Media 2.0 101: separation is the key to media survival

We need to separateI’m occasionally told that I bash and complain too much and tend to write about what’s wrong instead of offering advice on what to do. So this week’s Media 2.0 101 is dedicated to simple (but hard) advice.

For media companies to thrive in the 21st Century, we must learn to embrace the word “separation.” We must separate the content we make from its infrastructure. We must produce a form of news-as-a-process and separate that from the finished products we produce. And we must separate our ability to make content from our revenue-growing potential.

INFRASTRUCTURE

If you’ve followed my work at all, you’re familiar with this 2004 quote from then FCC Chairman Michael Powell:

Application separation is the most important paradigm shift in the history of communications, and it will change things forever.”

He was speaking of the ability to separate any communications application from the infrastructure needed to deliver it, and this is the heart of the disruptive technology of the online digital world. Applying this paradigm to thinking about the future reveals realities that we might not otherwise consider, the most important being that the salvation of media is to embrace this rather than fight it.

Media companies make money through the infrastructure, not the content it presents, and that has to change. This is why pay walls don’t (and won’t) work, why banner advertising doesn’t work (nobody sees them), why otherwise intelligent executives would speak of digital dimes versus analog dollars. I love what John Paton of the “Digital First” Journal Register Company (JRC) says about that one: “Start stacking dimes!”

The idea that marketers can force people into anything is archaic, because that’s all done via infrastructure. It’s the eleven other cuts on the CD that allowed record companies to charge up to $20 for a single hit that buyers were actually seeking. It’s the infrastructure of a television station that has turned one-third of prime time into a marketing frenzy, while viewers buy their TiVos to escape the bombardment. It’s the ability to quickly consume unbundled content that birthed RSS, and its language, XML, was created to separate content from formatting, which allows us to “mix” content from different places, such as Flickr Maps. The point is that separation is where everything’s going, except perhaps us.

The longer we cling to our infrastructure as “the hope,” the farther from reality we get, the fewer are our options, and the greater the likelihood of our collapse. The more we embrace the unbundled universe, the more in sync we are with where things are heading, which will allow us to begin exploring revenue options (about which I’ve written many times). We really don’t have a choice in this.

NEWS-AS-A-PROCESS

One of the clearest trends for the news industry is a dramatic shift from finished products, which are tied to infrastructures, to the rapidly flowing stream of real time news and information. Twitter and other text services, RSS, social media status updates and text messaging have tipped the news business upside down. Curating all those streams has become the new challenge and doing so in real time.Traditional media companies are all participating in this, but all too often, we do so by insisting that finished news stories not only belong in the stream but should take precedence over everything else. This is simply false, and it badly misinterprets what’s taking place, because we want/need people to come to our infrastructures (see above). We must abandon that, but it’s not an either/or, all-or-nothing thing. It’s a simple matter of separation. We need two emphases during the day, which is the real prime time for real time news. We can easily create our own streams — and add to the bigger stream — by producing and distributing an unbundled form of news-as-a-process. At AR&D, we call this “Continuous News,” and the people formerly known as the audience LOVES it.

This doesn’t mean giving up our finished products, so the separation is as much in our minds as it is in practical application form. There’s no reason whatsoever we can’t produce both, and that’s what I think we “should” do as part of our all-encompassing Media 2.0 strategy. Paton would call this operating as “Digital First,” which has been badly misinterpreted by those who feel their finished product ox is being gored.

As we’re developing and honing our skills at news in real time, we’ll be forced into reinventing our finished products as well, and that will be refreshing. In a world where people already know the basics of what’s going on, finished “news” needs a new name and new concepts. The story and the article will still be important, but they must take on a different mission and function. What is that? We’re working on it, but so should everybody else. Why? Because we’ll never bring people back doing the thing that’s chasing them away.

If you’ll forgive the comparison, lipstick on a pig is still a pig.

REVENUE OPPORTUNITIES

This is both the biggest problem and the biggest opportunity for media companies, and it’s what I write about most. Making money in the new world BEGINS with separating ourselves from the notion that the only way we can do so is by attaching ads to or interrupting the content we make. It is through this mistaken assumption that our real competitors today are the Googles and Groupons of the world.The television stations and newspapers of the world cannot allow themselves to see past the limits of their “industries,” which is the textbook “Innovator’s Dilemma.” It’s why there is so much time, energy and resources devoted to being the best TV station we can be online or the best newspaper we can be online. It’s why we can only go so far in embracing the disruption of Jay Rosen’s “Great Horizontal.” Our responses completely and utterly and totally miss the point. When we copy what one of our offline competitors does, we dig ourselves deeper in the hole of irrelevance, because none of it matters. None of it!

That’s because the advertising industry — of which we are essential parts — is itself in disruption by the same forces that are disrupting media content. In the end, it’s not about content; it’s entirely about advertising, and we missed “search” and missed “deals” and will miss anything else that comes along, because we’re convinced we’re really in the content “business.”

What “should” we do? Wake up! Innovate. Invest. Local commerce still needs enabling, which is the raison d’être of advertising anyway. This is where the venture capital money is going. It’s a problem that needs solving, and that’s what VCs do with their money. Us? We try to be better TV stations or newspapers. Do you see the problem?

To get on this wavelength, this “vibe,” we need to separate our money-making drive from the creation of content. Oh, we can and should continue to make money that way, but it just cannot sustain us forever. It. Is. Impossible.

This sounds foolish and “out there” to most media managers, but it is precisely where we need to be to maintain relevance in any form or fashion tomorrow.

So let’s review. Today’s “what to do” instead of “bash and complain” is simple (but hard): separate! Separate content from infrastructure. Separate news-as-a-process from finished-product-news. Separate both from revenue plays. If you need the practical steps for each or want to know how to apply each of these to your business, I’m more than happy to talk to you and your team about it.

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