If the media industry had a Song of Itself, it'd be all weeping violins, minor keys and martial drumbeats. It would remind us every day of the dark forces out there that should make the content business an unsustainable, even deathly pursuit: over-aggregation. Content farms. Penny-pinching readers. Advertisers who'd rather make their own content than be patrons of someone else's. Declining CPMs. The ascendance of distribution platforms that promise new tolls and controls as fast as they promise new markets. It goes on. We can't go on. We go on.
To call out the brighter notes, however, we asked a few influencers and innovators for their thoughts on why we should be hopeful in this media moment. Here's what we heard back.
DIGITAL IS A BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY, NOT A CURSE
CHRIS ANDERSON, EDITOR IN CHIEF OF WIRED
"I'm optimistic because the shift to digital is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink media business models. Once rich content can be distributed globally at virtually no cost on platforms that have billing relationships already established (iOS, Android, Kindle, etc.), we can experiment wildly with who pays and how much. For example, ad-dependent models can diversify into profitable subscriber models (digital subs can make money where print cannot) and turn periodicals into brands and digital storefronts that can sell other content. E-commerce, licensing, premium memberships, lead-generation, etc. -- business models that work great in other industries are now within the reach of media, too."
"Just look at the experimentation in the device industry itself: Apple offers free and cheap content (apps) to sell hardware. Amazon subsidizes hardware to sell content. Google, meanwhile, subsidizes both to sell ads. Three different business models in the same industry -- that 's the sort of economic experimentation that media companies can and should do too. Finally!"
QUALITY STILL MATTERS
ALEXIS MADRIGAL, SENIOR EDITOR AT THE ATLANTIC AND CO-FOUNDER OF LONGSHOT, A QUARTERLY MAGAZINE CONCEIVED AND PRODUCED OVER THE COURSE OF A WEEKEND:
"A lot of people tend to romanticize journalism's past. Most people were cogs in newspaper and magazine machines. You might bemoan the loss of the Truman Capote magazine writer lifestyle, but you should know his salary was paid with the money made off the labor of thousands of other writers covering Homecoming games and homicides. I'd be willing to take the bet that the average 30-year-old writer is better off -- in terms of writing about what they like and getting paid -- now than they were in 1975."
"People worry that Demand Media and other punk agencies that supply low-quality content will make it impossible to be heard above the noise. But that 's just not true. People are dying for signal. Our jobs as writers, though, no longer ends when we hit print or publish or send. It extends all the way from your computer to the reader's computer. You are the guy in the truck distributing newspapers and gaining endcap placements for your magazine. You are responsible for helping readers find your signal if you think what you have to say is important. Because the crap content players are very good at this game. You have to neutralize their knowledge of how the internet works with your own, and then the better content will win."
"The money will be there. Maybe not Town Car money, but bike-share and a nice apartment money. Online ad spending is at an all-time high. Sure, some of it is being spent on search and other things that keep the pie away from the content creators. But there will still be billions."
"There is one group that is getting screwed in all of this. The supremely talented and professional newspaper and magazine journalists who should be at the peaks of their careers. I can't even count how many real pros I've met who've been laid off and unable to find new jobs that were anything close to what they had been doing in terms of responsibility or moneymaking. This is such a waste. These people are a serious wasted talented pool. I sense my own optimism when I see them and say, "Man, someone is going to snap them up and build one badass journalism outfit."
REAL DIVERSIFICATION IS NO LONGER A DREAM
DAVID CAREY, PRESIDENT OF HEART MAGAZINES, WHICH SAID LAST WEEK THAT ITS MAGAZINES' PAYING DIGITAL READERSHIP HAS TOPPED 300,000 EVERY MONTH, ABOUT 1% OF ITS MAGAZINES' COMBINED PRINT AND DIGITAL CIRCULATION:
"We're successfully diversifying our business: first, globally, with the acquisition of Lagardere, and here in the U.S. via new platforms such as iCrossing and our myriad digital activities. Digital, which was an investment area for many years, is now on a strong growth curve. Tablet e-subs are quickly becoming a business of scale, and with terrific economics. And we're now focused on e-commerce for 2012."
"Combine that with opportunities in our core print portfolio -- the growth of Food Network Magazine, the test of HGTV Magazine this fall, the creation of a new MarieClaire@Work brand extension and so much more -- and every corner of our industry, and our company, is open to fresh ideas, many of which are getting very solid traction."
