Sunday, November 4, 2007

AP's Curley Contemplates a "Fork in the Road" That May Have Already Passed

When first I arrived on Wall Street many years ago at a major financial information company I was totally captivated by the notion of real-time news and information being at our fingertips every moment of the day. While other people lived through events in a seemingly second-hand world of news we were in on the cutting edge of events at all times. Reporters leaping over one another to cover these events in our newsroom was a given, and a thrill to watch as they shaped the news for leading investors worldwide.

But times change. Today what we used to consider elite real-time news is what most people on the Web expect to get as a matter of course, while traders in financial circles measure information timeliness that can give them a trading advantage via "hot news" in sub-millisecond timeframes. The Associated Press' CEO Tom Curley painted a picture of this evolving landscape for news in a recent address at the annual Knight-Bagehot Dinner in New York. In his address Curley was quick to chide "editors [who] need to stop pining for the old world and intensify the leading to the new" and to suggest that news organizations' "focus must be on becoming the very best at filling people’s 24-hour news needs." He also outlined how AP bureau offices would be staffed with more people dedicated to creating news rather than distributing it. Certainly moves such as these will help AP to generate quality news cost-effectively. But Curley fell short in his defining the scope of a number of key parameters that would help real changes to come about.

A key unrealistic expectation that Curley advanced is the role that distribution management plays in online content: "
We have the power to control how our content flows on the Web. We must use that power if we’re to continue to be financially secure and independent enough to speak truth to power." It would be more accurate to say that publishers have the power to understand how their content flows on the Web. Yes, through proper packaging a publisher can employ business or legal measures to enforce some commercial arrangements over that flow in many instances, but the notion that a wire service or any other content distribution service has the ability to control distribution on the Web definitively is not only inaccurate but a folly for growing a business.

With the exception of high-end professional applications such as securities trading the ability to monetize news lies far less in its ability to be distributed and far more in its ability to be contextualized. "Hot news" without a hot context is just not hot - especially when the hot contexts far outweigh the relatively small handful of contexts that used to exist through distribution-oriented media outlets. With social media creating millions of highly personalized contexts for news it is to a publisher's advantage to maximize distribution in the most cost-effective manner to those contexts. The brand value is not in the "AP" logo next to the headline or lede but in the value that it provides in the moment. While copyright in those contexts is certainly worth defending if you make the brand less able to flow into the contexts in which news can be monetized most effectively you reduce the opportunity for revenues substantially.

The New York Times understood this well enough when it lowered its subscription barrier to TimesSelect content and the Wall Street Journal appears headed towards more such exposure.
Curley's suggestion of introducing tiered pricing for "hot" news versus hours-old news may have some value in this regard but if others are adept at making money without such a scheme it will be hard position to defend except at the highest end of enterprise markets. The general abandonment of 15-minute delayed pricing for stock tickers on television and the Web points towards an environment where the ability to monetize news on an exclusive basis has disappeared in large part from consumer media. It's about value relative to what else can be created in a medium, not just what you feel is valuable independent of that medium.

The fault lies not in the Web but in the reluctance of publishers to embrace monetization models beyond distribution control.
"Speaking the truth to power" does indeed cost money, but it doesn't seem to ring true that this necessitates the primacy of one particular monetization model. AP has begun some experimentation with viral distribution via embedded content which is a hopeful sign for future efforts. But in an era in which the world edits its own front page and in doing so assigns value to news an organization creating news must adjust its expectations and acknowledge that speaking the truth to power also requires the active cooperation of those user-editors to make that truth relevant to power.

It's not just a matter of protecting copyright in a social media environment: it's a matter of being the master of monetizing social media through the inherent strengths of its contexts. Where value is created, monetization - and brand authority - follows. To insist that monetization and brand authority must be respected regardless of their relative value in new contexts leads inevitably to a degradation of both monetization and brand authority. Monetization isn't the real protection of quality news, it's really the creation of a defensible value proposition that protects quality news. The money - and the security to speak the truth confidently - comes from people valuing what you have to say in the most open marketplace of ideas available.

This is the inherent shift in publishing that continues to leave many in the industry not only at a fork in the road but well behind others who didn't even bother to look for the fork. It is, you might say, the difference in shifting an outlook from the East side of Manhattan to the West side versus shifting an outlook from the East coast to the West coast of the U.S. (or any other source of publishing innovation).
Be a master of value in these new contexts, says the West coast, and the East coast time and again says, "Show me the money" - which sounds great and practical, except when the West coast comes up with so many new contexts that can make money that they are dumbfounded as to where to start to pick off what turns out to be sloppy seconds for monetization.

The solution to this problem lies in part in recognizing that the East coast crowd needs to be the master of monetizing contexts that the West coast creates, not the follower. Instead of sitting back on their heels and sending in a licensing team after the lawyers have roughed up a dot-com baddie established players in publishing need to think, "How can we be the next Google of content monetization? How can we be outrageously on the front lines of helping people make money from content that gets consumed the way that people want it? How can we create content packaging that is so compelling that it cannot help but to make money?" With an increasing stream of large media companies cutting deals for contextual ad networks you can see that they are starting to get a hint of what this is all about, but it's still mostly about putting up ads and not
really about owning the most compelling value proposition that makes people want to advertise.

An example of this can be seen in the abandonment of print as a valuable medium. Curley suggests in his speech, "There’s still a place for appointment media -- a home-delivered newspaper on the porch each morning or an evening newscast while making dinner. But it is a smaller place. People, of course, want the news when they want it." While print's lack of exclusivity is hardly news, most publishers have been utterly uncreative in their approach to print as a highly valuable medium. Print is a medium for the most tactile and high-quality physical engagement with content: its value will be long-standing. An organization like AP has the ability to enable technologies that would allow consumers and enterprises to get highly customized print publications that would be highly affordable - and highly valuable to marketers. Instead, publishers crank out the same old proprietary content instead of putting the selection and the editing in the hands of their readers.

If this sounds as if I got up on the wrong side of the bed you may be right, but only because it is really frustrating at times to see how slowly major media companies adapt to these trends - frustration that is shared with many people working for those companies, I can assure you. There are scarce few that have had the courage to innovate with the fearlessness that's required to become a winner in the 21st century content world. AP may yet be one of those survivors under Curley's leadership as he strives to reinvent a culture that has much of which to be proud, but that equally needs to put aside that pride and acknowledge what the real goals must be for a news organization in the 20th century. AP's worldwide network of journalists and member organizations has an opportunity to reinvent the value of news around contexts rather than distribution, and many of the skills to make that so. But time is of the essence...

Post a Comment