Old Media Still Needs to Get Over its Control Issues

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The wonderful thing about the Internet is that nobody controls it. And if you can’t control the medium, you can’t control the message. That seems obvious enough in this age 100 million blogs, YouTube, Digg, and Twitter mania. In fact, just this morning I was invited to a Facebook group called End of Control to discuss the issues that arise as control shifts from media companies to consumers. (The group was started by author Gerd Leonhard, who is writing a book on the same subject).

Yet industries that are used to control don’t like to give it up. Old media is like that. Even in this day and age, its struggle with control issues continues. Old media knows the relationship with its audience has changed, but it is still not quite sure how to deal with it.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, let me share two anecdotes from last week. On Wednesday, I attended the Mediabistro Circus conference, along with mostly other New York media professionals. One repeated theme I noticed a few speakers bring up was that to succeed on the Web it is necessary to give up control. This was delivered as a revelation, even though industry watchers have been observing this for the past few years. Yes, the audience (gasp) talks back, and they often prefer talking to each other than simply consuming the news that media professionals decide to dole out.

I guess change takes a while to sink in. But it struck me as odd that something like this still needs to be explained. The other folks attending the conference, from what I could gather, were largely from the digital divisions of newspapers, magazines, and other broadcast media. Was it really news to any of them that to engage an audience online, you have to let them comment, vote, editorialize, and even select what stories get highlighted?

I don’t think so. But there is a difference between knowing something, and being able to do something about it—in this case changing your own ingrained habits and convincing colleagues (many whom grew up in the broadcast era) to do the same.

Now, contrast this group with the Web entrepreneurs I was hanging out with on Thursday in Toronto at the Mesh conference. Nobody needed to explain to them that to succeed on the Web they should stop trying to control the message or the audience. Maybe that’s because they are not trying to control the audience in the first place. Rather, it is the exact opposite. Some of them are too busy creating the very tools that allows people in the audience to cover events themselves and broadcast their own messages. While others have helped to build entire businesses around giving the audience more control.

One of those was speaker Daniel Burka, the creative director of Digg (and co-founder of Pownce). He noted that nobody in their right mind would start a print newspaper company today. Just look at how much money newspaper companies spend on trucks and paper and printing. The only way to pay for all of that infrastructure (not to mention the army of reporters, editors, and photographers required to create the content) is by controlling the audience and making them come to you for the news in large numbers.

But that doesn’t make any sense on the Web. Even Digg, which is supposed to bring together the best headlines from across the Web and other media sites, doesn’t pretend it can be your single source of information. As Burka put it:

This notion of One Page To Rule Them All makes no sense. Our home page is not the only home page you visit. It is a poor design decision if you think you can create a one-size fits all destination.

Not everyone in old media is blind to the realities of this new world. For instance, Chris Anderson, the Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine, gave one of the more enlightened keynotes at the Mediabistro conference, in which he suggested that media companies take a more tiered approach to presenting (and monetizing) content.

At the top of the pyramid would be traditional journalism, in which writers and editors obsess over every single word and image, and fight tooth and nail for exclusive access to sources on behalf of their readers. At the bottom of the pyramid would be reader comments, Twitters, and blog posts linking to the mainstream stories of the media outlet. And in the middle would be a mingling of the two, where the best comments and audience blog posts bubble up and meet with reporter blogs and group blogs.

Stories from the top of the pyramid would run high-CPM ads sold by the media company’s salesforce, while the Long-Tail comments and blog posts at the bottom of the pyramid would run Long-Tail ads from AdSense and other ad networks. As stories move up the pyramid, they would tap into higher CPM ads.

Maybe Anderson needs to flip his pyramid upside down, but at least he is thinking about bridging the world of old media with the two-way media of the Web. The implication is that the best stuff will make its way to the middle layer, and could then feed back up into the top of his media pyramid. Perhaps these audience posts and comments could be highlighted on the Website or maybe even appear in print—although Anderson didn’t go that far in his speech.

But giving up control is not just about rebroadcasting the best contributions from the audience. It’s about creating places where the best conversations can happen. Anderson certainly understands the potential and power of niche media. As a personal side project, he’s created his own Ning-powered social network called DIY Drones for aficionados of unmanned aerial vehicles. It brings in all of $400 a month in AdSense revenues, but he’s getting $7 CPMs. Best of all, he lets the community that has gathered around it contribute most of the content. (Note that DIY Drones is not part of Conde Nast or Wired.com).

“Be the tallest dwarf,” he recommends to anyone who wants to create their own niche media site.

It’s not bad advice. But can old media survive in a land of dwarfs? They tend to be awfully hard to control.

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