The Future Media Barons of the World

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Interesting_captions_on_the_wall_in_21_21_#Design_Sight_in_#Tokyo_#Japan_at_21_21_DESIGN_SIGHTIn the recent months, the world of media has undergone a lot of change, with large amounts of venture capital poured in Buzzfeed and the technology savvy business men starting to own the printing news press, for example, Jeff Bezos owned The Washington Post. With the recent news that showed clashes between the editors and journalists against their business overlords, we are presented the view that technology and media do not mix. Yet, the future of media requires technology which has innovated on distribution. In this essay, I explain this conundrum between technology and media and provide a view in what is necessary for the future media barons to own in the world ahead.

“The medium is the message.” – Marshall McLuhan

The inspiration of this post arises from watching the series “The Newsroom” written by Aaron Sorkin. I remain very much a fan from the days of “The West Wing” till today. In the last two episodes, Sorkin condensed the conundrum of the traditional newsroom steeped in journalistic integrity and failing business model versus the up and coming media platforms that focus on distribution metrics & sensational content (which may not be important for the rest of the world but nevertheless the centre of attention). The ending where Charlie, the fictional president of the news network died of a heart attack while engaged in a conflict with Pruit, the billionaire and owner of the network, over editorial differences has amplified that conundrum. Although we see the parallels in the real world where the editors of the New Republic revolt against their media owner, Chris Hughes (a former co-founder of Facebook), we did not see it leading to any death of a human being (and Reid Hoffman is among those who sympathise with him). Of course, drama has the ability to exaggerate the theme of content quality versus business interests.

I am often fascinated by the media industry, both as a previous media owner of a news portal and at the same time, an avid content creator and producer. I found it strange that the new upstarts of technology is at war with the traditional media owners and editors. Traditional media such as the printed press, television stations and newsroom find it hard to accommodate the changes brought about by the digital world. The media executives of the traditional media business have a choice. They could choose to live in the current reality or die in their old world. For strange reasons, they prefer to die in their old world than find ways to accommodate to the new one.

Reid Hoffman offered an interesting reflection from his defence of Chris Hughes:

In this new era of ambitious and abundant journalistic experimentation, stasis guarantees irrelevance. Instead of invoking past legacies, it’s a time for adaptation, new thinking, an appetite for risk.

It’s easier to criticise how dumb the executives are in holding on to their existing beliefs and not shifting quickly to the new business reality. It is too simplified to attribute blame to them. The underlying problem with the media industry, is that they too have a technical debt problem similar to the mobile industry.  The technology which they use to distribute and broadcast their content is totally deemed irrelevant by the Internet. At first, they thought that they can control the content but that is commoditised by people who are creating similar content for free. If they are smart enough, they will have shifted to the digital world quickly like the way how periodicals such as “The Economist”, Financial Times & the Guardian have. In fact, even the prestigious “New York Times” is only at the start of shifting its model towards the new digital world.

Digitalisation erodes the control of content by the mainstream press and bifurcates the market segmentation into two ends: (a) the high end market of important and accurate content where customers would want to pay for, for example, Bloomberg terminals with market data, (b) the low end market where niche bloggers or new social platforms which create, curate and distribute the content at a massive scale. The hollow out of the middle ended traditional printing press.

Why do we need journalists to write quality content about a subject where the subject matter expert can easily write a blog post through medium or post his or her insight through twitter? As a matter of fact, the way in how journalists are educated should be similar to how traditional businesses are restructured against disruptors of their business.

How do we see the new media barons in the next few decades? I have a couple of perspectives on this:

1. Content is no longer controlled in the hands of the few, but the quality and writing will be respected for those who are passionate in the subject or true subject matter experts. If you are a journalist or editor, you should specialise and be good not just in the writing but also the understanding of the content. If you want your media owner to respect your view, you should be equally eloquent in how content can be curated and distributed. If there is a role model, Anna Wintour of Vogue is a great role model which mastered at curating fashion content and at the same time, demonstrate the propensity to try new platforms in distributing her content with her parent company, Conde Nast.

2. The new media owners are not going to be like Rupert Murdoch who controls media assets and content. In fact, the new generation of media owners are masters in harnessing media assets not from a command and control method but rather decentralised of distribution and micro-targeting of the niches.

3. Mass targeting or advertising through media will shift towards a micro targeting of niche audiences. That is demonstrated by social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The irony is that the traditional media networks are unable to tap into this form of micro-targeting because they have a traditional mindset of selling media at bulk rather in small chunks packaged with “a pay as you go” model.

4. Although we see a flurry of activity in the low end market for media, we have not seen a lot of activity in the high end market. In fact, in Asia, most journalists in traditional media are afraid to venture into the digital media world as compared to their western counterparts. One successful example is Re/Code, in its previous incarnation as All Things Digital in a mainstream media business, where their real revenue come from conferences rather than content.

Currently we see a lot of experimentation happening in the US, but very few in Asia, probably the main media activity are happening in north east Asia, much less to say in Southeast Asia.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist