The traditional media brand scions of Time, the Washington Post and Newsweek are of diminishing import with circulation and advertising declines. Major city newspapers are disappearing like the rainforest. In the past six months, we have witnessed the closing of the Denver Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the San Francisco Chronicle. There is a great deal of teeth gnashing about how this came to be and mostly it is deemed that they just didn't make the transition to the web soon enough, or haven't figured out the business model, etc. All true, but fundamentally, these brands forgot what business they were in--they thought their product was the newspaper, when it was the news. The paper was the distribution platform. Being able to separate content from distribution and determine how to monetize each is critical to being an effective media organization. We don't buy newspapers, we buy news and advertisers buy access to markets. We don't buy CDs, or DVDs we buy music or movies. Clarity of business is key, as is clarity of brand. A strong brand and a strong product can thrive on any form of distribution, and will draw the market to it. A few "newspaper" brands will find that they can thrive on the Internet and other distribution platforms. But many won't and so a whole new set of media brands are starting to emerge. What are the emerging and future brands Americans will trust for information and news?
Web-Based News Media Brands
New media brands are emerging and gaining traction like Politico.com, Gawker and the Huffington Post, joining online stalwart, Slate. Experiments such as True/Slant may take hold and gather readership momentum. But this is also a time when consumers of news and information are not as tied to the media brand. We don't wake up thinking I need to read my newspaper this morning to find out what is going on in sports, the weather, international events, what new movie is out, etc. we have multiple options to get that information. Web-based brands that rise up to have a following in a niche will be successful. Traditional news organizations will also be successful because they have a following. And here is where many of the traditional news media brands could end up finding life, having successfully shed their newsprint but kept their great newsgathering teams, and found a way to become profitable.
The Journalist as Media Brand
Today, individual journalists are becoming media brands in their own right--think Maria Bartiromo, who not only has her CNBC show, but also has a show on NBC's Meet the Press, has a regular feature in Business Week and is a featured speaker. It is no longer about CNBC, it is about Maria--she is the trusted source on financial news. Fareed Zakaria also has become a cross-platform media brand, from Newsweek columnist to author to host on CNN. Fareed is the brand for current events and foreign news. One can easily argue that the success of the Huffington Post is tied to brand that is Arianna Huffington. Not all of the working journalists today can become a media brand. It requires the ability to work across multiple media platforms--to be not just a great writer, but also a telegenic. Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, has for years created periodic video stories. This has made him very comfortable moving off the printed page. Staff journalists today are being required to conduct their interviews on camera. This is a tough transition for the majority of journalists whom were trained not to become the story. Suddenly, they need to not only dress for the camera, but also be media trained. Their interviews are awkward--even the world's top journalists appear painfully stiff and unpracticed in their questioning. For those who can work in various mediums and are comfortable promoting themselves, becoming a media brand is a certain path to career success.
Big Brands as Media Brands
Traditionally big brands have been the big advertisers, keeping media in business. With the disaggregation of media, brands can talk directly to their customers and have direct relationships. A lot of experimentation has gone on in this area with sponsored programming, branded content on websites and television and joint media advertiser partnerships. I have been dabbling in this space for over a decade, and believe that now is the time for certain brands to extend into media directly. Nike could be the next ESPN. I'd go to Nike to get sports scores, watch games and get fitness tips. Martha Stewart took a media brand and turned it into products. Not all product brands can make the reverse morph but many can. Home Depot or Lowes can develop content and channels for home improvement. Expedia or Orbitz can create and distribute travel content. Yes, they invite competitive advertising in potentially but it is all about building audience, market and brand loyalty. Starbucks has always sold the coffeehouse, not just the coffee, as part of its brand promise. The extensions it has made into music, books, and a little film have supported that brand concept. Clearly not every brand can or should be in the media business. There also needs to be distinction made between what is marketing content and what is news whatever the media platform source is. I believe that consumers of information will not be bothered with journalistic integrity issues regarding content on brand-based platforms. Consumers are smart enough to know if it is good information or not. And when they want truly objective views, they will seek that out. The blur between marketing and information has been going on for decades on a variety of platforms, not just the web.
The media landscape has been in a state of change for the past 20 years, and with broad-based high-speed Internet access, change is accelerating. But with change remain a few key value constants: the value of brand, whether it be an individual, an emerging entity or a major established consumer brand; the value of information, news and entertainment and what consumers will pay to access them and the value of social interaction and communication.