Friday, August 31, 2007

Syndication Brands Challenged: CNN Boots Reuters News and Video Content

Reuters reports the news story on CNN's elimination of Reuters as a major supplier of news and video footage, but the story behind the story provided on the Reuters MediaFile weblog gets to some of the meat of the matter. An internal CNN memo surfaced by MediaFile from Editorial Director Richard Griffiths details the sudden and troublesome transition that CNN must manage. The termination of using Reuters content is immediate and global and must include purging clips of Reuters video footage from archived video segments. Though the official story from CNN that it is deciding to make "significant investments" in its own news gathering operation to counter the loss of Reuters content there is some speculation that this is more of a cost-cutting measure or a "play tough" negotiating stance on the contract for syndicated Reuters content.

The truth is probably somewhere in between these two stances. It's hard to imagine that CNN, which has relied strongly on Reuters content for most of its existence, is going to be able to fill the gap easily for coverage lost through dropping Reuters, especially as it impacts their archives so deeply. If this is a strategic move, then one would think that the strategy would have accounted for these losses more smoothly.

To some degree the claim that news feeds and video footage from suppliers such as AP can help to fill the gap may be a major part of the CNN strategy, but the larger factor seems to be how the increasingly context-dependent nature of Web content is changing how content brands are managed online. In dropping a major syndication source such as Reuters CNN is acknowledging that aggregating content from other premium branded suppliers does not necessarily help a publisher to score well in metrics managed by comScore and other audience measurement services that look increasingly at how content gets consumed away from a portal.

This is underscored by portals such as CNN making more aggressive use of their own feeds to users via RSS, search engine positioning and other techniques that are putting their content into on-the-fly contexts that users value more. In this sense, a content brand is built around what it does for an audience in the contexts that they care about most - which may or may not be the brand's parent portal.

While this gives Reuters a bit of a bloody nose in the short run it's also an acknowledgment that their strategy of using Web syndication partners sparingly is paying off to some degree as its own brand begins to gain more prominence through search engines and its increasingly sophisticated portal. However CNN's willingness to stick with content from AP and other wire services may also indicate that Reuters' once-dominant international position in news gathering is eroding to the point that it is becoming harder to position its news effectively in consumer markets. Reuters has also lagged behind AP in seeking out social media partners to build context for its content, and unlike AP does not have the advantage of a membership-driven network that relies on AP in many instances to drive branded news portals in many local markets.

All of this begs a very delicate question: is the Reuters news brand going to be strong enough to survive alone in an era in which traditional syndication is experiencing major challenges? By moving its consumer Web operations away from partners such as CNN over the past few years Reuters has tried to innoculate itself against this very question through its quest to build up non-syndication revenues through advertising and other types of business deals. But with more global news sources than ever before and a surge of user-generated content gaining more authority it is becoming ever-harder for Reuters to define that brand, a move that may be complicated by the eminent takeover of Reuters by Thomson.

Consider, for example, the fact that the far more interesting analysis of this particular story appeared on the Reuters MediaFile weblog. MediaFile is an excellent blog, but it's hardly the only one of its kind. Being able to define their brand effectively online whilst contending with both traditional and non-traditional competitors that can be exposed the the global communications afforded by the Web is going to be an ongoing challenge for Reuters and other major wire services. For now consider CNN the winner in this battle as it gains more freedom to build its brand through online channels for its text and video content, but consider both parties having to scramble to make their news strategies fly in a world of contextual content branding.
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