The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World
The Ammunition Business
June 2006

by Terry Heaton

Many years ago, I saw a 30-minute drama about a slick televangelist who had an encounter with an angel in his dressing room. On the air, he railed against "the homosexuals" and "the abortionists," but the angel demanded that he "feed my sheep."

"But that's not my ministry," he replied.

To make a long story short, the man was profoundly moved by the angel and went on the air intending to tell the world about his encounter and the new call to care for the poor and afflicted. Once the camera was on, however, he reverted to his old self.

Old habits and belief systems die hard, especially when there's profit to be made, and it's especially noticeable when the chips are down.

Gordon Borrell, the local online sales research guru, has a neat slide in his dog-and-pony show that speaks to the personal media revolution in a way that's both humorous and revealing. "The deer now have guns," the slide displays. We (the media) are in the business of hunting prey (the audience), and we need to be aware that our prey is now fully armed to do the same thing. It doesn't necessarily mean they're after us, but by remixing, rebundling or making their own media, they're able to attract some of the same eyeballs that we used to call our own. We've lost our exclusivity for content creation and distribution in the marketplace, and that's trouble for an institution that's used to having it all to itself. But all is not lost.

"So what do you do when the deer have guns," Gordon asks? "You get into the ammunition business."

Stop right here and think about that statement. It's a profound truth and one that mainstream media companies are reluctant to embrace, because, well, "It's not my ministry." Moreover, few media executives really understand what it means.

It's not going to be enough in the years ahead to be a pure content provider, regardless of the distribution methods available, because market fragmentation isn't going to slow down. Moreover, in a fragmenting marketplace, there is no mass market anymore, so even the arena in which we've played our games all these years has been torn down.

Jeff Jarvis points this out in a recent blog post called, "The dinosaurs whine." It's about commentaries from three old-school journalists.

They whined about the passing of what they thought was their captive mass audience. But they don't understand that the audience was never mass and never captive, and given a chance at choice, we took it. That is the natural order of media. They blame network executives and even the government for the decline of what they define as quality, important news. But the truth is that the public is going elsewhere to get news and these demititans’ (little titans) definition of news did not always serve that public.

Not only are we going elsewhere, but we're also making our own media. In a world where everybody is a content provider (the deer), the information needs of the local audience changes, because there's so much more stuff available to absorb now. The paradigm is reversed; the "mass" has shifted from demand to supply.

So how does a single media entity meet information needs in such an exploding scenario? The truth is it doesn't, but that's hard to admit. Some try to make the case that their information is somehow better or more important than what they see as the riffraff of the Web, but that foolish argument makes the dangerous and incorrect assumption that the audience NEEDS to trust in that which has been proven untrustworthy. The reality is that they can make their own filtering systems now, bypassing the gates that professional media have "kept" all these years.

This is the ammunition business to which Borrell refers. If our content alone isn't sufficient to support our business needs and our filtering mechanisms aren't enough to ensure audience, then we need to be thinking about ways in which we can help users of all media in our communities do their own filtering. This is where the technology industry is moving, and if we're smart, we'll move with them.

It begins with paying close attention to RSS and how it can be used to effortlessly move an infinite assortment of special niche content from place-to-place and ultimately to users. What users need is help in winnowing the growing fire hose blast of disparate bits into forms they can assimilate and understand. This is one method of getting into the ammunition business, as Borrell notes. And who's in a better position to provide this kind of application than media companies?

The thing a lot of my contemporaries don't understand is that RSS is more than just a way to communicate news. Here are just a few samples of non-news RSS feeds that help people stay informed. This list was culled from the Website.

As you can see, even the little syndicated niche content that, say, newspapers used to provide as part of their bundle is now available for user-filtering via RSS.

Another list to peruse is one provided by Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, an informative site that examines new companies and their role in the Web 2.0 scheme. This list is of companies created to offer interactive RSS aggregators that work in a relatively new programming language called Ajax.

Click on any of these, and you'll get an idea of where the growth is in the Web 2.0 world. This is where media companies need to be shifting resources, for our traditional business model hides the possibility of making money in an unbundled world. It's not just the content anymore; the money is in providing the application within which a variety of content is served.

Many of the new applications coming down the pike offer the ability for users to upload their own videos, and this is another space where local television stations need to be involved.

All of these things are "ammunition" that feed the disruptive innovation of Media 2.0. If they seem contrary to the core competency of local media, that's a good thing. What do you do when the deer have guns? Get into the ammunition business.

And by all means, get there first.

Knowledge of the local market is what separates broadcasters from all the outside companies already in the game, and that is a significant competitive advantage.

But moving into the new world isn't just another adventure in top-down media. The rules are very different, because the user — not the media company — is in charge, and that's the hardest thing for traditional media to understand or accept. This is producing some foolishness in the current unbundled mania with iTunes downloads of television programs. While you can purchase an episode of Lost for $1.99, you can only rent — for 24 hours — an episode of CSI or Survivor from the CBS Website for the same price. People will reject this idea, of course, but that won't stop other old media giants from trying to hang onto the power to play by the old rules.

This conflict is also being played out with internet companies. Amazon, the daddy of the online book, CD and DVD industry is struggling with how to monetize digital downloads of video in a world where they — and the movie studios — make much more money by selling DVDs. Amazon is stuck in the middle, and as Rafat Ali of reported recently, they're trying to offer a best-of-both-worlds service.

Variety reports that the service...will have movies from indie studios, and at least two major studios.

But the service might have some offline-DVD variant to it: one possible scenario is that an Amazon customer could stream a digital copy of a film for a fee and apply that charge as a credit toward the eventual purchase of the DVD. Basically, try-before-you-buy...

Another plan is for a customer to buy a DVD; while waiting for it to arrive, he could stream the content over his computer.

Bottomline: doing everything not to erode into the DVD the story mentions: "When you go to a product page on the site, it will say all the variations about how you'd purchase that video -- stream, buy or maybe a combination (of options)."

I'm not sure the best-of-both-worlds approach will work in the medium to long term.

This approach won't work long term, because customers will ultimately push all media companies into the unbundled, Media 2.0 world. Look at what's happened to music.

When former FCC Chairman Michael Powell made his important statement, "Application separation is the most important paradigm shift in the history of communications, and it will change things forever," he was referring to the idea that what is being communicated (the content) no longer needs to be tied to a delivery mechanism (a television transmission, for example). But the reality is that the disconnect runs far deeper than that, and in a world where people can now manipulate their own unbundled, "separated" content, it behooves us all to invest in helping them do that.

"It's not my ministry" is a weak rationalization for keeping one's head in the sand.

© Terry Heaton