Are media in the content business?

The Guardian launches its new Media Network my essay asking whether we in media are really in the content business. Here’s the first half (in the rest, I catalog the methods I think are worth exploring to rethink our role…. I’ll be expanding on that later).

* * *

What if we in media are not in the content business?

Oh, yes, we will produce content; that’s what we do. But perhaps our greatest value is not in what we produce but in what it produces: signals about people’s interests, about authority, about topics and trends.

That is how Facebook, Google, Twitter and company see content – as a signal generator. That is how they extract value from it, by using those signals to serve more relevant content, services, and advertising. But they are not in the content business. They are in the relationship business. Shouldn’t we also be?

A US TV news executive I know complained to me recently that Facebook and Google, in his words, use media’s steel to build their cars. “Mark Zuckerberg,” he said, “does not value content.”

No, I said, Zuckerberg values more content than we do. We think content is that which we make because we are content people – we see content as a scarcity we produce and control. Facebook and Google, on the other hand, see content everywhere – in the allegedly useless creations, chatter and links made by people in the course of their lives. They see content as an abundant resource to learn from, value and exploit.

The problem is, the media is not built for relationships because our industry was born in a time of factories, not services. We rarely know who our readers are (and we still call them just readers or at best commenters, not creators or collaborators). We do not have the means to gather, analyse and act on data about their activities and interests at an individual level. Thus we cannot serve them as individuals.

Our product, content, is not built for that. It is built for masses. That is what our means of production and distribution demanded. So now we try to adapt that content for new tools, impressed that we can add motion, sound or touch to what we have long done. But our online books, magazines, and newspapers are still recognisable as such. We haven’t gone nearly far enough yet to rethink and reinvent them….

  • What I’ve noticed about news articles and blog posts in general concerning those articles, is that sometimes the Comments and Individual Commenters, with their Individual Opinions about said article, speak volumes more about the topic at hand than the article it self.

    I enjoy reading individuals musings on a particular topic, sometimes much more than the “Official Poobah Journalist with the Official Stamp of Approval” who started the whole comment ball rolling in the first place.

    These comments that speak volumes more about the original topic itself include you also, Mr Jarvis, (whom I adore BTW) because you always invite and incite commenteering which is a very healthy thing.

    For those of us who remember what it was like “Back in the day before the Internet” and how hard it was to get an Op/Ed comment published in response to a particular journalist’s viewpoint, we know that what we have to say, matters also.

    And that makes all the difference in this epoch of publishing history.

  • Stan Hogan

    The media is not stuck in a time warp. You’re not paying attention to the sea change that has transitioned so many “content providers” into much more through the same methods you accuse them of ignoring.

    It has come through recognition, opportunity, necessity and “no-duh” intelligence. Aren’t you paying attention? Stop writing about the ’80s and the disconnect with the audience and look around you.

  • Jeff – Shouldn’t you first define who “we in media” is? Seems to me you are talking about old media (“media”) vs new media (“Facebook, Google, Twitter and company”) and that’s what’s got Stan excited.

    • Stan Hogan

      No, I was talking about old media. It isn’t just the Journal Register that’s aggregating, crowd sourcing, engaging and employing social media tools, it’s SOP with most old media.

      The scary thing is, it’s a long way from proving itself as any sort of a sustainable business model, which never seems to concern Jarvis all that much. In his mind, all you need to succeed is to be Facebook or Google.

      He continues to scold as though nothing has changed. It’s tiring and not really very productive.

      • Hello Stan,

        I’ve been working for the “old media” model (local TV news station) for 15 years (10 recent years at a 25+ market). I assure you that nothing has changed in our model except for the content itself (more quickly-produced “shock-and-awe” and less depth). The news gathering, producing, and delivery method is still the same from 20 years ago? 30 years? 40?

        Today there is VERY little relationship between a TV newsroom/producers and it’s viewers/web audience. The little bit of knowledge that we gather on our audience is based on the 60-year-old Nielsen ratings model and what little we can gather using (heh…of all things!) the new social network platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc).

