The Media Industry: A Changing Landscape

The Internet. Lap tops.  Smartphones. Tablets. These have changed the face of the media landscape, and really the world, in just a few spins of the globe. They have lowered the barriers of entry, made creating content and distributing it easier, made it possible to target consumers on a one-on-one basis, opened the world’s eyes to pirated music and movies and more, and made the world and it’s people connected through a huge, wireless web of users. The advent of the Internet has done great things for the media, but also brought about a number of difficult changes we need to face.

The Internet and new digital platforms have made all existing media businesses more vulnerable to competition. The Internet makes it fast and easy to become a writer, a photographer, and musician, or a director. If you have a computer, a camera, and some software, you can put together an article complete with photos and video. And have the same potential reach as a site like the New York Times. And, if your content is good, and you market it and yourself in the right way, you could someday make millions of dollars off of your little blog, when some incumbent media company buys it out. This is actually becoming more and more common as journalists get laid off from their traditional jobs. They’re experts in something specialized (Venezuelan politics, smartphone technology, organic coffee). So they start a blog. This blog has quality content, and since the writer is already well known in his area through his contacts, he has the ability to market his content well. He can sell advertising space on his blog, and start to make a bit of money off of it. And provide it for free to the user.

This is what really makes the competition intense, and incumbent media companies so vulnerable. Users refuse to pay for content that they can find online for free. Some will even sacrifice the quality of paid content for the convenience and price of the Internet’s free content. The legal stuff, like videos on Hulu or any WordPress blog, is very easy to find. And the illegal stuff, like YouTube videos or pirated games, has only a slightly higher learning curve.

Many traditional content creators scoff at user-generated content, thinking the quality is low, the content is unoriginal, or the information is stolen. But user-generated content is no longer synonymous with cheap. And this is putting traditional media companies at risk. Why read about the earthquake in Japan from CNN when you can read about it from somebody living it on Twitter? Or see pictures the next day on WordPress, Flickr, or Tumblr? See a video on YouTube? The media can’t be everywhere, at all times. This is where user-generated content comes in handy – either as very specialized information, or as hyper-local news, photos, and updates.

There are, however, a number of advantages that come with the Internet and digital platforms. The potential reach is huge. Traditional media just has to know how to target their core consumer, how to find them in the 2 billion[i] possible consumers that the Internet provides. There are a number of tools that make it easy for these already-established companies to increase their reach.

Share buttons allow their consumers to spread the news through email, bookmarking sites (digg, delicious, Stumble Upon, buzz), and social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, tumblr). And many are already using these. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal online article called Dude, Those Candied Walnuts Go Great at a Kegger has been shared 1,491 times on Facebook. The LA Times has been liked 42,000 times on Facebook. Time.com has 2,382,635 followers on Twitter. And Pixar Shorts[ii] has received 676,000 views through Stumble Upon. Just having those small share buttons can make a big difference on a site that already has high traffic. It puts users in control of your content, and lets them spread it out to other people who might not have seen it without the recommendation of a friend.

Traditional media can also take advantage of the Internet by allowing users to interact with the content, beyond spreading the word. Using the commenting feature is a good way to build buzz and get readers involved in your site and your stories. A New York Times article entitled Devastation as Tsunami Crashes Into Japan has received 220 comments. A Wired.com  article 1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame? has gotten 303 comments.

Of course, any blog with a bit of authority can also use these resources to the same effect, making the threat of competition high, and putting the traditional media in a vulnerable place. The Mashable.com post Woman Sells First Spot in iPad 2 Line For $900 [VIDEO] has been retweeted 3,152 times, liked on Facebook by 1,918 people, has received 71 comments, all in the past four hours. And any no-name blogger can become a big name if they use the resources wisely.

Digital platforms also give the traditional media an advantage. This allows their consumers to read, watch, or listen to content anywhere at anytime. On a train, on a plane, in a park, in the dark. This mobility allows users to consume content in new ways and places, in situations which were previously impossible to read or watch or listen. The daily commute has new possibilities for content creators: no longer is it only for reading the newspaper on the train or listening to the radio in the car. Watch that episode of Mad Men you missed last week, or read the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog. This allows the traditional media to expand to new areas and target new people. No longer do newspapers and magazines have to be photo and text based. And no longer are movies and TV shows available only on a television or computer screen. Companies with enough financial resources and with the right talent pool can take advantage of these new on-the-go opportunities and consumers. And, if the content is good enough that consumers are still willing to pay for it in digital form, like many of the magazines available on the iPad, it is easy to collect money from users through the Apple or Android Marketplace. It encourages the impulse buy: let me download this song, or this episode, or this magazine. And let me do it right now.

This can also be a disadvantage for many traditional companies as well, companies that are used to working in their own little “silos.” Writers know how to write. They weren’t expected to understand photography, design, or video editing until very recently. Finding the people who have these well-rounded skills could leave some companies scrambling, especially when they lose young workers and veterans alike to upstarts like Twitter, Facebook, Mashable, TechCrunch, or the Huffington Post.

And these new media companies don’t have the same old-world reputations behind them, the same baggage to overcome. They have younger people, more innovative people in the driver’s seat. They’re still new, are a product of the new environment, and thus better understand it. They aren’t reacting to change, they are creating it. They haven’t been in denial of the downfall of their industry, mostly because neither they nor their industry was around 20 years ago. They’re powered as much by software engineers as they are by content creators. And this fosters a different kind of environment, a different way of handling things, and new kind of corporate culture. Something more laid-back. Less suit and tie, more jeans and a t-shirt. Creativity blossoms, all ideas are welcome, even if most are rejected. But it’s that open-door policy that encourages and inspires growth, something that huge corporations, especially those beholden to shareholders, can’t always do with speed and ease.

But new media businesses also have a harder time monetizing their content. They understand the user and the landscape, so they provide their content for free or for very cheap. Maybe it’s a free app, like Mashable or Twitter. Maybe it’s supported by advertising, like Facebook or the Huffington Post. But until these new media companies gain a scale in terms of users, they aren’t worth any money, and they don’t make any money. They have to build that user base from scratch,  unlike the traditional media companies which just have to give their already large number of consumers added value through digital content.

The Internet and digital platforms provide a number of advantages and disadvantages for the  both traditional media and new media companies. The hard part is recognizing how to make the best of the advantages, and overcome the disadvantages, how to stay ahead of the change, being an active company, instead of a reactive one.

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