Big Media is at the mercy of the tech giants and it’s their own fault

How are changes in technology and audience behaviour affecting news values, shapes and structures?

This is a question I have been asked to answer. Well, not answer, but at least research the issues enough to stimulate some debate. So over the course of a few blog posts I intend to share some of what I uncovered and solicit some feedback. Am I on the right track? You decide.

I think the best place to start is where technology in journalism is, and where it could or should be. I really liked this extract from Jeff Jarvis’ new book Public Parts and I think it gets to heart of the problem with what most media companies are trying.

Today, publishers as a breed have so far tried little more than reproducing their old content and business models in new forms, from CD-ROMs to the web to iPads. It was the same in the Renaissance. The earliest publishers made books to mimic the work of scribes, even designing their typefaces to look like scribes’ handwriting. Printing was promoted as automated writing. “They appear not to have perceived the printed book as a fundamentally different form, but rather as a manuscript book that could be produced with greater speed and convenience,” Leah Marcus says in “Cyberspace Renaissance.” They didn’t yet see the possibilities.

Matthew Ingram at GigaOM remarks on the pride media companies are taking in creating new Facebook applications.

But there’s another aspect of these launches that’s troubling, and that’s the pride so many publishers seem to take in having produced a Facebook app, as though it’s the pinnacle of media innovation.


But if all you are doing is creating widgets for people who live inside a specific walled garden, then I think you are missing the boat.

This is part of a larger worrying trend.  Media companies are relying on technology companies for solutions to their problems. There were no doubt “Hallelujahs!” from media proprietors  as Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad and Jeff Bezos the Kindle. But where is the innovation from within?

Amazon did not sit around and wait for the decline of its book selling business. It took the initiative and created its own hardware and content ecosystem, ensuring its own longterm future. Where are the media companies doing this?

By relying on technology companies, media companies are setting themselves up for a great fall. This was perfectly illustrated when Apple decided it wanted to take 30% of the subscription revenue for publications on the iPad. Companies had to pay up or remove subscriptions and in-app purchases from their apps.

This video from 1994 was produced by American newspaper giants Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy Company). They had their own design lab working on technologies that are remarkably similar to the tablet devices of today. What happened to this innovation and foresight?


7 thoughts on “Big Media is at the mercy of the tech giants and it’s their own fault

  1. I agree with the overall point of view, but I think the concept of the media being a nimble, healthy environment to innovate in, or one devoid of the idea to do so is a bit unfair.

    Since Reagan, the media in America has consolidated into the hands of fewer and fewer outlets. This was made worse by the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which brought about outright monopolies in some areas like Clear Channel’s ownership of over 1,200 radio stations.

    Working from the inside at some of these outlets (like CBS), the primary goal is to make money for the shareholders. They (ownership) doesn’t care about anyone or anything else. And so the people inside these organizations can’t innovate or adapt or do what they need to in order to stay competitive in the face of new technology and the changing habits of their audience.

  2. I think this is slightly unfair on two counts.

    Firstly – Amazon et al have a much easier ride than media companies because they deal in commerce. People buy stuff. They have never really bought news. Products are more tangible than information. Wrap that in a nice product ecosystem and watch your business skyrocket.

    Secondly the point about “But where is the innovation from within?”. There is innovation, it’s just not particularly concentrated. If you have a scattering of either mid-level or entry level innovative journalists across various news organisations, you can’t ever hope for joined up innovation. What does everyone at Apple do? Concentrate their efforts to building and promoting the product of Apple. The same can’t be said of everyone at news organisations, where everyone is pulling in different directions, but that isn’t to say that everyone is just sitting on their hands.

    • People haven’t bought news? I don’t understand. Advertisers and consumers have bought news for decades.

      Your second point is exactly the problem I’m highlighting. Innovation hasn’t been funded at the top level. It hasn’t been a strategy. BJ Mendelson has made this point above. Big Media has pandered to shareholders, and shareholders want short term profit not long term investment.

  3. Consumers never ‘bought’ news in the same way that you buy a product.

    Consumers only bought news because they had no other option. If you wanted to be informed…well, you better pick up and pay for the paper in the morning. As soon as that’s offered for free well…there aren’t a whole lot of people who say “actually I’m going to reject this free information because I deem it unethical to not pay for it”.

    We see nothing wrong with it. The thinking behind the transaction is different – information isn’t particularly tangible and there’s a variety of sources for it, we’re always more likely to pay for a tangible and distinct product, and news has never been that.

    • So this links back to the quote from Jeff Jarvis. We aren’t at a stage where a digital product is adding enough value to warrant people paying for it. It’s mostly another medium whether newsprint or broadcast, repackaged for the web. That’s not innovation. There’s no value there.

  4. This is not true. The internet is an open platform. All it takes is for anyone, regardless of whether its a new business or a legacy player, to set up shop, understand how to do business on a platform (which it should already know how to do, having done it previously) and marry an audience to that offering. That’s the ‘secret’ behind the ‘tech giants.’ Super simple!

  5. That’s why I’m scratching my head, why aren’t they doing it? Why are they letting technology happen to them, rather than create and define technology.

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