi’s radio extended the reach of words. Farnsworth’s television extended the reach of moving pictures. By 1990, any content could reach anywhere in the world within 24 hours in the physical form of print or instantaneously when telegraphed or broadcast.

But the second period of media evolution is now underway, and it will lead to the most articulate distribution. That means the ability to distribute to each person those pieces of content that are most pertinent to that person’s unique mix of generic and individual interests. It doesn’t mean distributing the same package of content to everyone — be that package an album of music, a printed newspaper or news magazine, programs in a broadcast schedule, or even an intact broadcast program.

As with geologic periods, there has been occurring a brief overlap between these two periods of media evolution. We are in that overlap.


The first period of media evoluion, the rise of mass media, has had a long run. It began in 1605 at Strasbourg with publication of Relation aller fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien (‘Collection of all distiguished and commemorateable news’), the world’s first newspaper and reached its heyday 50 to 100 years ago. This period is still continuing, albeit it’s obviously waning.

Meanwhile, the second period has begun. Its precursors oddly hadn’t anything to do with the Internet. I state that because the Internet is but a manifestation of this change, not the cause of the change. Surface, not substance.

The precursors of more articulate distribution were the technologies that gave rise to cable and satellite television respectively in the 1970s and 1990s and to topical niche magazines in the decade between. Advances in lithographic printing and the computerization of pre-press composition and press plate technologies made the publishing of highly topical magazines economically possible. Almost almost every magazine on American newsstands had previously been general-interest (Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Time, Life, Look, Newsweek, etc.), but those magazines – at least the ones that today aren’t defunct – are now surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of magazines about specific topics (Antique Toy World, Vegetarian Times, Civil War Times, Flex, etc.)

Likewise, the development of cable and satellite TV systems allowed dozens, if not hundreds, of topical channels (Golf, History, Romance, Sci-Fi, Home & Garden, etc.) to swarm around and diminish the four general-interest networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS) in America.

When in 1992 the public gained access to the Internet, this second period of media evolution blossomed. In a self-reinforcing cycle, more and more topical newsgroups, bulletin boards, and websites were created as more and more people went online.

Today, one billion people worldwide (one of every six humans) have online access. They didn’t gravitate there in order to read, watch, or listen to generic content — which is still much more easy and conveniently consumed in traditional forms than online. Nor did traditional media companies lead them online (those companies still follow, and are still following, the public online). No, people went online to satisfy their needs and desires for content that more specifically matches each’s unique mix of generic and individual interests, not to receive a general package of content.

There should be no mystery why most people long chose search engines as their initial entry points onto the Web. Their needs and desires for content that more specifically matches each of their unique mixes of generic and individual interests gave rise to the search engine business. People use search engines to hunt for that specific content, because there is yet no service today that aggregates and delivers those specifics from all sources to each user.

(Google and Yahoo! however have realized this latent demand and are now working on ways to ‘personalize’ (the misnomer for individualize) their services. Unlike the search engines, most traditional media companies’ attempts at individualization have been myopically limited to delivering only content selected from within the company’ traditional package of content — less clutter, but not more pertinence nor all sources.)

Napster and other Peer-to-Peer services, even iTools, are all manifestations of this second period of media evolution – more articulate distribution. Music lovers don’t necessarily want to purchase packages of content (such as albums), but only those parts (i.e., songs) that specifically match each of those individuals’ unique interest. Ditto Tivo and other devices that let viewers create their own video programming mixes and viewing times rather than being forced to accept those of the TV networks.

Chris Anderson‘s Long Tail conjecture is simply a re-perspective of this change in dimension. The first period of media evolution had been towards greater distribution, but the second period is toward articulate distribution. Graph not a high horn but a long tail.

I’ll say it again: Articulate distribution. The problem today isn’t that pertinent stories or programs or clips don’t exist. They do. But they are unlikely to be reaching most of the persons to whom those are in their own needs and desires pertinent.

That person is probably instead receiving a general package of content (The New York Times, Time magazine, the CBS Evening News, etc.) in which someone else, an editor, selected stories of the greatest common interest plus some content that the editor himself thought everyone should know. It has been done that way throughout the first period of media evolution because that period’s technologies (i.e., Industrial Era mass production) limited it that way.

But it’s not a good way. Each person who reads The New York Times might care about only every twelfth, twentieth, or fiftieth of the two hundred-some stories in it each day. If he’s a fan of soccer — the world’s most popular team sport, which is played professionally every day — he won’t have much luck finding soccer stories in The New York Times, even though that newspapers receives dozens from its wires daily — news that might be the top sports story elsewhere in the world, because the Times‘ editors select stories for publication based upon the greatest general interest among the newspaper’s readership (which means no sports stories except baseball, basketball, and American football).

