Why Old Media Really Isn't Dead

Sure, the Landscape Has Changed, but the Roots Remain Intact

By Published on .

Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro
I was at dinner the other week with Joy DiBenedetto, an ex-CNN journalist who is now CEO of HUM News, when she leaned in to me as one would at a memorial service and said in a hushed tone: "Did you notice that in roughly the last 30 days, it seems that Old Media just died." Her tone and demeanor suggested a melancholy that was palpable. She continued, "Think about it. In the last four weeks, the legacy media landscape shifted more significantly than in any time in the last 40 years. Old legends fell away and esteemed media properties were almost sold at auction." She then delineated the list of media shifts of the last month. I was left breathless at the scope that seemed to go under the radar:

  • ABC News President David Westin, the longest-reigning network news division chief (13+ years) resigned and will leave by the end of the year.
  • Jeff Zucker of NBC was fired by Steve Burke of Comcast, saying, "Comcast wanted to move on."
  • Jonathan Klein, the president of CNN/U.S. cable channel, is being replaced by Ken Jautz, the head of the tabloid-oriented sister channel HLN (OMG).
  • CNN also fired well-known Latino anchor Rick Sanchez for challenging new media darling Jon Stewart (ironic, isn't it?).
  • The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz is leaving and becoming the Washington bureau chief for The Daily Beast (insert gasp here).
  • Economic writer for The New York Times, Peter Goodman, is leaving to go to The Huffington Post (the "old" new media outlet).
  • Business Week magazine, long known as the best-known corporate storyteller, was recently sold to the financial channel Bloomberg.
  • The Washington Post Company announced about a month ago a deal to sell Newsweek to Sidney Harman, of Harman International, of audio fame (a company with virtually zero media experience).
  • AOL buys TechCrunch ('nuf said).

A startling list any day of the week -- but to know all these changes happened in just one month -- is nothing less than seismic. Right? It seemed that the power base of old media was collapsing in a collective dance of death -- the inevitable outcome of 36 months of mounting pressure. Then, a few days later I ended up at the Giants of Broadcasting event hosted by the Library of American Broadcasting honoring broadcasting's titans like Dick Clark, Daniel Shorr, Leslie Stahl, Norman Corwin, David L. Wolper, Eddie Fritts and Sam Donaldson. My mind kept turning over the idea that this event (where the medium age was 65+) was the personification of this moribund trend and I was not alone in making this connection. Even my tablemate Mary Jane Walker, from Hill & Knowlton, who was basking in the glow of event ("These people are woven into the very fabric of our lives"), also seemed to be mourning the passing of an era. We watched in quiet sadness as a dignified, yet visibly frail. Dick Clark accepted his honor remotely due to a stroke. We heard Agnes Dixon make a moving speech acknowledging that she was a "holdover" from a time gone by. And the posthumous honors given to Art Linkletter and Rue McClanahan seemed to be the "period" at the end of the unspoken sentence.

I was feeling morose and so for inspiration I, "new media blogger", got to ask Sam Donaldson his views of "old" media versus "new" (the irony of the situation was not lost on either of us). He insightfully said: "Fact finding has not changed. Creating credible news that can be trusted has not changed. What has changed," he observed," is quality of what is produced."

True enough, and The Pew Institute affirmed his insight. Recently they reported that despite the tonnage of new media, "more than 99% of the stories cited in blogs are linked to the websites of traditional news outlets." Clearly traditional media was the rock upon which new media stood.

Once the perspective changed, the story changed too. Now I think it is more accurate to say "old" media is resurrecting itself as it learns (the hard way, I admit) to take the best of the old -- trust/ quality -- and merge it with the new, "many to many" interactivity to come out stronger than ever. While current attempts are clumsy still, it's instructive to look at companies that have done it profitably such as Paltalk, a large, profitable content- and video-based social network of 4mm+ people (author's note: I used to work at Paltalk, and I am a big fan but have no affiliation with the company today). We created new ways of monetizing our business that looks very different than "traditional" content monetization plans. The key pillars of this approach are:

  • Focus on curating the user -- not the content. Easier said than done because it means more than just sticking a share button on content. It means giving users the ability to interact with the content -- not just consume it.
  • Focus on "communities of interest" -- not just a vertical approach used by most media. This means that breaking down the media content silo walls (e.g. Vogue vs. Vanity Fair) that usually exist in media companies and delivering "horizontal content" from multiple media properties to serve the community. This flies in the face of a traditional approach to demographic media buys but it delivers a more vibrant user experience.
  • Focus on creating a trusted curation brand at a personal level. I'm going to put it out there, folks -- content is NOT king. Rather, "trust is king" and I believe audiences will flock to individual voices within a media company that can be trusted to moderate the flood of information.
  • Focus on the revenue opportunities in the very, very long tail of content distribution. Clever content publishers will not see social media as a cannibalizing force but rather as an entirely new distribution channel that can be monetized.

In the end, "old media" is not really dead but is reinventing itself to take the best of what it was with the best of what is coming. As consumers evolve from the current content consumption model dominated by the three screens -- PC, TV, mobile -- to the "many-to-many" media world with its multidimensional "six-screen" world, the media winners will be those that create trusted, credible content and then let their audiences run with it.

Old media -- they may be down -- but don't count them out yet.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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