CRAZY RE-COMBINATIONS JUST MIGHT WORK
TINA BROWN, EDITOR IN CHIEF OF THE DAILY BEAST AND NEWSWEEK
"It's absolutely an innovative, exciting time for journalism. Earlier this year we married a vibrant digital animal with a legendary news source. In a 24/7 cycle you need that instant delivery of news, as well as the more reported, deeper pieces that magazines deliver so beautifully. No turnaround I've ever done happened overnight, but the numbers -- renewals and newsstand up, advertisers coming back -- suggest readers like what they see. And Beast traffic just passed 10 million uniques -- exciting, as we turn 3 just this week."
THE MARKET FOR CONTENT IS GLOBAL
KEN DOCTOR, ANALYST FOR OUTSELL AND AUTHOR OF "NEWSONOMICS: TWELVE NEW TRENDS THAT WILL SHAPE THE NEWS YOU GET"
"News is being broken out of its old, calcified molds. You could buy news one way, in a single package, a daily newspaper or a magazine. The container (newsprint largely) defined the news. Now, we're at the beginning of the change. As Yahoo Chief Product Officer Blake Irving said recently at New York's Media Week of his about- to-be-launched Livestand product: 'Think of it as a tablet version of Yahoo… What we're trying to do is create a container that says we have a visual experience that allows us to take graphics, videos and text into a consumption that allows us to display it in the same way across IoS or Droid. That's what every publisher on the planet's trying to do.'"
"Watch out Kindle Singles; every hybrid variety of newspaper/magazine/book/TV show is about to wash upon our digital shores."
"National boundaries no longer limit what I can read: I recently wrote about the British news invasion of America. The Internet has knocked down walls between cities, counties, regions, provinces, cantons and states. It has demolished them between countries. Most quality London dailies see only a third of their web visitors coming from Britain, an equal number (or more) from America and the other third from the rest of the world. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal see a quarter to a third of visitors coming from overseas. BBC.com has planted a strong flag in America, even as it is assailed at home. Language now defines what we can read more than nationality, and auto-translate programs will further obliterate national bounds in the next five years. That means more choice, more perspective -- and maybe less provincialism for all of us."
"In the end, I find myself agreeing with Norm Cousins that optimism is less a personality trait, than a choice of how we want our world to turn out: 'Optimism doesn't wait on facts. It deals with prospects. Pessimism is a waste of time.'"
UNCOMFORTABLE FOR SOME, BUT IT FEELS PROGRESSIVE
EMILY BELL, DIRECTOR OF THE TOW CENTER FOR DIGITAL JOURNALISM AT COLUMBIA JOURNALISM SCHOOL:
"If you are an investor or employee in a media business who has expectations that belong in the 1990s, then I think you are going to be very disappointed about the immediate future. There is still a large amount of money in "media' in its broadest sense, but this has devolved more to technology and intelligent platform companies than it has to content companies. An early lack of understanding about what digital technologies would do to the business inevitably cost jobs and revenues, and what's worse is that media has not yet fully made the transition."
"When I look at our students here at Columbia and the opportunities they have to shape their own futures, to make content and journalism more interesting and relevant, you cannot help but feel optimistic. Reinventing these industries and practices in the pit of a horrible recession -- in the U.S. and in Europe -- is no bad thing. The scarcity of resources and jobs is very testing but it demands innovation rather than hanging onto the past. For the first time in decades, you look around -- at overseas revolutions, at hacker and activist movements who are taking their own initiatives -- and see a desire by a different generation to shape technologies and media how they would like them to be. It's uncomfortable for some, but it feels progressive."
DOORS TO NEW AUDIENCES ARE OPEN
DAVID REMNICK, EDITOR OF THE NEW YORKER
"I can't answer for 'the media' -- it's too gargantuan an idea -- but you bet I am optimistic about The New Yorker. The guiding idea here is that new technologies should amplify, not alter, our principles: in this case, values of depth, beauty, accuracy and journalistic ambition. What we're seeing now is that our website, the iPad, and other technologies are getting us to new readers, younger readers, and that is fantastically promising. Those same technologies are expanding our geographical reach. And they will also suggest new and interesting ways to amplify the stories we are trying to tell."
"At the same time, all those forecasts about how the web will destroy reading, particularly the reading of longer pieces of writing -- precisely what we are known for -- have turned out to be mistaken and born of misplaced anxiety. So my optimism is not ginned up, the false, forced smile of a mainstream media editor trying, gamely, to stay with it; it's an optimism based on real developments: creative, financial, and more."
ADVERTISERS FINALLY UNDERSTAND THE VIRTUE OF DIGITAL NATIVES
CHOIRE SICHA, CO-FOUNDER OF THE AWL:
"Never forget that , just a few years ago, blogs were looked on with scorn and suspicion. Now there's people zealously tweeting who once turned up their nose at people who made things on the web. So over the last two years, we entered a wacky age when, finally, everybody got all aboard on the internet. And now, the awesome resulting trending is that brands and agencies are putting their trust in digital natives, who are by nature risk-takers -- after all, being on the internet, back in the day, wasn't exactly a good 'career move.' Everyone did it for love, and digital natives are people who like to make ambitious, sly, weird and hilarious stuff on the web just for kicks."
"So what we're seeing is that the age of the 'safe' and boring pitch is over. Smart brands know that if they want to get down with sponsoring 'sharable' and 'likable' content -- what we in the biz call "stuff that people actually enjoy reading and watching,' and that 's a highly technical term --that they have to get behind a spirit of adventure."
"It's a really cool moment, because the people that the system really serves are readers. So, heck yes, I'm optimistic: Now nimble, un-bloated, civic-minded, thrill-seeking editorial outfits can forge great partnerships where everyone wins."
QUALITY STILL MATTERS
DAVID ROTH, CO-FOUNDER OF THE CLASSICAL, A YET-TO-BE LAUNCHED SPORTS WEBSITE FUNDED WITH $50,000 FROM KICKSTARTER:
"I can tell you what you probably already suspect -- that I feel a broad, if also broadly fatalistic, optimism at the moment that I think (hope!) I share with the other people behind The Classical, and which is a big part of the reason why we decided to go for this. For the most part, I'm here -- in this particular ridiculous industry, on the internet, at The Classical, etc. -- for the adjectives, with greater business considerations a pretty distant second. But as a writer and reader, the sheer volume of great writing work getting done in The Classical's particular area of interest -- at part-time Tumblrs and by the proprietors of fake Twitter feeds, at ambitious for-profit websites and less-ambitious just-for-yuks websites -- more or less demands optimism of the maybe-all-is -not-lost sort."
"Somehow/blessedly, people want to write good things and people want to read good things. How anyone, us included, will make money from that particular pair of desires is , again, not the sort of question I'm going to be able to answer especially well. (My hope is that we will do it by putting out really good writing and video and artwork and so on, although, again, I am Here For The Adjectives.)"
"But in a broad sense -- broad in that this is true both for people in media and everyone who cares about our culture -- it seems undeniable that people still want to be challenged and surprised and amused and so on by good writing. And that seems to me like an undeniable reason for optimism. Although, again, I don't understand or follow a lot of the metrics that would make what I just typed look painfully naive. But I want to believe that doing good work can lead to actual bottom-line success. I need to believe it, of course. But I do."
WHAT'S GOOD FOR THE CONSUMER IS GOOD FOR BUSINESS
NOAH BRIER, CO-FOUNDER OF PERCOLATE, A NEW BLOGGING PLATFORM NOW BEING USED BY REUTERS AND OTHER BUSINESSES AND CONSUMERS:
"How many of us wouldn't take the trio of Craigslist, eBay and Amazon over the old-fashioned classified listings that accounted for 40% of newspaper revenue in 1997? I suspect the answer is very few. Every day I read articles from around the world and get a chance to see movies that probably hit five theaters in the United States. As a media consumer, life has never been better, and ultimately I believe the industry will find ways to turn all that attention into dollars. Obviously this comes at a price: Many media companies will never recover to their pre-internet state. But new winners will emerge."
DON'T LET DISTRIBUTORS HAVE ALL THE VALUE
DAN SHANOFF, FOUNDER OF QUICKISH, A REAL-TIME NEWS RECOMMENDATION SERVICE LAUNCHED THIS YEAR:
"It has never been a better time to be a consumer of media. Full-stop. Whatever your interest -- in pace or format or perspective -- you can satisfy it, in greater quantities (and quality) than ever before."
"Consumers have made their preference clear, and the 'atomic unit of content' is now as abundant as it is dominant: The status update, the Tweet, the screencap, the one-minute video, the "Like," the hashtag. (Always, as ever, with the ability to get more if you want it.)"
"The challenge for anyone in the media business -- particularly in the news/editorial business -- is to harness that atomic unit in a way that simultaneously satisfies consumers and avoids giving all the value away to the distribution channels. The tussle we will see in 2012 is between producers and platforms over that value. (Spoiler: Platforms are winning in a rout.) But having spent the past year immersed in the heart of the media industry's startup ecosystem, the good news for publishers is that consumers have surged ahead of the industry, which means that innovators -- whether startups or incumbents -- are in a terrific place to meet consumers where they want to be."