A place, an industry, a lifestyle. That means aggregating a collection of people around a common cause or interest and interpreting the world through their eyes, for their benefit.
Thanks to Google and Facebook, but also thanks to the lack of vision on the part of people running the business, journalism has suffered grievously in the 25 years since the Web was spun. I once asked, in the 1990s, “how hungry are you,” suggesting that newspapers could offer more than billboards along the information highway. They could lead people down the sales funnel, even transact business and help with support, I wrote.
Being a writer, I was ignored. Probably would have been ignored if I were on the business side. Because journalism was divided along functional lines – newspapers, magazines, radio, TV. They had no idea how to deal with this Internet thing.
What journalists still don’t understand today is that the cloud has broken down all the functional lines. There are no more newspapers, no TV stations. Yet web sites run by these companies still act like they are. The New York Times still pretends to be a newspaper covering New York and its suburbs. CNN.Com still pretends it is a cable television network.
During this decade there have emerged, from the blogosphere, some companies which understood the new reality. But Buzzfeed, Vice and even Vox aren’t especially well-run. They’re content companies, not understanding that the business model comes ahead of anything else. They’re still selling billboards along their highways. They still don’t understand about the sales funnel. Except for Vox, they are still focused on broad audiences.
I call the companies which destroyed journalism the Cloud Czars – Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook. They have spent this decade eating their seed corn. Without content, they have nothing to sell. But they’re afraid. Their lines and data centers aren’t regulated because they’re not considered common carriers, even after destroying the telephone industry. Their actions aren’t regulated because they’re not in the content business. They want to maintain this regulatory status quo at all costs.
They can’t. Due to their very size, their status is being challenged by governments around the world, and rightly so. The only way for the Czars to fight back is to accept responsibility for the polluted data environment they created and clean it up.
Amazon took the first step on this road when Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. Google took a step forward with its AMP Project, built around mobile users. Apple dipped its toe in the water with its Apple News app. Microsoft is burned by having gotten into the business too soon, in the 1990s, and Facebook is, so far, ignoring its responsibility, one reason why its market cap is down by one-third as this is written.
There are two problems with all these early efforts.
First, they’re aimed at publishers, who are stupid. They create immense barriers to entry, which favors the stupid.
Second, they’re built using the same silos publishers use now. Print, sound, TV.
What’s needed is for the Czars to welcome new publishers, and new types of publishers. They can’t wait for existing publishers to step out of their silos, to “get it.” By the time they do, the Czars will have lost too much market cap to avoid government controls. By the time they do, democracy and freedom may be dead.
We need to start with a blank sheet of virtual paper.
They have yet to recognize this. CNN is still focused on gaining a mass audience at the lowest possible cost, so it covers very few stories beyond set pieces. They insist the news come to them, to their studio. It’s cheaper. They only need to hire on-air “talent.” Reporting atrophies. Ted Turner should be ashamed of today’s CNN.
The Times and Post, meanwhile, have become newsletters. They have a lot of reporters, but once you put up a paywall, you’re no longer mass media. You’re a newsletter. You only get one-tenth of your potential audience as a newsletter. That makes ads hard to sell. The good news is that they still have reporters. The bad news is most of their product’s value is leaking out, to second-hand sources that write “The New York Times says” for those who can’t afford the Times.
This can be fixed. Start streaming the news. Go to YouTube, where the new mass media audience lives. Build video platforms from existing stories. Interview the reporters. Stand them up where their news comes from. Get out of the studio, into the field. Build a mass market audience from within the cloud. Broadcasting will die a natural death and you’ll be the market leader within two years.
The second, equally important step is for the Cloud Czars to stop playing footsie only with big publishers. They need to open this to entrepreneurs. Do some outreach. Offer seed money, in the form of debt, so we can relaunch local journalism, on the Web, that features all the data forms the Web can support. Bring the tools of data research. Talk to Columbia, Medill, and other journalism schools. Talk to the business schools as well. Support podcasts. Don’t just throw the ball out on the court. Coach these people up.
The final step is to start paying these new publishers extra for the audiences they create, by enabling e-commerce directly from news sites. You don’t have to charge extra for ads if you’re earning local commissions by bringing small, local businesses into the 21st century.
The old news business must die. But a new news business, based in the Internet, needs to be created, or we’re living in an information vacuum where no one, not even a Cloud Czar, is safe.