        Trust me…Jeff has hit the nail on the head in regards to TV. This statement alone holds TONS of weight “…greatest value is not in what we produce but in what it produces”. SO true.

        I can’t speak for print, but I’m pretty sure that radio is in a very similar situation.


  • Jeff: What news services need to do is collaborate on a shared-user network for trust, privacy, identity and commerce. Details:

  • Jeff, Thanks for a most inspiring post.

    My view, of someone who has been reflecting since the early days about the social emergence of our networking world, is that one of the big ruptures of the journalist profession is happening between content and context.

    Journalists used to be the professionals of content. On the opposite site of the spectrum, social networks are the exponents of context creation. Facebook and Twitter are contexts for people to produce and exchange their own contents.

    The dialectical co-construction between content and context is happening today at an increasingly faster pace. Imagine the Yin-Yang symbol of Oriental balance rotating faster and faster, with the black and white dots representing context and context!

    More and more journalists seem to be aware of this rupture, even if only in the back of their minds, and they are embracing context do produce their content. In fact, they are becoming professional producers of both content and context. But traditional journalists seem to be taking much longer to realize the rupture.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Journalists used to be the professionals of content.

      What does “professionals of content” mean?

      It can’t mean “experts” because journalists aren’t and have never been subject matter experts.

      It can mean “reporters” or “storytellers”.

  • The old business model of Media was a mix of ineffectual advertising (as a reader you only pay attention when you actually need, or think you need, whatever the advertisers are pushing at you,) and content that was pretty much related to what your advertisers were. (You didn’t find baby formula ads in “Guns & Ammo” though most gun buyers were also parents.)

    The music industry has been decimated and the biggest artists are doing their own branding. But so are the bands that the old style A&R men would “Wal*Mart”ify for selling safe-lyric CDs at retail outlets. For example: Tower Records is dead, and iTunes killed it.

    Edgar Bronfman may be pissed at the loss of his influence, but its gone.

    When groups like “Die Antwoord” book themselves on Letterman without any help from any label, labels are done… “Ten$ion” is a huge indie hit and its all because the group took advantage of the web’s leveling effect.

    When comedian like Louis C.K. can release a show on the internet and it nets him over a million bucks in profit instead of the $10k that he might have got from Comedy Central or HBO, the writing is on the wall, and the words are painted in oligarch’s blood.

    Back to the broken media model… then came the internet and the web.

    Your company no longer needs to waste its money on hard-copy.

    Your company no longer needs to waste its money on advertising because, instead of having to put suggestions in people’s short lived attention spans.

    Basically 1:N media consists of people (media corporation owners) renting time to Global Village Idiots to yell their message in the increasing cacophony at people who aren’t paying the least bit of attention.

    Your company no longer needs to waste its money on non-interactive media. It can engage customers who come to you when they’re already over the hump that old-style advertising was supposed to ‘flatten out,” and you can process their requests for information, and their orders for whatever products or services you can provide.

    That’s is the power of N:M communication.

    Now lets get back to the oligarchs; the Citizen Kane wannabes, the Rupert Murdoch“s of the world…

    They’re still selling 1:N communications as if that model hadn’t been entirely subsumed by N:M communication.

    They think SOPA/PIPA/ACTA is going to save their bacon, but the pigs have left the barnyard.

    The internet is far too useful and valuable to companies and corporations to let the old media meddle with it.

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  • Jeff,
    Yes, but. Yes “Media”, and Journalism whithin, are not in the content business. But the problem comes when you accept (to deny its “value”) the fact that “we will produce content; that’s what we do”. In fact – to a wide extend – we don’t. We, and I mean Journalism practioners here, are in the make-sense-of-the-my-world business. That’s what the newspaper bundle was, and why it had a value/price. Of course “making sense” in the digital universe has become relational, but I think we should try and keep the stress on that.

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