Should NYT Fear Flipboard? Publishers and The Diversity of Containers

26 04 2011

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite pastime in our current age of agile developed, game changing, paradigm shifts: remembering how things used to be.

In this case let’s remember those days of when most people consumed news via one medium: Newspapers. Newspapers, which have existed to serve various objectives (news reporting, editorializing, political agitation), all had three, seemingly inextricable attributes: the content (the news or opinion you created), the medium (content printed on paper and distributed to readers) and the container (or format, such as pamphlets, newsletters, tabloids or broadsheets). For any given publication, these three attributes were all of a piece. One couldn’t imagine extricating the news from the method of delivering it. Why produce news if you don’t have a way to get that news to people? And attempting to separate your content into multiple, simultaneous containers was unheard of.

But as broadcasting emerged as a new medium naturally suited to news distribution, people began looking to multiple mediums to suit their news consumption needs. And while some would only select one preferred medium for news consumption, most would leverage both mediums for various aspects of their day (e.g., reading the paper in the morning, hearing radio news in the car or during their workday, watching the evening TV news. Still, most producers of news content would specialize in just one medium and container (apart from an occasional marketing partnership, or vestigial business, e.g. CBS radio news) and only really competed with other content producers within their medium.

Fast-forwarding to today, a new medium has emerged (Internet) and become dominant, multiple consumption containers now exist, ranging from devices (PCs, smartphones, tablets) to programs within those devices (browsers, content-specific apps) to services within those programs within those devices (news Web sites, Twitter, social networks, aggregators). And as traditional content producers from print and broadcast mediums rush to find sustainable plays in the Internet medium, the traditional competitive landscape has exploded: The New York Timesnow competes with The Huffington Post who competes with Fox News Channel who competes with the Associated Press.

And in my opinion, this is a great development. In one sense, medium and container are fundamentally artificial. One should create great content that serves a need and provides value, and then offer it via whatever medium suits your target consumers best. But at the same time, this also implies how much the container does matter. Various containers help us consume the content we care about when we want it (on your smartphone during some down-time), where we want it (in our social network, where we may spend a substantial amount of our online time) and how we want it (through innovative readers like Flipboard, which allow you to consume your real-time news and social media feeds on a tablet in a magazine-like format). And just as importantly, these use-cases are usually not mutually exclusive.

And that’s what makes the latest discussion about the threat Flipboard represents to publishers so interesting. Although this analysis by Frederic Filloux is a good one, I think its problem is that it makes the same fundamental assumption that everyone seems to be making: that controlling the containers, as well as the content, is an attainable goal for a content brand.

Today, there are simply too many platforms, technologies, formats and use cases to expect anyone—much less a firm who’s specialty is content creation—to be able to own and control every outlet. To seriously expect to do so is naiveté at best, ignorance and hubris at worst. And worst of all, it seriously limits your ability to effectively execute on the thing you actually do best: create content that lots of people want and are willing to let you monetize in some way (monetization is actually the 4th fundamental attribute here that I haven’t yet mentioned, but as oceans of ink have already been spilled on the changing nature of content monetization, I’m going to steer around it while acknowledging that it’s a fundamentally related issue).

This doesn’t mean that content brands won’t be really effective at owning or creating certain containers. A content producer’s Web site is by definition their own space, and they’ll offer different ways to offer and monetize their content in that space (free, ad-supported, subscription, metering). And some will come up with a kick-ass smartphone or tablet app here and there. And for some users, just that one content site or app may be the only news source they use in their daily life. But for most of us (and here’s the point of that history lesson …) we’ll continue to want a variety of content sources, mediums and containers to fill different use cases within our lives.  As content sources that were once separated by differing mediums now compete with each other across mediums, they often seem to forget that they were always part of a content ecosystem in our lives.

Implying that content or news sources should have invented Flipboard misses the point because they not only would have been highly unlikely to do so (i.e., the Innovator’s Dilemma), but even if so, would have more likely to have been a costly distraction or outright failure to in the end. The NYT isn’t going to want to be pumped into Huff Po’s consumption tool, and WSJ won’t have any interest in ceding that space to MSNBC. Instead, Flipboard succeeds BECAUSE it’s not a content creator. It’s only about giving consumers a great consumption experience. And conversely, technology companies (are you hearing me @Google?) fall flat when they try to own content creation (anyone remember Microsoft’s attempts to become an original content creator in the late-90s?).

None of this is to say that content companies have to cede all control of their destinies. They have every right to try and set the terms of use around their content so as to maximize alignment with their own monetization(e.g. requiring links that drive traffic back to ad supported pages, or pay-walled/metered news sites), and to block access to their content to those containers they feel are at odds with their strategy. But to fume because *gasp* Flipboard or others may claim some ad dollars around links back to their content feels pretty short-sighted.

Interrelators’ like FirstRain also play an important role in this ecosystem. We’re creating real added value for thousands of business users around the globe by connecting them with original business content that, too often, they would not otherwise find—and then driving those users back to those content producers for monetization. And we’re doing it through multiple containers as well (Web, mobile apps, intranet widgets).

Overall, it’s an incredible playground in which we’re all now playing, and our content lives are much richer for it, as long as we can remember that it’s been the emerging diversity of containers—not the attempt by any one content creator to fully control their own distribution—that has made it all possible.


