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Content is only king, if you know what to do with it

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A number of things happened over the past few weeks that got me thinking about the media business. The world’s greatest living Australian Rupert Murdoch has been talking about how content is king and based new business strategies around this, in particular going all out for paywalls and charging for mobile content. Mr Murdoch neatly wrapped this up with a soundbite on an earnings call in February: “Content is not just king, it’s the emperor of all things electronic.”

On the other side of things, admittedly operating at a much smaller scale, you have Tyler Brûlé over at Monocle magazine managing to expand journalistic resources in a media industry armageddon because of the success of Monocle‘s retail operations.

Murdoch has his critics in the industry who think that he doesn’t understand the way the internet as an eco-system works, notably writer and former media executive Michael Wolff. Wolff is undeniably one of the smartest commentators on the internet, partly because he made some costly mistakes early on recounted in his book Burn Rate, but part of this may also be blatant hucksterism to promote his recent book on Rupert Murdoch The Man Who Owns The News.

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So is content king, the emperor of all things electronic?

On the face of it, Mr Murdoch’s hypothesis has merit. If you go back in time to the video wars of the 1980s, VHS’ dominance as a consumer video tape standard over Sony’s Betamax and Philips Video2000 system was in most part because of the amount of films that were put on the VHS standard.

Computer games consoles have succeeded or failed at least partly on their ability to have break out games. Before the web came along and made the issue at least partly mute, the overwhelming number of Windows software applications compared to Mac applications was a major point of market superiority.

Sky is seen to have won its 2007 battle with rival Virgin Media by withholding must-see television content from the cable television operator to secure more commercially acceptable terms.

However, this is also because these types of content had certain barriers to entry:

  • Difficult to produce: the tools of creation were either hard to hold of or were pretty rare
  • Difficult to get the right talent: great creatives and great programmers are hard to find, hard to manage and hard to keep motivated
  • Difficult to duplicate: It is only in the past two decades that the price of duplication has dropped so dramatically.  Producing floppy discs, games cartridges, DVDs and CDs on an commerical scale has become easier, but wouldn’t as easy as digital distribution. Imagine if I published this blog as a quarterly magazine. I would have to arrange layout, typographic design and printing
  • Difficult to distribute: Up until the web really got going most products came through a complex distribution system. There would be warehouses of content which retailers would call down on, often ordering by phone for a twice-weekly delivery by a man in a white van. Now distribution channels are easier to access and relatively abundant: even physical goods have benefited. There are still some challenges; for instance, I once pitched a launch campaign to a TV company which eventually disappeared because it couldn’t secure a position on the electronic programme guide for satellite television

Secondly, the nature of content is not homogeneous. If you think about Mr Murdoch’s newspaper properties firstly, there are broadly two types:

Professional tools: this would be the Wall Street Journal. You read it to be up to speed with the world around you from a professional point-of-view, not to catch up with the private lives of cast members of Days of Our Lives. Part of the way you may create a professional persona is to have a copy of the paper in plain site on you. Other examples of content as professional tools would be:

  • The Financial Times is the European counterpart of the Wall Street Journal for pretty much the same reasons
  • Bloomberg‘s offerings from their radio and TV stations which prep you work as a master of the universe to their newswires and terminal offerings
  • The Economist and Harvard Business Review, both pretty much essential reading for management consultant who doesn’t want to be ejected from their practice whilst still an associate

News-gathering: this is your more traditional newspaper, be it high-brow or low-brow. It tells people what happened just now and provides them with a particular viewpoint. Television, radio and the web moved the ‘just now’ from the day before to the hour before. But they are the same business, with only channel-specific differences. Examples of this would be Fox News and the News International group of newspapers.

The professional tool is something that a certain group will feel that they have to pay for, it is as important as a laptop or cellphone. News-gathering however is a different proposition and newspapers know it. If you look at where newspapers make cuts, it is usually in its editorial teams, content is pulled in from wire services like AP or Reuters so that the papers don’t need to have correspondents everywhere. It is the same with photography. The process of news-gathering had already undergone a huge amount of outsourcing and commodisation prior to the rise of social media.

The value-add of the editorial process in news-gathering, collating, prioritising and providing an opinion on the day’s agenda has been made increasingly superfluous by technology. For example, every two days I publish a list of articles, often with a discriptor or a sliver of analysis of things that I found important enough to read and save. This comes in from over 600 feeds that sit in my news reader, together with recommendations from friends and colleagues via Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. All those recommendations in themselves which atomise stories and provide me with my media diet are not based on the brand of the publication but on the brand of the recommender.

This editorialisation of the readership also happens at a macro level with crowdsource-based services like Digg and Techmeme, and through machine algorithms a la Google News.

In the particular ‘news-gathering’ context, content is no longer king or emperor of all things electronic, but instead the court jestor.

Which brings me back to Tyler Brûlé. Monocle isn’t a professional tool, at least not in the same way as Bloomberg or the Financial Times and it isn’t a news-gather like traditional media though it does bring you news stories. Monocle gives you a perspective that is analytical, stylish, switched-on and for at least some of the readership aspirational. It sells a lifestyle and the carefully curated shop (in sharp contrast to say The Guardian’s shop) is just a further extension of that.

In some ways Brûlé’s Monocle is like what Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine wanted to be. By focusing on quality that Brûlé sells a lifestyle that is not overly decadent or fanciful and has a class that six peroxide-blonde farm girls from the Mid-West in a jacuzzi can’t really make up for. Monocle isn’t alone in this sell, organisations like conference organiser TED have through thoughtful positioning and production positioned themselve in a similar differentiated way.

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