Unlock The Media

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Almost everything imaginable has been written about the digitalization of media and the transformation of printed press. But despite the rivers of ink spent on this historical process that marks our age, there never was a thorough conversation on this extremely interesting change. As the industry started to transform, the prophets of the new era began to multiply, cashing in on the new vocabulary being sold to those media outlets that wanted to transform in order to survive. The search for new business models became a holy grail of modern times, the “New Thing” that will resolve the problem.One of the rare exceptions is a piece that Joshua Topolsky recently wrote for Medium. In “Your Media Business Will Not Be Saved,” Topolsky bluntly tells us what happened when traditional media became aware of the problem and started to panic, looking for a solution:

The Problem is that we used to have a really neat and tidy version of a media business where very large interests controlled vast swaths of the things we read, watched, and listened to. Because that system was built on the concept of scarcity and locality — the limits of what was physically possible — it was very easy to keep the gates and fill the coffers. Put simply, there were far fewer players in the game with far fewer outlets for their content, so audiences were easy to sell to and easy to come by.

Then digital. Then you and me. And all of a sudden all those old, fixed channels started falling apart. Papers didn’t sell. Magazines died.

Then something else happened that brought us to where we are today:

This industry which had controlled its ability to reach a populace through ownership of things like printing presses began to cede its power in the delivery and distribution process to other people. People who didn’t care about or understand the media business. People who told them the answer wasn’t the best of something, it was the most of something.

Partially this was done out of fear, but mostly it was done out of ignorance.

So over time, we built up scale in digital to replace user value. We thought we could solve with numbers (the new, seemingly infinite numbers the internet and social media provides) what we couldn’t solve with attention. …

And every few months — or let’s say annually — a technology, or idea, or person comes along and the very stupid and slow media industry thinks that New Thing will fix everything. Get them back to the good times. Make those pennies into actual dollars. One year it might be the iPad, the next it might be an “amateur journalist” network, maybe last year it’s You Won’t Believe What Happens Next, maybe next year it’s video (or live video?), maybe it’s bots. Maybe it’s Instant Articles. Maybe it’s your new app.

Why this is important, you may ask. Simply because it offers a tool for thought while trying to understand what, for instance, is happening with the New York Times, your favorite paper.

The Times is still the best paper in the world. Perhaps this is no longer true for every individual day of its publication, but in the last decade, the paper put in an enormous effort — and probably a massive investment — to create a new digital platform. There are other papers that tried to do something similar — and that have developed pretty good platforms — but that don’t have enough material and intellectual strength to produce adequate content for a digital space. The Times’ problem is just the opposite, as Mark Thompson, the CEO of the New York Times, said last November, during the Journalism + Silicon Valley Research Conference. “Production of the New York Times is far wider than consumption of the digital,” Thompson said in conversation with Emily Bell from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

There are two solution to this problem, and the Times seems to be fluctuating between the two. Or perhaps just combining both in a not-very-comprehensive way. Either you sell the content you produce, or you cut down your costs and reduce your production. Or both.

In his November talk at the Tow Center, Thompson affirmed that his company plans to double digital revenue by 2020, going from $400 to $800 million. The Times CEO confirmed that the paper will continue with the quality journalism that has distinguished the Gray Lady in the past, and that future income will be focused on subscription. He defended the relationship that the paper wants to have with its readers, using some strong words against the idea of treating journalism like any other commodity.

Perhaps the Times’ optimism in November last year was based on the of the increased revenue during that period, but more recent figures paint a more murky picture that will likely force the paper to make more layoffs.

So how is the world’s most famous paper — previously considered unsinkable — dealing with this increasing crisis? Aside from reorganizing newsroom, the Times is also cutting the costs of some operations in Europe, while simultaneously announcing global digital expansion, investing $50 million over the next three years.

Layoffs are painful but necessary, as long as you don’t create brain drain in the process. And global expansion is the future for a paper like the Times, a brand name that stands for quality. But if the paper’s global expansion is, as it seems to be, just creating new editions of the New York Times in foreign languages — Russian and others, in addition to the already-existing Chinese edition — then the question is whether someone in Siberia would really care to read the Times in Cyrillic. And would she pay for it? Even aside from the fact that a translation is never equal to the original text, the project seems like a dubious plan if the Times really wants to reach the rest of the world. And this is where I find Topolsky’s thoughts to be fundamental:  

“The truth is that the best and most important things the media (let’s say specifically the news media) has ever made were not made to reach the most people — they were made to reach the right people. Because human beings exist, and we are not content consumption machines. What will save the media industry — or, at least, the part worth saving — is when we start making ‘Real Things’ for people again, instead of programming for algorithms or ‘New Things.’”

Some years ago, I had a conversation with a friend who teaches journalism here in New York. We were discussing a digital project and the process of the transformation from print to digital. The change. We came to the conclusion that successful media outlets are in particular trouble in this period of radical transformation because they can’t change the formula that brought — and is still guaranteeing them — a certain level of prestige and income. We almost agreed that the media outlets that have reached the bottom have more of a chance of transforming than those that are relatively successful. One can feel this pain coming from the the New York Times. The paper “talks” a lot about itself — and about strategies, innovations, and planning — with a focus on potential competitors. But never — almost never — does the Times take part in the conversation that started years ago on the web. So the question is, if the Gray Lady is not one of those media outlets that are running after New Things, hoping that an app or new hype or a digital genius might resolve the problem, then what is it? And based on my personal experience working with a paper before I started working on my own, the high salaries of the management team and the stagnation of journalists that actually produce content is a bad sign for the paper. To be frank, the $8.7 million salary for the CEO of the New York Times is none of my business, but it certainly makes the $50 million investment for the global project seem rather small and insignificant.

Also published on Medium.

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