Out of Digital Chaos, a New Stability for Media

An Ecosystem With Many Different Species of Devices, All Competing for the Scarcest Resource: Our Attention

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Michael Zimbalist
Michael Zimbalist
Somewhere over the Rockies during my flight home from CES, I took a stroll through the cabin to help alleviate the misfortune of having been assigned a middle seat. It was amazing to see the diversity of devices upon which people were -- as we say -- "consuming media." There were eReaders and Netbooks and tablets and laptops. There were game players, dedicated DVD players, and handheld Pods of every type. There were also quite a few printed books, magazines and newspapers, not to mention the live feed of DirectTV piped onto pint-sized screens behind every seat.

The diversity of species in our current media ecosystem is astonishing. It is much richer than any of us contemplated. Only five short years ago -- pre-iPhone, pre-Kindle, pre-Android -- most of us imagined a different kind of future. Back then we believed that the offline media would gradually be replaced by the online media, but what we meant by online media was, quite simply, the PC-based Internet. We imagined this transition would be disruptive but we thought it could be managed because the end state was clear: We would gradually sunset the old in favor of our websites, and these websites would be accessed almost exclusively on PC's.

The future has turned out to be very different. The media marketplace now resembles an ecosystem with a variety of device "species" coexisting side-by-side. Each of these species competes for a scarce resource: our attention. Look around on you on the plane, or the bus or the train and I think you'll agree that none of these devices appear to be going extinct anytime soon. The iPad is not killing the Kindle, nor is the Kindle laying waste all hardcovers. The analog and the digital are peacefully co-existing. Why? We are media omnivores. We like choice and variety. As a result, the media marketplace today resembles what ecologists might call an evolutionary stable state.

Few if any of us confine our media usage to any single device or format. Content creators recognize this and we are retooling our strategies accordingly. At the Times, we know that our best customers are those that seek us out on a variety of platforms and occasions: They might choose our iPhone app when they wake up in the morning, our website on their PC at the office, and many millions of them continually savor the print edition over Sunday brunch. This same situation holds true for strongly branded magazines like Wired and SI. Even TV networks are seeking to fulfill the needs of their platform agnostic viewers, recognizing that they are just as likely to look for programs they love on iTunes or Hulu as they are through their cable box.

Nourishing this moment of evolutionary stability in the media ecosystem is a resurgence of ad spending. Marketers recognize that multi-channel consumers require multi-channel marketing strategies encompassing both online and offline media. Total spending was up 6.4% through the first 9 months of 2010. And spending didn't only rise for Internet advertising. It also increased for consumer magazines, national newspapers, radio and television, reflecting the marketplace reality that people are using media of every type, and doing so voraciously, with a certain degree of indifference to the channel.

Paradoxically, the diversity of devices within the ecosystem may be stabilizing the old media in ways we never imagined possible. Our "ancient" belief of five years ago -- that the analog media would gradually be replaced by the PC-based Internet -- today seems almost quaint. It appears instead that we have reached an evolutionary stable state in an ecosystem of many different analog and digital media devices, co-existing in harmony.

So catch your breath. Savor the moment. But recognize that in all likelihood this is only a moment. For the slightest perturbation can disrupt the current equilibrium and send us reeling in a new direction. What might perturb this moment of calm? Could it be a break-through application for connected TV's? The introduction of tiered pricing from ISP's? Maybe a Facebook phone? Your guess is as good as mine. But no matter what happens, competition for our attention will continue to be relentless, and our appetite for media will remain as voracious as ever.

Michael Zimbalist is VP-research and development operations for The New York Times and tweets at twitter.com/zimbalist.
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