08
January
2010
|
12:08 PM
America/Los_Angeles

CES Diary: Media Woes... When Foresight Is No Better Than Hindsight

I've been meeting a lot of media people, and having the same conversation, how difficult it is to make a living. Even if you work for a 'new media' publisher, it's tough to make a living as a media professional.

I shouldn't be surprised about all the disruption going on in the media sector because I was one of the first to draw attention to the gathering disruptive forces that will affect media way back in 2004.

That was the year I left my job as a reporter at the Financial Times to make a living as a 'blogger' journalist. By being the first reporter to do that, it has given me a valuable insight into the media sector as a whole.

My business reporting background gave me the analytical tools I needed to figure out what was happening in the media industry.

I understood how the old media business worked because that's where I came from. And in my new job as an online publisher, I saw the economics of the new world.

I quickly saw that the old media world would face a huge problem transitioning to the economics of the online world.

Althoug it was five years ago I started warning people about this massive issue, few understood there would be a problem. The difficulties in the media industry were seen as part of a business cycle rather than the fact that a fundamental change had happened.

I could see that there was no way that a current media business could make the transition to economics of the online world without a tremendous amount of pain. Even a large regional newspaper such as The San Francisco Chronicle would be in trouble. In trouble because of its many costs: more than 400 editorial salaries, its admins, its pension plans, office buildings, expense accounts, its vans, its printing press etc.

There was no way online revenues would support that cost structure.

I could see that "you can't get there from here." It's a wonderful American expression that makes perfect sense in the context of the media industry.

Back in 2005 I was writing articles about this issue and asking "What will happen if the old media dies before the new media learns to walk?" What will happen if this coming disruption is so devastating that we lose the best practices of journalism that have taken hundreds of years to develop?

What happens if we lose most of our journalists, editors, and all the rest of our media professionals?

Five years ago I thought that by now we would have figured out a viable business model for most types of online media businesses.

Five years ago I thought that we would go through a tough disruptive period that would shake up the media industry but that by now we would have figured out the new media business model.

I was right about the disruption, I was wrong about how long it would take.

So I shouldn't be surprised that media is a tough place to be in right now. I shouldn't be surprised that many of my conversations at CES have been about how tough it is to be in the media business.

It's frustrating that my foresight into the media sectors future challenges has been no more valuable than hindsight. Seeing the future doesn't mean you can change the future.

I, too, am caught in the middle of the disruption, I, too, am trying to figure out how to make a living as a media professional...

I love my beat: reporting from Silicon Valley at the intersection of technology and media. Silicon Valley is now a Media Valley, driving much of the disruption of the media industry. And I love the irony that media is the worst place to be as media professional, but it's the most fascinating story around. And I love that I'm in the story too.

And it is great to be in the middle of one of the most important questions facing society: How do we figure out the new business models for professional journalism?

The software engineers have a saying: Garbage in, garbage out. We need professional journalism because we need high quality information so that we can make good decisions as a society.

We need high quality information so that we can improve our chances of making the right decisions about many important things: environment, economy, the middle east, education, energy . . . and that's just those that begin with the letter 'e' -- there's plenty more.

As the media industry transitions to a new business model and as we figure out what that business model will be, we will face a very tough period for our society. We will have a free-for-all media world that will be exploited by various self-interest groups, nefarious organizations, and criminal groups.

I'm optimistic that this coming Wild West world will be short-lived and its effects transitory but that's just a guess.

In the meantime, it would be great if we could speed things along, speed the disruption in the media industry but not throw the baby out with the bath water. We need to make sure that enough of the old media world transitions into the new, so that it can teach the new media world how to walk.

A common discussion I've been having at CES with other journalists, bloggers, and publishers of new media sites, is about how difficult it is to make a living. It's not just the traditional media companies that are struggling.

You need a huge amount of traffic to make a living as an online journalist, news site or blog site. I keep hearing from other online publishers a similar story: 'I can't do this for much longer.'

One publisher asked: "Why aren't large advertisers such as Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, supporting our work?"

I can sympaphize because I'm in the same boat. Intel, Tibco Software, Infineon, Edelman, were early sponsors of SVW and I'm very grateful for that support. But I haven't had any sponsorship in close to a year and I know many online news sites run by veteran journalists, unable to win any support from large companies.

But this is the precise time that companies such as Cisco, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Adobe, Dell, and others, should be stepping in and investing in the new media publications, choosing those that are run by experienced veteran journalists, ensuring that what emerges from the disruption of the media industry is quality media.

Otherwise it will take years to rebuild the integrity of the media sector because we will have lost our best people, they will close down their sites, they will get other jobs.

This is the best time for large companies to spread some sponsorship monies around and help birth the next media industry.

If they don't, they will have huge problems dealing with a future media sector that has to relearn, rediscover its best practices, its ethics, and its integrity.

Dell, for example, did a lot to help online news sites such as CNET, when they first began to publish in the 1990s by providing generous advertising deals.

Of course, I have an enormous self-interest in all of this because I want to continue to doing what I love to do, publishing SVW. But I'm having to branch out into consulting and other work, so that I can support my journalism. I'd rather spend my time working full-time on SVW.

I have a self- interest but I am not self-centered. There are many others in the same position as myself. There are many journalists trying to build great news sites, create unique content, and striving to maintain the best practices of their profession.

Now's the time for large businesses to step up and to support those ventures through sponsorships and other deals. Now's the time because those opportunities won't be there for long. Those nascent media ventures will be gone. The opportunities to promote the best media organizations will be lost.

Five years ago I pointed out that every company is now a media company. That means every company has to develop the skills and expertise of a media company. Without a vibrant independent media sector there will be few models, few professionals, to help companies with one of their most important business transformations.

The dirty little secret about all of this is that it's not just the media industry that is being disrupted, that's just the visible part of a much larger issue.

If every company is now a media company, then every company is now vulnerable to the disruptive forces affecting media companies.

We're all in it together but we don't all yet realize it.