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Local Media in a Postmodern World
2008: Embracing the (Real) Web
by Terry Heaton
We got our first television set in 1952 when I was six years old. I had a kidney disease and was bedridden, so the new invention became my friend. Radio held me in its grip with super heroes and Western dramas, but TV made me smile.
My favorite show was "Andy's Gang," featuring Andy Devine, Froggy the Gremlin, Midnight the Cat and Squeaky the Mouse. "Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy," Andy would shout in his raspy voice. There would be a flash of smoke and a "BOING," and then Froggy would appear with his greeting, "Hiya, kids. Hiya. Hiya."
Television back then was unbelievably boring compared to today. It's easy to understand, when you consider that much of what passed for programming in the early 50s was actually radio with a camera. Television programming was created by the radio executives who owned the television networks. Froggy, for example, got his start on Smilin' Ed McConnell's "Buster Brown gang" radio show in 1944, along with Midnight and Squeaky.
Comedy programs such as The Jack Benny Show, dramatic anthologies such as Kraft Television Theater, quiz shows such as Name That Tune, and variety programs such as Arthur Godfrey and his Friends borrowed heavily from popular radio formats. Other early programming was theatrical — cameras on a stage.
It is in this vein that television programmers have tried to adopt everything about TV to their little corners of the Web, and it is here where mistakes have been and continue to be made, for the Web is not broadcasting — not even close. The Web is also not a newspaper — not even close there either, and yet newspaper companies view it with the same eyes as their broadcast counterparts — extensions of their legacy businesses.
Newspapers and television stations are mass marketing vehicles. By nature and structure, the Web dismantles mass, and this is the essential problem. It's not the Web's fault; it's the fault of those who only see it as a vehicle for redistribution of content and the business paradigms associated with that content.
Every website is equal in the structure of the Web. They're each just a pixel on the page that makes up the whole. This website is a pixel. Your website is a pixel. Google is a pixel. And so forth.
Consequently, we have traditional media who have played with the Web instead of embracing it, and a change in this kind of thinking will dominate new developments for local media companies in 2008. We have no choice. 2009, with a new President, no election or Olympics, economic uncertainty, and digital television on top of already decreasing revenues, looms like a tidal wave just a few miles off shore. As AR&D president and CEO Jerry Gumbert puts it, "2008 will be all about getting ready for 2009."
He's right, and this will mean acceptance on a level we've yet to witness in the executive suites and in the newsrooms of media companies and a willingness — even an eagerness — to move forward to become local portfolio companies, with traditional media, perhaps, moving from center stage. Along with this move will come a resource shift away from the portal websites that host our traditional media brands to business opportunities that will fund, in part, the future mission of the journalism we all hold so dear.
The result will be genuine efforts on the part of companies to return the handshake that the Web offers to them, to become more than merely destination websites or application platforms. Media companies will meet the (Real) Web in so doing, and learn to play by different rules, those already well-known in both the abstract and in practice throughout Silicon Valley and in the work spaces of thousands of companies who learned years ago that the Web will never be dominated or manipulated, and that if you want to do business here, you have to be prepared to play by its rules.
Attraction, not hyperbole, is what works here, for the supply and demand equation has been turned upside down.
Nokia issued a report last month expressing their belief that 25 percent of media consumption in 2012 will be peer-to-peer, people entertaining themselves, their families, their friends and their tribes. Even if this prediction is optimistic, the truth is entertainment is moving in this direction, and the smart local media company will seize the opportunity it provides.
And the opportunity is significant, because the people formerly known as the audience want to know what we know and do what we do, and any model that enables this will be successful.
Unless you've actually looked, for example, you cannot comprehend the volume of video being produced in schools across the U.S. Who's teaching them to do it right? Should we have a role in that? Where is this video displayed? What will these students do with their video skills as they get older? Are these not the future employees of television stations? What will a television station look like downstream?
A prototype of sorts is Maui Today, an online video platform — a new term to describe what used to be a "television station" — serving the entertainment and information needs of the people of Maui. Maui Today is lightweight, original, and loaded with content — some professionally produced, the rest created by the (lucky) people who call Maui home. Like other hyperlocal models, this one "works," because the community supports it, not because some bigger media company is trying to make it part of their portal.
2008 will also be a year in which at least some local media executives grasp the reality that their monopoly on news and information has disappeared and that the only future they have is enabling the rise of personal media (including advertising) in their communities. This is difficult to accept, because it runs right into the most basic beliefs about the news business and its traditional sources of revenue.
A recent discussion thread via Poynter's Online-News email list raised the issue that we've got to "figure out ways to monetize our content." This is the dream of traditional media, but it is one from which we must be willing to awaken. L.A. Times columnist David Lazarus spoke for many when he lamented the following:
Newspapers, including this one, give away the store online, all the while wringing their hands about declining revenue and circulation. Everyone says the Net represents the future of journalism, and that's probably true. But at this point, no one knows how to make much money at it.
I'm scratching my head trying to come up with another financially challenged industry that found salvation by charging people nothing for its output.
Like other observers, Lazarus went on to predict serious difficulties for our culture as a result.
Here's the thing: As long as the big papers give it away free, the little papers will have no choice but to do the same. Before you know it, no more little papers.
Meanwhile, blogs will continue sprouting like crab grass throughout the electronic ether. Soon, the line separating quality journalism from utter hokum will be too blurry to discern.
This is overstated, and the problem with this kind of thinking is that it insists that there are only two ways to make money as a media company, both tied to the output of the newsroom: use the scarcity of the special nature of our content by charging for access to it or charge advertisers for adjacent positioning. This is textbook Media 1.0, and the Web is so much more.
Content scarcity is history. It will simply never support significant revenue growth for two reasons. One, content is plentiful on the Web. Everybody makes it, and as Lazarus points out, it's free. Two, we don't have the resources to make enough of it to satisfy reach/frequency advertising models. "More, more, more," we cry, but it's driven by an impossible strategic concept.
"Free is not a business model," says web economics guru Umair Haque, "It's a strategy." The business model is what needs reinvention, and that's what we'll see happening as more companies embrace the (Real) Web in the year ahead.
For what this really means is that the end of the ad-supported content model as the sole revenue source for all media is growing closer. Advertisers have needed mass media, because it was the only way to reach potential customers. Classifieds have been the business model of newspapers for a very long time, because the community paper was the logical path for enabling commerce. That role for papers is gone now, and efforts to resurrect it will never be completely successful. The model is in full-blown decay, and other forms of ad-supported content are headed down the same path.
So do we just give up? Of course not! We're in a transition period, and there is still plenty of money to be made the old-fashioned way, but in our minds, we must surrender to the inevitable, for it's the only way we'll move forward in the new world. When the ship you're on is sinking, you make every effort to keep it afloat. But when its doom is certain, your only choice is to find something else that floats, and this is what will produce a real shift in local media during 2008.
We have to, for 2009 looms as a cloud of locusts on a meadow rich with life.
We'll see more companies putting less emphasis on their branded websites and transitioning to pure web-based entrepreneurial activities. This will mean local control of the technology and the ad-serving necessary to grow and a rethinking of the essential mission and methods of local media. Those who succeed will be those who can work without static plans, for everything is simply moving too fast for "one potato, two potato, three potato, four" thinking. The goal is what matters, and we must be willing to stay goal-driven.
By this time next year, many local media branded web efforts will involve some form of continuous stream of news and an awakening to the reality of news as a process, not a finished product. It's the logical format to serve an audience largely at work, and the RSS feeds from such an effort can be used in any form of unbundled media play.
2008 will also bring new challenges to and pressures on the concept of net neutrality, mostly built around the real or perceived need to expand the pipes of the Web to handle the increasing bandwidth demand of broadband and other video applications. It's a fairly safe bet that we'll have a tiered web within the next 24 months, that the flat rates we've known since its inception will move to flexible rates based on bandwidth usage.
And as more local media companies come in touch with the (Real) Web, we'll see more web-only sales people and a reduction in convergence sales. This is inevitable (and necessary) for companies to grow pure web revenue.
Above all, 2008 must be a year of action for everybody. We cannot afford to be lulled to complacency with political or Olympics ad revenues. Everything is NOT okay, and this includes our dependence on our portal websites.
The life of the Static Web — during which we duplicated local media online, like the early television programmers did with radio programs — is evolving into the vastly more flexible Semantic Web, and future relevancy depends on our ability to function beyond simple content creators.
Embrace the (Real) Web in 2008. It's the only way to create sustainable growth for the years that will follow. Venture capital money is flowing into pureplay media start-ups, because investors see opportunities in the inaction of media companies already in place.
We cannot sit back and let this happen unchallenged any longer.