Tech guru with advice for media corps? Shut up.

Every technology person who has a little bit of street credibility believes he has the answer to the problems that media companies face. Marc Andreessen, who I met while at FON and is a nice enough guy, should really lead the charge in asking technology people to shut up rather than just suggest that publishers “Burn the Boats” by shutting down their print operations. If you stop telling media companies to flip their business on its head someone might actually start listening.

I spent a year helping Hearst Communications during the late 1990s, two years working with Columbia Music Entertainment in Japan and am now consulting The Japan Times, and I still have no clue about the future of media. I haven’t met a media veteran who does either, and I haven’t heard a technologist with a compelling idea that doesn’t involve placing a bunch of people on a sacrificial alter to the digital gods. It would be suicidal to try and predict — and even worse to prescribe — a single solution that has no clear results.

The media industry brings out a lot of pundits because everyone can read a newspaper or listen to music. This makes them feel more qualified to prescribe a remedy.

Not everyone can read the stochastic oscillators or bollinger bands, charts used by traders to graph stock movements. When I was at Lehman Brothers, our technology teams had to first try to understand the needs of the business people (traders) and then built technology for them. What we need are more experienced technology people who are willing to try and understand the internal needs of media organizations. This means instead of telling the chef “make the toast yellow, not brown,” first figure out how toasters work and look at the environment the chef is producing in.

But since prescribing solutions is all the rave, here is mine: What media companies need is flexibility. The music industry is flexible enough to adapt to changes. In the last 20 years, music companies have been able to distribute their content on more formats than I can count, 8-track, cassette, plastic disk of varying sizes, CD, records, and multiple competing digital formats. This is because artist and producers are very much independent from the distribution channel (CD, tapes, records, iTunes). Between the creator and the distribution channel is a business operatus that funds and manages it all. I think this is the way things should be in the music industry, though that’s a separate discussion. But what this means is that a 15-year-old kid who creates an entire album on his PC using a $400 piece of software could end up in the same distribution channels as a artist like Madonna who probably spends $20,000 – $100,000 per track using the same music company as their coordinator. As long as people pay to listen, the music company wins.

Newspapers on the other hand don’t have this sort of flexibility. Newsrooms commit to publishing systems that could easily run up to $1M for a small news organization. While the writers can often work independent of this system, the producers or editors can not. This system often dictates how content flows in and out of the organization, with the primary assumption being that the content will be consumed on paper: The nature of a normal editorial floor unavoidably places constraints on the flow of content.

Eventually “newspaper newsrooms” will just be “newsrooms,” so what news organizations need to operate is flexibility, the ability to accept content in any form and then distribute it in any form. Most pure technologist have a hard time grasping how important this change is to a print news organization.

At The Japan Times I’m trying to implement technology that leaves the organization flexible because I have no clue what the future will bring, I’m not a fortune teller. Fundamentally content going out needs to be able to fit an infinite number of forms of consumption – which should be of little concern to the writer. For me, this means refusing to work with vendors who use proprietary standards for content storage, which is common in the media industry because publishing systems originally had to display content well enough to look good on paper, the only content exporting functions they built into their products were related to printing. It means treating our end points, websites, iPads and mobile devices all as equal display engines. Display engines need to be able to read and display standardize content. Of course, the features and styling you implement around that content will vary depending on the device, but the content remains core.

With the assumption that we have no idea of what the future brings, recommending to a media organization that they need to be “digital” has no real meaning. It doesn’t help the organization solve the greatest challenge of moving content. It’s even worse to recommend news organizations move to the “web” without solving the issue of flexible distribution of content.

If technology pundits really know the future of news, they should just create their own news companies. Otherwise, shut up and enjoy the show. And I mean that in the nicest most constructive way.


But if you really have something to say, answer me this: Aside from distribution, what are technologies pundits’ hard advice on monetizing content now that ad sales are disappearing in print publications and online sales have yet to show growth comparable to what print once enjoyed?


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  1 comment for “Tech guru with advice for media corps? Shut up.

  1. Winston Muller
    November 4, 2010 at 11:44 am

    I don’t know what the pro’s say, but these are my personal thoughts.Unfortunately at the moment, most online news is given away for free, so if one place starts to charge for news that everyone distributes, readers will go elsewhere.There are however publications like Monocle which have a subscriber base, and I’m not sure how big it is, but it must be profitable if they’re still doing it. As a subscriber you also get access to a lot of online content that isn’t available even if you buy the magazine itself. Clever incentive, though this premium content is more editorials than general news.I think media companies will shrink as we move away from print as a distribution method, simply because a few good web devs can create a top class distribution channel, where as it takes an entire print house to put out a few newspapers.Media companies will also have to look at affiliate sales as well as just advertisements, and I see a lot of online media have their own classifieds sections.On a whole, like you say maybe its about keeping the “news” side of things separate from the distribution, and perhaps using monetization specific to each distribution method.

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