Local Media in a Postmodern World
Local Media in a Postmodern World: Is the Mainstream Winning?
August 2009

by Terry Heaton

Marketing Warfare, by Ries and TroutIn the Marketing Warfare world of Ries and Trout, there is a "rule" that the market leader can crush the efforts of all others, if it is paying attention and chooses to do so. So powerful is this concept that, in a period of challenge, market observers will point to the leader and simply say, "Just wait."

In the "market" of communications — especially the world of news and information "content" — traditional media companies have been taking a beating from web-based disruptions since the beginning, but there's evidence today that the giant has awakened, and people are beginning to say, "Just wait." It is a dangerous belief, however, that traditional media can overwhelm the Web and tame it in such a way as to make it its own, because there are actually two markets at play: news and information and the revenue gained from attaching ads to that news and information. Traditional media may, in fact, win the battle of the former but lose the war of the latter.

When Yahoo announced it was shutting down GeoCities in April, it set in motion a series of nostalgic wanderings throughout tech media, including a fascinating piece by Harry McCracken at Technologizer called Whatever Happened to the Top 15 Web Properties of April, 1999? McCracken observed that in April of 1999, GeoCities was one of the top ten internet properties (#6), so he compared the list back then to the list today. It's an interesting piece of evidence in the view that traditional media is increasingly seizing the Web.

RankApril 1999April 2009
Go Network
The Excite Network
Time Warner Online
Blue Mountain Arts
Real Networks
Fox Interactive (+MySpace)
Ask Network
Wikimedia Foundation
Glam Media
Turner Network
CBS Interactive
New York Times digital

Traditional media companies have cracked the top 15 and the others aren't far behind. Viacom Digital, The Weather Channel, Comcast, Verizon and Disney are all in the top 25 in 2009.

In its March 2005 "State of the Blogosphere" report, blog search company Technorati tracked inbound links (a measure of influence) and found blogs and traditional media companies sharing the top-50 list.

Tracking inbound links in 2005

Just two years later, the blue lines of the mainstream had shoved aside nearly every blog.

Tracking inbound links in 2007

Clearly, traditional media companies have been upping the ante on their use of the Web in the last decade. For legacy media, it's all about brand extension — a way to move their existing mass to the Web and creating another form of that mass.

Sensing this slow evolution, Richard Ziade of Basement.org penned a recent lament over the fading dream of the Web: the democratization of media. Called Big Media's Head Start, Ziade wrote of how easy it is for any New York Times reporter to generate hundreds of story comments, or how Twittering during a cooking segment on Good Morning America can produce hundreds of thousands of followers.

As for little olí me. Well, I enjoy a modest existence on this blog and I've just broken 100 followers on Twitter. Let me pitch my credentials on Larry King and you've got a very different story.

New media has tried to create its own megaphones based on mass validation. Delicious, Digg and the like. But it doesn't really work. The celebrities (and yes, a link has its 15 minutes of fame too) come and go very quickly. Itís a transient existence. There have been a few bona fide new media franchises: Perez Hilton and Boing Boing come to mind, but they're very few and far between.

In his lament, Ziade — mistakenly, I believe — views success as the creation of mass, and to this end, he and every other blogger faces an impossible task, compared to the power of mass media to influence their own users. With the Web, however, it's not so much about how many you influence as who you influence, their connections, and so forth.

And then there's the new data from Borrell Associates showing that online revenue growth at those traditional local media companies that are approaching the Web as a separate business is outpacing that of the pureplay companies in the same markets. That is a first, and it could signal a sea change in the fight for dominance in the Local Web.

Or it could not.

The tendency here is to look at all of this information and conclude that traditional media companies are executing market leadership practices, a la Ries and Trout. I've long written that the big advantage traditional media has over the pureplays is the megaphone of their legacy properties, and it's pretty clear we're using those megaphones today. The size and volume of the megaphone can move people to digital applications that people otherwise might not find, so what we're seeing here is explosive growth on the Web side driven by the mainstream, a mainstream, however, that assumes the Web is another form of mass marketing.

This is why traditional media likes Facebook and Twitter — they're ways to move a message from point A to the masses. CNN, for example, has no intention of following the one million people that follow it via Twitter. To them, Twitter is a way to market themselves to the masses and to receive user-generated news when it needs it. But Twitter is about conversation, not mass media, so is CNN participating in Twitter or bolting it on to its existing business? To those who've used Twitter since it first came along, it is a much different tool than what is being taught to the public via traditional media companies, who see it as a tool for them.

Which is more real? Good question.

Likewise, Facebook is a tool for people to keep in touch with their social network, friends, family and acquaintances. You tell me what's happening in your life, and I tell you what's happening in mine. I share my thoughts, preferences and even my recommendations. It's, like, social, dude.

But to media companies, it's another way to move the message, to promote and tease, to drive traffic. When media companies talk about Facebook through their legacy megaphones, are they being social or distributing content (or content links)?

And which is more real? Good question.

Perhaps the best answer is that the Web can be both, but here's the real rub: the Web can extend brands, but it is at its best when it's just the Web, when it's being social, when it's connecting various people with each other and the products and services they choose. And this is the danger of treating it only as a way to move messages to the masses.

For what is the assumption of media companies creating mass if not to serve unwanted, albeit paid messages to that mass? But the central assumption of the Web is it disintermediates all that and empowers people to flee from those same unwanted messages. The people formerly known as the advertisers are increasingly aware of this, and big gobs of their money aimed at that mass is neither a guarantee nor an inalienable right for media companies.

Moreover, when Good Morning America moves people to Twitter, it is moving an audience it already "owns" and monetizes. This is not how the Web can best serve the wants and needs of contemporary professional media.

It's why those media companies who are successfully competing with the pureplays locally are doing so with products and applications that connect people wishing to buy with people wishing to sell and not relying on mass marketing as the primary way to do that. These companies have discovered the secret of the Web, that advertising itself is a valuable form of content.

Every advertiser today can have a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account. They may not reach the audiences of the mass (yet), but they're growing, and the reach they do have is with people predisposed to their products and services. In addition, advertisers are increasingly exploring ways to reach consumers outside the mass (and its accompanying rates), and this is the real danger for media companies who only view the Web only as a way to extend their brands.

There are examples of how media companies — and especially certain members of the organizations (See: Amy Wood of WSPA-TV) — have embraced the Web and use it to move people to their legacy media properties instead of the other way around. This is the right use of the Web for traditional media, but in order to do that, we must believe in the Web, and clearly most of us don't.

We cling to the power of our brands. It's what we know, and what appears to be traditional media swarming all over this thing called "the Web" is mostly just the tactical efforts of a market leader, whose only solution to an attack is to co-opt, to overwhelm. While the Web certainly can be used to extend brands, we must eventually come to the realization that all we're doing is driving, to paraphrase NBCU's Jeff Zucker, our own analog dollars to digital pennies.

© Terry Heaton

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