Create, Aggregate and … Interrelate?

17 03 2011

Do you create, or do you aggregate? That, it seems, is the pressing content question of the day. FirstRain CEO Penny Herscher posted on Tuesday about the seismic shift happening in the media space as news aggregators like The Huffington Post begin to assume market pre-eminence over more traditional content creator/distributors like The New York Times. Even NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller‘s expressions of aggravation, have now had to be moderated as I’m sure his somewhat snarky commentary triggered a wave of exasperation and irritation amongst the New Media community.

In reality, of course, a forced choice between content creation and aggregation is a false dichotomy. The explosion of innovative content consumption platforms has simultaneously sharpened people’s hunger for more quality content and for technology to improve the efficiency and efficacy of consumption. Content creation and aggregation are like conjoined twins with a passive-aggressive relationship. They may share the same heart, lungs and kidney, but that doesn’t mean they have to like each other.

In addition to the NYT/HuffPo challenge that Penny points out, this shift is also well represented by LinkedIn’s recent entry into news aggregation space. In fact, their new feature LinkedIn Today is a great example of several emergent forces coming together, including Web news aggregation, social networking and real-time news. It allows business-focused users to consume an aggregated feed of linked and posted news stories that people within your identified LinkedIn industry are sharing on Twitter or LinkedIn, and lets you further customize by identifying additional industries or incorporating the twitter feeds of a range of news sources from Ad Age to Bloomberg News to Harvard Business Review.

It’s a smart play, because despite Twitter’s protestations, to date they haven’t provided a very robust platform for business users to consume an aggregated real-time news experience (a la TweetDeck). LinkedIn’s move steps in and intercepts that need by leveraging an existing social network that many of us in the business world are increasingly invested in, while also providing a whole new entrée into real-time news for those who haven’t yet jumped onto the Twitter bandwagon.

But with all this focus on the schism between the forces that ‘Create’ and ‘Aggregate’, there’s another critical element out there that’s just as powerful but sometimes is overlooked: let’s call it ‘Interrelate’. It means the unique and powerful value that business monitoring applications like FirstRain bring to the table. Although we do bring together vast amounts of news and other business content from the Web, what we can do that others can’t is interrelatethat content through our (unique and patented) semantic categorization, deliver you some really targeted results, and then show you emerging trends through some pretty nice visualization analytics. What this means to business users in practical terms is quite effectively filtering out Web noise. It makes the time they spend getting up to speed on, or monitoring on an ongoing basis, an industry, market, company or subject, much for efficient and effective.

And not only is this more efficient, but through this type of interrelating of content a new kind value is generated (one that should be of great interest to content creators): the ability to make useful connections between content that may not have been anticipated by the creators themselves. This allows solutions like FirstRain to drive even more high-value traffic back to content creators than conventional news aggregators (or more general-purpose search engines), since we’re making connections for users that others simply can’t.

So as we look at the evolving relationship between content creators and aggregators, let’s resist the temptation to think of this relationship as twin poles between which we must navigate. The key role that ‘interrelators’, like FirstRain, play may emerge as an equally significant link in that chain.

Unique Value and Business Fundamentals: How Euromoney’s Getting It Right and Most Others Won’t

11 11 2010

Rory Brown (@rorybrown) had an excellent post this morning on today’s very positive earnings news from Euromoney and what that signifies as a media company struggling with all the same forces as everyone else in the digital news business. How is Euromoney able to turn record profits while rapidly transitioning their readership to online? By focusing on fundamentals: strategy, implementation and driving profits.

You can read Rory’s post for additional insight, but I did want to add one additional point. I also think it’s critical that Euromoney is a media company providing content of very high value to their consumers. They put out quality content around a focused area of expertise and specialized reporting. This, then, becomes the kind of high-value content their readers find is worth paying for.

One News Corp property, WSJ, has been quite successful as a paid content venture because it too provides content its readers believe they can’t get anywhere else. Another, the Times, is a general news publication, and so their unique value proposition is much less clear to potential buyers.

Clay Shirky was a bit dismissive of the ‘digital media needs to add real value to support paywalls‘ argument in his otherwise great post on the Times and the economics of news paywalls. I get his point, saying that print publishers simply need to provide value in their digital editions and then customers will pay does, as Shirky observes, merely push the problem down the road. I think the point, however, is that media organizations who want to charge for digital content need to provide UNIQUE value. Something they can’t get everywhere else for free or at very low cost. That could be specialized reporting, content useful to a specific job or user workflow, unique functional capabilities with value to the user (like an iPad app), ancillary services, or a brand that’s so compelling users are drawn to be a part of it.

To be clear: I think this means most providers of general news from the pre-digital world will not survive in anything like their original form. Most will probably either fold outright after a long losing battle, merge with one of the emerging hyper-local networks developing around the country, or become a much, much slimmer online only and purely ad-supported production, and one that probably outsources the creation of their news from a small handful of surviving national or global players.

This probably means, then, that a time will come when the few remaining providers of general news will be able to command a premium for their content, but by that time, the landscape will look entirely different, and they’ll probably make a lion’s share of their revenues through syndication to local networks.

Focusing on both their unique value and business fundamentals is what Euromoney seems to be doing right. How many more will be able to successfully follow them?