Local Media in a Postmodern World:
It's Not the Same Game
April 2008

by Terry Heaton

D uring the Vietnam War, I was stationed at a long-range navigation base in the Philippines with 15 other guys. Our beacon was used by the B-52s to guide them as they bombed North Vietnam. It was considered "isolated duty," and we had a lot of free time on our hands, especially during the rainy season. We played poker and a wonderful game called Euchre, a trump game where the jack of trumps is the highest-ranked card and the jack of the other same colored suit is the second highest.

Euchre is only popular in pockets around the states, so we had to teach it to newcomers who joined us on the base. One guy, a fellow from New Jersey named McDowell, said, "Oh, this is like Hi, Lo, Jack and Game." Actually, the games had little in common except the use of trump, so we set him straight.

"No, there may be similarities, but that's a different game. This is Euchre."

A few years ago, I was delivering my new media message to a group of media executives led by a man with great vision and skill. His history and thinking, however, was all based in the Media 1.0, mass marketing paradigm, so his disconnect with the Media 2.0 concept was along these lines:

"No matter how you slice it, Terry, it's still the same game."

He was referring to the assembling of audience, whether en masse or by grouping fragments. This has long been the central framework for advertising, and it is in this area that media companies have considerable expertise. But is it true? Is the revenue challenge for media companies today one of understanding new rules for the same game, or is it a new game altogether?

As we said to the newcomers back in the Philippines, "There may be similarities, but it's not the same game."

Jeremy AllaireLate last year, Jeremy Allaire, founder/CEO of Brightcove and one of the brightest minds in technology, wrote in his predictions for 2008 that nothing about the Internet changes the fundamentals of media, adding that "value is created by controlling the content or controlling access to the audience."

"Media companies with established brands and new start-ups," he continued, "will continue to build successful branded destinations so they can control the access to audiences."

This is quite a statement, and one that bears close examination in light of disruptions to mass media, disintermediation, unbundling and the escalating fragmentation of all forms of media. The key fundamental that has shifted is that the pyramid is upside-down. The people formerly known as the audience are now in charge. Access to the audience, therefore, is what's restricted today, not access to the content.

It's the opposite of mass marketing. Consider the soapbox image of a guy above a crowd pitching his message, the preacher at the pulpit, the anchor at the news desk, or the full page ad in the paper. These are all one-way messages from the source to the crowd. The Web, however, makes the opposite possible. The consumer is on the soapbox facing a sea of messages. The mission now is to make those available in an easy-to-access form.

We're in an "unmarketing" era now, one wherein attraction is the key to value creation, not promotion. The days of the captive audience are gone forever, and how do you "control access to content," when your content is either being commodified or replaced by that which isn't controlled? In an era of attraction as the key to growth, more attention — and resources — must be given to product creation, not marketing. What we say about what we create was important in a top-down paradigm, but it's mostly meaningless in a world where users are in charge.

So the assumption that controlling access to content is still a valid business model in today's disruptive environment is problematic, at best, and more likely, dead in the water altogether. There are three issues to consider:

First of all, the "branded destinations" spoken of aren't unique in the architecture of the Web, and this is a problem. It doesn't matter how many people "visit," how long they stay, or whatís available through any particular URL, the Web considers them all the same, what I call pixels on a page. Therefore, any system of control is fragmented to the nth degree. Cable changed the value proposition of broadcasting, and the Web does the same to cable. We can spin things with HDTV and other things like specialized content, etc., but the dynamic is the same as what drug companies encounter when patents expire on their products. "Time-
released" becomes the selling point, not the product itself. But people — who are driven by price — go for the new generic. Same with content creators. No matter how we spin it, itís just another pixel on the page in the architecture of the Web.

So from a structural perspective, the media value proposition is lessened, because the eyeballs necessary to earn from that "value" have thousands, if not millions, of other choices. Moreover, as content becomes more and more commodified, it gets harder to identify any of it as "special."

Secondly, the assumption requires a belief that this "content" has sufficient qualities to compel the eyeballs in the first place. This, too, is a problem, because the creators of professional content have known — even before people starting unbundling things for themselves — that it was getting harder and harder to produce profitable demand. There were many factors at play here, but the one that the creators least wish to discuss is that content built on previous success — that is to say content based on research and history — does not necessarily lead to audience growth. And without growth, the fundamentals are meaningless. Hollywood, the record companies and the rest of the copyright industry are largely victims of the crap they've been producing for years. But crap is easy — and it can be profitable.

It is into this paradigm that J. D. Lascia's "personal media revolution" has blossomed, people educating and entertaining themselves with technologyís help. Nokia is predicting that in just five years, this type of "media" will account for one-fourth of all entertainment in the U.S.

The value of YouTube has never been in the distributing of the kinds of content described in media accounts of alleged pirating; it has always been about growing communities who are entertaining themselves. Professional video creators can scoff at and discount this all they wish, but eyeballs viewing this type of content are eyeballs that once needed the restraints of those creating value through restricted access.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this assumption dismisses the contemporary reality that advertisers — the people who funded the assumption in its earlier times — don't need the content anymore in order to do business. Advertising IS content in Media 2.0, and where money is spent by advertisers in creating their own content, it is not being spent on supporting the content of Jeremyís "branded destinations." Some advertisers are actually becoming their own media companies, and this challenges the assumptions of traditional media.

The problem may not be that the value proposition of media is changing as much as the definition of media itself, which is why companies must proceed down simultaneous strategic paths — monetizing their "content" as best they can but also moving to become portfolio companies by innovating in the worlds of advertising and Media 2.0.

So "media" is not the same game as it was in the old world, and the most dangerous move any media company can make today is to operate as though it's simply a matter of rules changes. It's not. It's a new game, and the rules aren't so much about gathering audience (en masse or fragmented) as they are about two significant value creation opportunities:

  1. Helping the people formerly known as the audience do their own thing. The rise of personal media is a significant opportunity for local media companies, because in producing their own forms of media, people are demonstrating a desire to do what we do and know what we know. If nothing else, we can teach them, but by enabling this — actually helping the process — we are in a better position to organize and aggregate its output in a variety of new businesses.

    At a conference of leading edge technical types — pioneers, if you will, of personal media — I asked 500 people if anyone would be interested in a subscription service of raw video that they could use as they wished. Every hand in the place shot up.

    There is a market for people creating their own newscasts or creating videos from archival material that's currently just sitting in vaults across the country. This is money waiting to be made.

  2. Helping the people formerly known as advertisers do business. The aggregator of the messages is the opportunity here. I wrote about this three years ago in "The Economy of Unbundled Advertising," and it's still a valid business proposition for local media.

    Letting people search for the messages they want is clearly one of the paths before us, and it will spawn a whole new form of attraction-based advertising, which will enable commerce in our communities and return local media to a key role therein.

There are business and governmental issues in a world where the "top" is occupied by everyday people. How does one grow a business, for example, when access to the mass is restricted? We'll figure that out. The real meaning of branding will be the foundation of new approaches, for the need to stand out in a crowd of other messages is the real challenge. We're already developing primitive solutions through, for example, search engine optimization.

What about civil defense? How will we get the word out to people in times of emergencies? We'll figure that out, too. Just as we do now, messages of local, regional, national or global concern could be assigned a priority.

And the warning for media companies is serious. We can either participate in the new game, or we will have to deal with increasing irrelevance, because somebody else — most likely the internet pureplay companies — will do it instead.

© Terry Heaton