To what end? The question that kills media reinvention

old church storyThere’s an old church story about a small parish that brought in a new pastor amid certain bickering among the parishioners. The old pastor had retired, and, after some infighting, the church thought a little young blood would be good for everybody. So a nice young man with a pretty wife and two small children came aboard, and the congregation was all smiles when his first sermon was all about love. There was agreement that this was the right choice.

By the fourth week, however, the affection had begun to lessen. His second sermon was also about love, as was his third, and when the latest week was also about the topic of love, there was grumbling as the pews emptied and the parishioners headed home. A man who felt himself a spokesman for the group passed the handshake line with the preacher and said, “Ah, dear Reverend, we’ve had four weeks of love,” he said with a wisp of a smile. “Don’t you think we can move on to something else?” The young man put his arm around the older gentleman and quietly replied, “Thanks for the suggestion, but when I think we’ve got this one down, we’ll try another topic.”

In today’s whirl about world of new media with new gadgets, gizmos and gurus every ten seconds, it’s easy to get distracted from the process of media reinvention and begin to think that it’s really not that necessary. Social media? Got it! Tablets? Got it! It sure “feels” like we’re doing something. Even the new Pew report released this week suggests that media is back. Let the good times roll!

But even the most optimistic media executive, if she can be honest with herself, realizes that the road ahead is an extremely rough one. There’s been no real growth in years, and something’s happening that’s beyond simple maturation. We must remember that no matter how nice those new revenues feel, if they’re based on old forms and formulas, we’re deceiving ourselves, and it’s probably time for another sermon about love.

I’ve been working with media companies on these concepts now for ten years, and my biggest frustration remains the request for the roadmap (or is it a treasure map?), the processes that move us from where we are to where we need to be. The most common roadmap for media companies is one that somebody else is using, so we’re still always asked, “Who’s doing that?” Media companies are very good at copying; it’s the innovating for reinvention that’s the problem. Even when occasionally presented with a map, however, media executives often reject it in disbelief.

For most people, Media 2.0 is still simply Media 1.0 with a fresh coat of paint, and that’s the sad reality of “the state of the news media, circa 2011.”

In its simplest form, the business of media is the creation of an advertising solution. If somebody wishes to sell coats, for example, we can help them do that by placing a message about their coats amidst the content we create. Why does it work? Because we draw an audience to that content, so the ad message has the chance of being seen. We wash our hands of the responsibility for the actual seeing of the ad, feeling that our mission ends at the building of the audience.

This is the fundamental game of media, and it is this which is so powerfully disrupted by technology today. How? Fragmentation, disintermediation, hyperconnectivity and the personal media revolution. These are each game-changers; together, however, they’re the perfect storm, and there’s no going back, only going forward. No matter how much stunting we do as Media 1.0, we will never find growing downstream profitability by continuing to play this game. Never. And I don’t care how much contradictory evidence comes from reports like Pew; it simply cannot happen.


The other frustrating matter is that we’ll also never find reinvention through the same people that made us successful in the Media 1.0 world, because their expertise here gets in the way. Let me give you just one example using the logical question “to what end?”

One of the more obvious trends of new media is the dramatic shift to real time. As I wrote four years ago in “News is a Process, Not a Finished Product,” we’ve entered an age where news consumption won’t wait for us to neatly package things anymore. I can present considerable evidence of this, and logically, media executives follow it. But the mass media mind clouds the issue, when confronted with the need to shift the manufacturing of packaged newscasts, for example, to real-time presentations of unbundled streams, either via the Web, Twitter or Facebook. “To what end,” is always the question. “How do we turn that into cash?” And here’s why only a very few companies can bring themselves to real reinvention: the answer to the question is often “I don’t know.”

But “I don’t know” is unacceptable, even if that’s all we get right now. Nevertheless, how can we, in the face of such an obvious trend, ignore it, just because we can’t see the end of it? This is not innovation. This is not reinvention. This is waiting for the treasure map, and it’s killing us on many, many levels.

To the industrial age MBA, entering into something without the end game is chaos, and chaos is foolishness, because it cannot be managed. Today’s chaos, however, is tomorrow’s organization, and “first-in” status has significant competitive advantages, so what choice to we have really?

So let’s take the time today to go back and review six fundamentals about life in media reinvention. I’ll go so far as to promise that if you are indeed pursuing these, you’ll find relevance tomorrow, although I’m not sure I can tell you exactly what that will look like. The map is still being drawn — and will continue to be drawn — because there’s new territory to include. Contrariwise, if you are not pursuing these, I can promise that retirement might be a good option for you. Please get out of the way, so that somebody else can pursue the inevitable.

  1. New Media is real time. If you and your company are not practicing this, you are completely risking relevance for the future. This is so important that your entire organization should be built around it, even supplanting your own daily newscasts or newspaper in terms of priority for your newsroom. Those finished products are going to have to evolve into something completely different, and you won’t have a clue how to innovate that, if real-time isn’t your internal operating priority today.
  2. New Media is unbundled. The refusal to participate in unbundled media practices such as full feed RSS is, in my judgment, the greatest sin of professional media today. We don’t do it, because it makes it easy for people to “steal” our content, despite the evidence that place-based distribution IS the future model. Again, when I say “unbundle,” the response is always “to what end?” The answer isn’t known yet, and my argument is we’ll not be the ones to discover it unless we’re the ones practicing it.
  3. New Media is participatory. New media is community media, and while most companies have figured out that it’s smart to make ways for people to contribute their “content,” most of this is done simply to advance the brand of the media company. We need to get into the community, teach people and show them what we know about making media. The relationship is symbiotic, and we must nurture that for a more connected tomorrow.
  4. New Media is everybody. Everybody is a media company today, including the people formerly known as the advertisers. The promotions category is now disrupting advertising altogether, according to Borrell, representing 59.7% of all marketing dollars today. This is people spending money on themselves that they used to spend with us. Horizontal connectivity among everyday people is the real disruptor of media today, and our practices must take this into consideration.
  5. New Media is decentralized. In an industrial society, centralization is the key to efficiency, but it is a ball and chain in the hyperconnected, participatory, nimble, omni-directional culture of information today. The 20th Century, especially in its later decades, was the age of pushing from a central core, but pulling from the edges is the mandate of the 21st Century. This is why marketing — the tool of push — isn’t as important as the products themselves; the pushed messages interfere with the smooth flow of energy that powers the machine. We will not find relevance tomorrow by continuing to wrap old methods in new clothing. Same core. Same results.
  6. New Media is portable. This is where I see people missing it the most, for portable media seems as though it’s “just another screen” for our exploitation. It’s so much more than that, requiring, I believe, a separate unit entirely for the dissemination of content and the enabling of commerce. It’s very hard to run portable media using the tools and systems of old media, for it represents everything that is new, which includes all of the above other five mandates. Just as we’ve seen those with separate digital divisions lead the way with digital overall, we’ll see those who invest in portable as its own disruptor do likewise.

My message isn’t always the most popular one in the pipe, and I realize that. There are powerful forces at work that would lead us to believe that if we just stay the course with what we know, we’ll be fine. At AR&D, however, we feel that reinvention is the necessity today, and we’re not going to get there without the courage of our convictions that we must change, chaotic as that may be for a season.

So consider this yet another sermon for the congregation about love. Like the pastor in the story above, when we fully get that, we’ll move on. Until then, however, we’ve got a lot of work to do.


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