Keep your long-term glasses on

Keep your long term glasses onWhen I was a news director, I was often hired in turn-around situations, where a company was dissatisfied with something involving the news department, usually the news ratings. Not every one of my appointments fell into this category, but I always enjoyed the challenge of competing with entrenched winners. I had a few rules that I’m sure the talented people who worked for me remember. Rule number one: there are no rules. We wouldn’t let ANYTHING hold us back from disrupting the status quo. Another rule was: keep your long-term glasses on. We needed to know that taking the mountain was a process that wouldn’t happen overnight.

This rule about long-term focus applies to traditional media, I think, in these times of change, because we’re on a path illuminated not by short-term fads but by long-term trends. It’s vitally more important, therefore, that we always act on behalf of those trends but always question the short term whirligigs that come along every day. I learned in the Coast Guard that the way to avoid sea sickness in rough weather is to keep your focus on the horizon, not on the waves or the view that keeps rising and falling. That’s good advice in any time of change.

But the problem is that many can’t see the horizon. We’ve either got our heads down, buried in day-to-day operations, or we’re trying to make ends meet. The horizon, however — our destination point — is what we need most, because if we can see the goal, we can create the processes needed to get us there. This does require, however, fixating our gaze forward instead of down or to the side.

Take, for example, Twitter. To properly view this wonderful notification system, we must begin with AOL. In fact, you’ll always be safe if AOL sits in the back of your mind as a red flag. AOL was training wheels for the Web, but it was its walled garden approach — building a web within the Web — that eventually spelled trouble, the same kind of trouble that Twitter, Facebook and other proprietary, closed systems provide today. What are the broader strokes that Twitter is providing? This is the important question.

This is why AR&D is writing a new book, 2015: The Future of Local Media. Nobody who reads this newsletter regularly will be surprised by anything in the book, because the book merely advances our vision. In the interim — and in the name of our long-term glasses — I thought I’d publish a list of five of the broad trends that we’re following. We’re all just overwhelmed with options these days, so use this list as a filter to keep yourself focused on what’s really important for tomorrow.

  1. The shift to real time news and information. Dave Winer wrote recently that Twitter is a dress rehearsal for what’s coming, and I think that’s true. During my interview with Kevin Kelly for the book, he noted that THE most important trend to follow is the move from a static Web to “the real time flows and streams” inherent in the living or “Live” Web. Let’s not think of real time as necessarily replacing that which is “finished, vetted and complete,” but rather as a new entity that is evolving before our eyes. Journalists must consider a commitment to real time as a part of doing their jobs, because the stream is the process of gathering news itself. It’s also important to understand that the stream is bigger than anything we put into it. Monetizing the stream, we believe, will come from curating the fire hose for individual consumption and from organizing separate streams from merchants wishing to get messages out to existing or potential customers.
  2. Portability. This is the year that analysts project more portable computing devices will be sold than those that are hard-wired to an Internet connection. 2011 is a tipping point, because portability brings proximity into the media equation, and that brings opportunity in the form of hyperlocal relevance, not only for news and information but also for making money. But don’t be fooled into thinking that portability is something other than just the good old Web. It’s not. Magazine apps for the iPad, for example, have been a bust, because the iPad is just a presentation layer on top of the Web. If it didn’t work on the Web, it won’t work via a portable device. Portability/proximity also brings a heightened sense of “local” into the information equation, almost a redefinition of the term and one with which we will have to contend in the years ahead.
  3. Unbundled content. In 2004, then FCC Chairman Michael Powell noted that “application separation is the most important paradigm change in the history of communications, and it will change things forever.” Media hasn’t fully caught on yet, because the act of “application separation” means, in large part, the unbolting of media content from the original source in which it was presented. Just as it was with the music industry, so it will be with media, because people not only object to our packaging as inefficient and time-wasting but also as self-serving despite claims of the opposite. There’s an old adage among successful bloggers that “if you send people away, they’ll come back,” which influences many strategic decisions about content, including full-feed RSS and outbound linking. Legacy media doesn’t get this, because it’s counterintuitive to its fundamental need to corral and maintain large audiences. Make no mistake, though, content distribution in the future will be unbundled, and the sooner we get there, the better.
  4. Consumers rule. This is perhaps the most overlooked and underestimated new reality for business in the 21st Century. The industrial age was all about a Mad Men sort of “warfare” in which brilliant marketers attacked the minds of people to move them to buy products. How heroic! The problem is nobody asked people if they could play with them this way, and now we have a problem. Consumers can not only talk back, but they can talk to each other, and this is a serious issue for those who need a one-way mechanism to change our minds. How have we responded? I just read in Online Media Dialy of “new video pre-roll units” that will leverage a “variety of targeting methods to deliver high-quality audiences more efficiently than the typical online video campaign.” People as “targets” aren’t really people, so we can put 15–30 second pre-rolls in front of 90-second videos and think that’s tolerable. Everybody knows that the optimum for pre-rolls is 7–10 seconds, but Madison Avenue refuses to believe that it no longer has carte blanche in messing with the lives of consumers. Starcomm’s Rishad Tobaccowala said many years ago that “we’ve entered an empowered era in which humans are God, because technology allows them to be godlike. He asks, “How will you engage God?” It’s a question we should be asking.
  5. Video, video, video. By 2014, Cisco projects that the average downbound bandwidth of the Web will be 14.4 megs and that nearly all of the growth in traffic will be video. Much, if not most of that video will be advertising of one form or the other (if you don’t believe this, spend a little time on YouTube), and this is something local media companies are ideally suited to provide. At many local TV stations, we have whole production departments sitting around twirling their thumbs while waiting for the next commercial shoot when they could be on-the-street making YouTube and other videos for online consumption. We don’t see this, because we’re too busy waiting for the next ad agency to come along with a new pre-roll. We’re so stuck on attaching ads to OUR content as the only source of revenue, but a whole new world is opening for us to pursue. Newspapers could (and are) easily steal this right out from under the noses of TV stations. The online video world has just begun, and we’re stuck waiting for somebody to show us the way rather than attacking it head-on today.

What, Terry, no “deals” application? Perhaps. There are many other trends we’ll be examining in the book, in addition to putting it all together for you in a “here’s what it’ll look like” view of local media, circa 2015. Meanwhile, though, if we’ll run anything that’s presented to us through these filters, we’ll be on solid ground for tomorrow. Is it video-centric? Is it pro-consumer? Is it unbundled and free to be passed around? Is it meant for portable Web consumption? Is it a part of the real time flows and streams? If that which is before you provides a “yes” to those, then take it to the bank that you’re on solid ground. If not, you might want to proceed cautiously.

And keep your long-term glasses on.

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