New business models for media strutting their stuff this summer

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Time was when summer meant TV reruns, Friday ad agency closings and editorial meetings in Sag Harbor. This year, summertime was all about media business models. Herewith, some observations on three.

The Wall Street Journal Gets Unbundling. The financial newspaper of record has in recent years been known as one of the few brick-and-mortar media companies to develop a real revenue-producing Web operation. But Dow Jones' smarts go even deeper, as evidenced by last week's announcement that the company plans a discrete Web presence for the successful "Weekend Journal" section.

On the surface, this might seem merely a nice thing to do for readers: Why not provide them a new way to access the engaging (and often brilliant) lifestyle and arts writing gathered by Joanne Lipman and Ray Sokolov? But there's actually a canny New Economy strategy here.

Kann's Kommandos say the new site will be free. It joins yet another free site spun off by the Journal, Opinionjournal.com, a forum for the rabid right-wingers from the paper's editorial page. Together, these two sites plus the subscription-based wsj.com recognize a newspaper's readership is not a single, demographic abstraction but a collection of constituencies, each with its own set of interests and needs.

More significantly, Dow Jones also understands that capturing value from these niche audiences requires different business models, all of them serving the larger umbrella goal of corralling people into the big brand tent.

Brill Brilliance. Contentville.com, the new Web venture of American Lawyer-Court TV-Brill's Content founder Steven Brill, has taken some hits from writers, who complain his new venture, an online source of disaggregated articles, books, dissertations and other works, didn't secure the rights to their work. The malcontents are missing Mr. Brill's fundamentally smart insight: Even if information wants to be free, it's still possible to build a business around the management of rights to that information.

Contentville is an information reseller; unlike Salon or TheStreet.com, it spends little developing original content. Instead, it provides its greatest value to consumers by organizing new ways to access vast reams of stuff.

In recognizing the untapped wealth inside existing digital databases, such as those compiled by Bell & Howell and Thomson Corp., Mr. Brill matches Amazon.com, whose leap to prominence was its understanding that the digitized catalogue of books in print was a virtual blueprint for a virtual store.

But Mr. Brill added a Napster spin: Most of the content he delivers is digital and requires no warehousing, no gift wrapping, no customer service. He may have found the alchemic formula for turning "free" Web content into hard money.

TiVo, Take Two. If I might be allowed a bit of chest-thumping, those of you who read The New York Times Magazine's Aug. 13 cover story on TiVo knew you got it here first.

Personal video recording technology, I wrote almost three months ago, is "the enemy of LOP [least objectionable programming], lassitude, white noise and networks--other than those I make myself," a warning of "treacherous times ahead for programmers and the marketers that depend on them." That was the same point eminent author Michael Lewis made in The Times.

But Lewis' hyperbole got the best of him. He claimed several times in his piece that TV was the foundation of the mass market, and PVRs, by extension, its destroyer. This is nonsense. The mass market's roots lie deeply within the 19th Century--in the rise of industrialization, cities, mass concentrations of population, the invention of department stores, the development of mass transit to get people to them and the flowering of brands. The mass market existed long before broadcasting. Ivory soap's slogan dates to the rotogravure days. And the demise of the mass market began well before TiVo made its appearance.

But Lewis is absolutely correct in concluding PVRs are hastening the end of the mass-market era, requiring marketers and the ad industry to rethink totally the concept of advertising. The couch potato is now an audience of one. How do you create a campaign for him . . . and her . . . and him . . . and them? Ten dollars--or maybe a column--to the first agency that persuades me it's figured it out.

Copyright August 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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