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Branded, quality content still stands out

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It's been said that we live in the Age of the Amateur. That comes as a deep lament for some and a sweet victory for others. Regardless of your emotional impulse, the fact remains that the Web has thrown open the floodgates to self-expression.

According to Technorati, there are currently 109 million blogs on the Web, a vast majority of which are not affiliated with professional journalism. According to Nielsen, YouTube attracted 55 million unique visitors in September while MySpace drew 59 million. These are awesome numbers, well out of the reach of some of the media world's most established brands.

The multiplicative dynamic of social media is that it's not just users generating content—that creates lots of traffic itself—but it's users consuming the content generated by other users. The power accorded to the individual (remember, Time named You as its Person of the Year in 2006) is unquestionably immense.

But here's the thing: None of this negates the vital role of established brands and the trusted content they produce. We're too quick to frame these developments in zero-sum terms. There's ample room for both the amateur and professional in the media landscape.

Established brands and branded content matter more than ever. They stand out from the marketplace din and represent trust, credibility and intelligence. Those characteristics matter in many segments, but they are especially vital in the world of business media. We're dealing with an individual's P&L and balance sheet, his portfolio and net worth. This may not be a place for the unskilled to dole out advice.

Quality journalism, in many ways, represents a greater barrier to entry and a more enduring business model than technology-based approaches. Someone is always creating a better technology mousetrap—before Google we had AltaVista, before MySpace we had Friendster; but branded-content providers seem to last. A cursory look at the leading providers of business information demonstrates the staying power of branded media.

Have our distribution models changed? Absolutely. We no longer rely solely on traditional platforms to reach consumers, and many of us have emerged as dominant players in the digital space. Of the top 10 business and financial Web sites, according to Nielsen, three belong to portals and seven belong to media brands that were established in the pre-Internet era. And while the portal finance sites are admittedly the three largest, they serve as aggregators and distributors of content from the other seven.

Journalism forms the backbone of our enterprises. It's what endows our brands with meaning and credibility. But we also have to harness the self-expression dynamic and invite our readers and users to contribute their thoughts, and allow them to "sidebar" with one another. One of the greatest organizing forces for online community is an article. Allow the conversation to extend beyond our words, but not displace our words.

On the advertising front, brands matter as much to marketers as they do to consumers. Again it comes down to quality. Advertisers want to associate themselves and their messages with media brands that match their caliber. Contextual relevance is critical to them, and that's what we bring. Our products put our readers in a business decision-making mind-set.

There's nothing more powerful than reaching a Fortune 500 CEO who is reading Fortune for management wisdom. Or an executive at a multinational corporation checking the overnight markets on CNNMoney.com. Or an owner of a family business thinking through succession planning when reading the pages of Fortune Small Business. Or an investor reading Money magazine to decipher how turmoil in the credit market is going to affect his portfolio.

That's the power of brands, a power that we should not lose sight of in a world where amateur producers of words, photographs and moving images satisfy the symbiotic impulses of self-expression and community, but who will never replace what professional journalists offer consumers: trust, credibility and inspiration. Vivek Shah is president of Fortune|Money Group. He can be reached at vivek_shah@timeinc.com.

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