Picture this: it's the year 2062 and Mark Zuckerberg, having recently celebrated his 78th birthday, is still, against all odds, running Facebook. The once-invincible social-networking behemoth has seen better days, and financially it's coasting on fumes -- Facebook's 38th round of venture-capital funding is about to run dry -- but no matter. Zuckerberg's still large and in charge, even as competitors eat away at his market share. The problem, of course, is that he never took TCOL -- total consciousness osmotic lifestreaming -- seriously, and now upstarts are using the device-free technology to run circles around Facebook. Cranky, crusty Zuckerberg insists that there's still plenty of value in Facebook's business model, and one day he declares, out of the blue, that, "I believe people will pay for device-based social networking." (Oh, brother!)
Hey, weirder things could happen. Actually, weirder things are already happening, circa 2009.
Ol' Man Zuckie has an obvious antecedent: 78-year-old Rupert Murdoch, who recently decided that the way to save his sinking newspapers is to start charging for online access. Not to mention other graspy oldsters, like 86-year-old Sumner Redstone over at Viacom, who, well ... who knows what his plan is anymore, other than to never die?
I've been thinking about the life cycle of media moguls -- and the future of the very idea of the media mogul -- given all the recent rumors surrounding relative spring chicken Sam Zell, chief of the Tribune Co., the newspaper and broadcasting conglomerate. Just 67 and still invariably described as a "motorcycle-riding billionaire," Zell, having massively botched his attempt at media moguldom since taking control of Tribune in 2007, is said to be on his way out. Either forced out by creditors (if you believe the Chicago Sun-Times) or reduced to simply abandoning the wreckage of his failed investment (if you believe Murdoch's New York Post).
The big man walks away a small man -- diminished in the eyes of history. He could have shuffled off this mortal coil with his legend as a real-estate genius intact, but instead he'll mostly be remembered for helping to drive the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times and his other papers more quickly into the ground. Surely he'll be the last big man to try to become even bigger through media moguldom.
Call him the last of the great media wannabes. As for Murdoch and Redstone and the other fading content kings, it's increasingly clear that no one will ever replace them.
Sure, there will continue to be assorted corporate operators of piecemeal digital-media properties (like AOL, if its new-ish strategy of growing a network of nichey megablogs proves to have staying power) and guys like Nick Denton of Gawker Media on the indie-entrepreneurial side who will live well thanks to their mucking around in content. But the "Citizen Kane"-esque information baron of our collective imagination is done for. That monopoly-based racket is over.
With all the chatter this summer about, once again, putting up pay walls -- from Rupert Murdoch to Steve Brill and beyond -- there's this fantasy that we can reprice information, we can put the genie back in the bottle. What that's about, at a certain level, is mogul types reacting (years too late) with alarm: "Wait, that information is mine!" Only ... it's not. Not really. Not any more. (Nick Denton, for one, realizes that nobody owns the news anymore, but you can still cobble together an audience that advertisers want to reach by spinning and cleverly repackaging the information that's already out there.)
The margins are gone, which means the glory is gone, which means mogul wannabes will look for greater glory elsewhere. Anywhere but the media business (what's left of it).
As for the guys who are still in it, well, all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put the king's humpty-dumpty media properties back together again -- and, in fact, the king looks like a fool for spending all his money trying (think of the overhead for the stables alone!).
When Zell took over Tribune, I wrote about the tragedy of him not getting it -- thinking that he was taking control of distressed assets that he could turn around with a little elbow grease and some spit and polish, just as he's done throughout his career in real estate. I pitied him for failing to grasp the extent to which his product, "news," has become permanently devalued in what I called the Age of Kleptomedia.
Somehow it escaped Sam Zell that when content is no longer king, there can be no media monarchies.
But to bring this full circle to Mark Zuckerberg: You could think of a guy like him, if he has lasting power, as the prototypical media mogul of the future, I suppose. Except that Zuckerberg, really, is a post-media mogul: a manager, basically, of an incredibly vast digital spreadsheet that we're all kind enough to fill for him with our personal data and updates and pictures and whatnot. He's running a virtual Trapper Keeper, and it'd be totally empty if he hadn't somehow convinced 250 million people to B.Y.O.C. -- bring your own content.
The content king of the past had pretensions to controlling us -- or at least the body politic, the public conversation, the local and national agenda -- by controlling information. But the content king of the future has it much easier; he controls us more directly. Because, loyal subjects that we are, we surrender our information to the king willingly.
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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco