Traditional Media’s collision course with itself

I’m suffering from the system overload that I’m sure other media observers get when the sheer volume of things to write about overwhelms the ability to spit out the kind of commentary it all deserves. Between phone calls, I spent the entire day yesterday reading and thinking, and it didn’t seem all that productive. Hence, the diagnosis of system overload.

And when this happens, it usually means (for me) a time of stepping back, a season to follow the dots and see where they lead. I’ve got a lot of uncomfortable feelings that need clarification.

Is Steve Rubel, a blogger I’ve followed since he first began, correct in predicting a crash in the pay-per-click world? My gut says he’s wrong, but, I mean, this is Steve Rubel! He gives five reasons why he feels this way, but Steve runs in the world of big-money marketers, one with an inherent bias towards the status quo. Besides, I don’t think they’re the people buying these kinds of ads from Google, and there’s no survey of them (that I know of) to see whether they think the things work or not.

I mean, this is Google, folks. The “recession” Steve predicts would be a recession for Google, which I view as the wishful thoughts of Madison Avenue (Oh please, God, let them collapse and prove we’re right).

Then there’s Scripps splitting itself into two pieces (seems to be a trend), and the two pieces are telling. One consists of its popular cable entities and all web properties. The other is its newspapers and television stations. I guess the hope is that the latter won’t be a drag on the former, but what does this say about those older properties (and the people who work there)?

Perhaps my malaise is due, in part, to participation in a heady online discussion (via Poynter’s Online News list) about the future of advertiser-supported media. It all began with Roy Peter Clark’s article, Your Duty to Read the Paper. There’s a ton of cynicism out there and even more anachronistic clinging to old models and methods. There’s also debate about whether there’s enough online ad money to support the traditional newsgathering process.

This issue of ad money is a theme repeated by Beth Comstock, president of Integrated Media at NBC Universal. She told Reuters:

I’m getting to the point where I feel like every answer to every business development pitch is ‘We’re going to be advertiser supported.’ … There are not going to be enough advertising dollars in the marketplace. No matter how clever we are, no matter what the format is.

You see, these kinds of things don’t make any sense to me, because I don’t view anything about the Web and web advertising as static. Therefore, I think it can be very misleading to try and understand shifts and trends in such a manner. Everybody has a point-of-view, and it depends on where you’re standing.

The view from Madison Avenue is very different than the view from Silicon Valley, and mine is sort of in-between, although I certainly tilt to the west. Ms. Comstock looks at the ad numbers and rightly states that there isn’t enough enough to support millions of “ad-supported” business models. This flows from a belief that “ad-supported” has only one definition: I make content and advertisers pay enough in ads to support the creation of that content plus a little (a lot of) profit for me. In this sense, she’s absolutely correct, and what does that say about all of the ad-supported models that are springing up at the local level?

Steve Safran and I beat our heads against the wall trying to convince people that the time to act is NOW. Do you need any more evidence that this to understand that the advertiser pie can only be split so many ways before it all collapses, because no viable platforms exist anymore?

And what do you do as a local media company in attacking the matter of advertising? Do you target money that’s in the Madison Avenue pipeline that’s looking for places to be spent? Do you target money that’s being spent locally, albeit not on your properties? Or do you begin with assumptions about tomorrow and point your ship in that direction?

So you see, there’s a lot of confusion out there, and I think that’s to be expected at a time like this. For me, though, I must stay with the firm belief that advertising is what’s really being disrupted and that — like everything else in the personal media revolution — it’s coming from the bottom, not the top. Companies that enable this will thrive.

One such company is called AdReady. It provides user-friendly software for the making and serving animated display ads by small businesses, and Nick Gonzalez at TechCrunch is right when he writes about the future:

With Google’s purchase of DoubleClick and Yahoo’s SmartAds initiative, the focus is being drawn back on display advertising. A tool like AdReady helps even the little guys get in to the growing market. That is, unless Google does something like this too.

This is the kind of initiative that I’m convinced local media companies need to be providing to seed a growing local online advertising opportunity.

And finally, there’s this disquieting little piece of information, also from TechCrunch. China — yes, China — has developed peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing that’s 50 times faster than BitTorrent in this country. Duncan Riley cites a Thomas Crampton interview with Ogilvy China’s Kaiser Kuo, during which Kuo claims to have watched a DVD-quality download of “24” with 2.2% downloaded after only 3 minutes via China’s Blin.cn. Riley, who’s from Australia, then writes of the future ramifications, and I find this both ironic and chilling.

…without the artificial market restrictions imposed on P2P networks in the United States by the RIAA and the MPAA, Chinese companies have been free to innovate and are now producing superior web technology in P2P sharing, and a whole range of related industries. If you think it’s bad that China dominates the market for consumer goods, imagine that today companies in China have already created the next wave of P2P innovation and are thriving, perhaps ironically in a Communist country, with more freedoms than their American counterparts. It’s not unreasonable to consider that next year and into the future that much of what we do online may end up being based on Chinese designed technology and programming, and not good ol’ fashioned American know-how.

I guess that’s what’s really pulled me into the deep end of the pool today. Only in America, it seems, is free enterprise really not free. It’s a game played by the haves, and that’s what’s under attack by the triumph of personal media over mass media.

I think we’re headed for great change in this country, the thought of which generally makes me go quiet.

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