There is a surplus of content in the world today, but a bad distribution system. Despite a newspaper being like a supermarket of news, every customer gets a bag containing the same selection of goods. Moreover, most of those goods are that newspaper’s own generic brand (from the newspaper’s own reporters, its own syndicate, plus the ubiqutiousAssociated Press), even though another newspaper or news magazine might have a story that a customer might pertinently need or want. God forbid that The New York Times distribute a Los Angeles Times story it doesn’t have about Santa Monica to a Santa Monica native living in Manhattan. It just isn’t done. Everyone gets the same bag!

Now that same bag of content is being shoveled online. The core dilemma that traditional media companies face in this new period of media is whether to transplant their traditional business (including business model and practices) into online or wireless or else to create entirely new business (and new business models and news practices) specifically for this new era. Put another way, their choice is between induction and deduction.

Almost every traditional media company worldwide has chosen induction. The same bag for everyone goes online. The hamburger gets microwaved. The media companies are attempting to induce the Internet or wireless to do what those companies did in paper or broadcast. These companies see transplantation (induction) as the easiest and, at least to them, most logical path into the future.

They see only the surface. They see transplantation as letting them take what ‘do what they do best’ in print or broadcast and to do that now online. They see it as letting them ‘extend their reach’ to consumers who no longer or have never received the companies’ content in the traditional forms of print or broadcast. These companies’ top executives see transplantation as the least jarring way for their business to go online — requiring the least disruptions or changes to the companies’ established practices, processes, policies, and procedures. They also see it as the best way to defend against anyone else online capturing their companies’ consumers and clients.

Too bad it’s the wrong course to have taken.

Unfortunately for those media companies, there is no such thing as Occum’s Compass: the simplest, easiest, least jarring path at hand rarely surmounts a dilemma. Nor is that path likely to be the most logical course.

What media companies ‘do best’ in their traditional forms — particularly when those traditional forms are being chosen less and less by consumers — isn’t axiomatically the best thing to do in the new-media, or in all media for that media. The reason why traditional media companies’ content has for so long been declining in popularity isn’t that it wasn’t online, but that either it or the aggregation and distribution of it hasn’t been satisfying consumers.

Shovelware just digs a deeper grave for those companies. Shoveling traditional media’s content into new media might create some new consumers among those who had fled or never used the traditional media’s products, but it is unlikely to solve the problem of why that traditional content or its aggregation (reach but not articulation) has been steadily declining in popularity. It just only slightly postpones oblivion (as Professor Robert Picard and others have shown).

Moreover, media companies that hope shovelware is the best way to defend against anyone else online capturing their consumers and clients are basically shoveling their failing traditional business models into online and hoping it sticks (ask newspaper classified advertising departments how well that strategy has worked).

No, what media companies should have done, and ten years ago, was deduction. They should have deduced how the new-media is different than mass media; what new-media can do that mass couldn’t and how to seize those opportunities; what new-media couldn’t do as well as mass and how to avoid that; and how to create new businesses, new business models, and news business practices that take advantage of all this.

A huge part of it also should have involved cross-industry and even multi-industry coordination. Story sharing and cross-distribution. Classified advertising sharing. Video clip sharing. Plus the means to split any revenues and maintain rights for that content. Sure, your media company’s brand can be the distributor, but people don’t want to consume only your own brand’s content. (You no longer own customers or capture eyeballs. Iif you still think so, then ask your circulation department your publication’s subscriber churn rate. You now serve the consumers, not vice versa.)

Attempts were made nearly ten years ago in the newspaper industry to create such an infrastructure, but fell apart once the companies began squabbling over revenues or mistakenly thinking they were competing with each other. They now wish their industry had its own cross-industry story search engine, classified ad sharing systems, etc. (they now have to do deals with Google or Craigslist for such things).

Most media companies are still sharing an increasingly ragged blanket of misconception about what’s going on. For some (such as Knight Ridder) it’s too late. Most have been inducing themselves to spend too many years shoveling their way so off course that they may never get to where they need to be. Wave good-bye

2 thoughts on “Peeking Under the Blanket

  1. Once again, Vin, you manage to hit the nail right on the head. I work for an online publisher/newspaper company and I find myself wishing I could drag you into every strategy meeting. For the moment I’ll have to make do with a life-sized cutout and a pre-recorded voice message of this post -a method of content distribution so stupid the print barons will likely understand it immediately.

  2. Vin, if you are interested in an example of “the ability to distribute to each person those pieces of content that are most pertinent to that person’s unique mix of generic and individual interests,” you might be interested in our startup Findory (http://findory.com).

    Findory learns from the articles each reader reads and recommends other articles from thousands of worldwide sources.

    To use Findory, go to the site, search for and click on a few articles that are of interest to you, and then go back to Findory. The Findory front page will have changed to feature articles that appear to match your interests.

    It is only one example of what the future of individualized news may look like, but I thought you would be interested.

    Thanks, Vin.

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