Old Media Wannabes

July 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

An extensive piece in Bloomberg Business Week on Henry Blodget and his company, “The Business Insider” (TBI), ends featuring a quote from Nick Denton of Gawker, as follows:

“This is like the early days of cable,” [Denton] says. “High—surprisingly high—startup costs. But eventually advertisers move across, and the margins are lavish for the leading players in each category. Jezebel becomes Lifetime, HuffPo becomes MSNBC, and Henry becomes CNBC.” In that way, and that way only, Blodget would happily be right back where he started.

There you have it. This is a teachable moment to sharply illustrate that the striving classes (“leading players”) of new media are bent on being like old media. To be rich and powerful is a key driver, as always. To be thought of as big and important is another. But sharing with old media the same contempt for new media (and possibly its audiences) is really the hidden, dirty secret of new media’s old media wannabes.

To explain:

The latest initiative of the new media wannabes (see also: the rise of content mills) is to contrive content in favor of what the people want, as if old media content has been determinedly against what they want. Sadly, reality TV says it has not. Morning news programming says it has not. Four-color newsprint, says not. Howard Stern says not. Cage wrestling, pretty Russian spies in blue corsets, “If it bleeds it leads”, “NFL’s Red Zone”, Hannity and Colmes, Glenn Beck, and 800+ programming stations by cable or satellite, all say it has not.

The former editor of USA Today, John Quinn, addressed a Rhode Island Ad Club event in the late 80’s while I was the newspaper’s New England Sales Manager. During Q&A, to break the silence, I asked what story sells the most newspapers.

“Elvis”, Quinn answered without taking a breadth. “The papers fly off the newsstand when Elvis is on the cover.” Indeed, USA Today’s legend begins with the story of Al Neuharth, its founder while CEO of Gannett, tearing up the front page of the first issue to lead with the story of Grace Kelly’s death instead of an airplane crash because that’s what patrons were discussing in the bar downstairs where he’d been taking a break that first night.

Old media gets it. It is doing nothing to save them. What is it about new media wannabes that blinds them to that fact?

(Answer: old media ambition.)

“Blodget sees it as a simpler matter of being responsive to readers, something he believes the traditional media do a poor job of.  “I think in 10 years people won’t look at newspapers as the only model for real journalism—you’ll have native companies built on the Web who have a very collaborative approach with readers and sources,” he says. “Gawker and Huffington Post are both examples of companies that have had it tough and have had to be a lot more focused on what people want to read.”

Really? Had it tough? Compared to what?

Truthfully, the wannabes are working on the same problem relying on the same formula as old media. The fact that search exists to replace conversations in the bar changes nothing about the facts. It may make it more efficient. It may also make it less thoughtful (though that should seem impossible). Whatever. Give the people what they want. Unfortunately, we already know what that looks like.

Underneath this conversation, fueling the likes of companies such as Google and maybe even Facebook, is the internet, the fabric of which is created by the authentic new media class of publishers. They are ambitious, sure. Most of them would like to give up their day job and send their kids to college. On their own they are small and singularly focused. But, in aggregate their work offers something for everyone, on demand, and renders unnecessary the pandering of old and want-to-be-like-old-media. Which is why, as people, we like online.

The Bloomberg Business Week article suggests, however, that Blodget doesn’t see it that way, which I’d contend is true for all wannabes. “He and his investors don’t see established websites like TechCrunch or paidContent as their competitors, which might explain Blodget’s fixation on the Times”, it reports. And it continues:

“I think Henry sees the real competition as established financial journalism that itself is moving away from print, like Dow Jones, Thomson Reuters (TRI), CNBC,” says [former AOL exec and TBI investor, Richard] Hanlon. Some see TBI’s coverage of the troubled print media to be less reporting than Holy War. “I remember a horrible New York Times earnings report came out, and they were all laughing about it,” says Damian Ghigliotty, a graduate of City University of New York’s graduate school of journalism, who left TBI after interning there for two days in 2009. (Blodget was not a party to the joking.) “It was hilarious to them that the traditional media companies were tanking.”

Jealousy has only one source: desire.

The internet industry is like the early days of cable in the time it will take to mature and gain acceptance with advertisers. To the extent its striving classes measure success in relation to the faded glory of those days, however, new media’s ultimate break-through on value will be postponed.

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