For over two years, I have been writing a series of posts on the media industry called the Apocalypse. I am often asked whether that’s overly pessimistic. My answer: ‘apocalypse’ is a term we use for the end of the world, sure, but it’s also, to those who take the term seriously, supposed to herald the revelation of something new and extraordinary. That is what I believe is coming to media, whenever the chaotic collapse of the model we know is over.
Occasionally, the Apocalypse Series has attempted to read the tea leaves and make predictions about the new model. I don’t believe–as other media prophets seem to–that there will be no more Big Media. Human history suggests that power tends to consolidate, break down and then consolidate again. I believe that the new consolidators of power will be organizations who can mix and match. It will be the people who can take the nichification that the web brings and use it to deepen rather than to flatten what we know.
Firstly, there will be places like Google, who reproduce news written elsewhere and use it to aggregate and distill data. Secondly, there will be places like Yahoo! and a.o.l. who are able to create or buy networks of niche websites that combine to present a reasonably full picture of the news. And thirdly, there will be places like the BBC, Reuters, and Bloomberg who can use an array of broadcast and text platforms to cover the same story from multiple sides.
The New York Times understands this. The Times will probably always sell itself as a complete package. With its brand it can afford to do so. But its website is very niche-friendly, investing in a dizzying array of high-quality blogs, sometimes built simply around RSS feeds for individual writers; sometimes around specific topics. The good ones lead readers into longer stories and sometimes–certainly this is true of City Room, Diner’s Journal and the columnist blogs–use reader feedback to generate future coverage. Finally, the Times is partnering with broadcast and online video outfits and making strategic acquisitions of niche sites. I’ve heaped a lot of praise on the NYT for this approach, and I stand by that.
The Washington Post Company has been much less successful. The Post started with the advantage of already HAVING a multi-platform set up: a paper, a magazine, an academic journal, an e-zine that functioned like a big blog network, and a well-established partnership with a broadcaster, something the Post thought of before everyone else in media was obsessed with convergence. Given that structure and history, I have been consistently optimistic about the Post. So far, it seems I was wrong.
Some Post employees–Dan Gross is the best example–learned to produce content for multiple platforms, to find a scoop and then make a judgment about format and what niche will showcase it best. [No surprise then that Gross is moving to niche-aggregator Yahoo!] But this practice was never institutionalized. If thought of as the business blog of the Washington Post, The Big Money might have been a useful analytical complement to the paper’s more objective coverage. If thought of as the weekly magazine of the Washington Post, Newsweek’s shift towards opinion and ideas would also have worked. But when presented as standalone news offerings, neither project made sense. Which is why–despite the intelligence of many, many of writers and editors–they fell flat.
What SHOULD a standalone Newsweek do? Sidney Harman, who now owns the mag, says the plan remains the same. But I’ll be honest. Except as a complement to other news outlets in a network [Bloomberg/Businessweek, Time/CNN/other Time Inc. magazines], I’m honestly not sure what role the newsweekly format is supposed to play.