Fueling the Online Mind: The Future of Premium Content Creators

Posted: November 2, 2010 in New Media Markets, Publishing Business, Reading Technologies

Supposedly, newspapers, magazines and books are in their death throes. Advertising is shifting to other media, increasingly online. Want-ads are all going to Craig’s List. More and more people are reading e-readers, iPads and laptops rather than paper media. Those people, that is, who still bother to read, as opposed to tracking Facebook and Twitter and surfing the Web. A growing portion of the populace doesn’t trust the mainstream media that produces newspapers and magazines. Many people have neither the time nor the desire to read long-form publications of any kind.

This is all true.

And yet, to reference Mark Twain, reports of the death of mainstream content creators have been greatly exaggerated. To be sure, the businesses of for-pay, “long-form” content, such as newspapers, magazines and books will morph and almost undoubtedly shrink. However, they will coexist in a temporarily messy but ultimately vibrant media marketplace with content from “free” and generally amateur sources, including social networks, Blogs, YouTube, and other services we can’t even yet imagine. The “personal media mix” of most people will blend information and functionality from these sources, and large, traditional content creators will be among the most important.

Here are some reasons why.

First, consider the complementary strengths and weaknesses of two broad categories of media content creation and functionality. I’m tempted to call them “professional” and “amateur” content creators and editors, but these terms seem inadequate, since the distinction in some cases is minor. Think of skilled Bloggers, who earn money, and many of whom were or are professional journalists and function that way. So let’s conceive the two classes of media content creation differently.

I’m going to borrow terminology from the technologist Nick Bilton, author of the book, “I Live in the Future and Here’s What It Looks Like,” and a researcher at and advisor to the New York Times. He advocates the transforming power of social networks. He envisions that highly personalized and refined ones will serve as an individual’s, “anchor communities,” and provide all of the gatekeeping and content-creation services anybody might want. I consider these anchor communities one of the two broad sources of online content.

Via these personal networks, built through Facebook, Twitter, and other services, we gain and contribute information and insight not simply about mundane personal topics but about our jobs, events, and other areas of expertise and interest. Within our anchor communities, we are not “paying” someone to gather or create content, but benefit from the collective information sharing.

The other broad source of content I’ll call, “anchor sources.” These are usually large creators of content we trust and value sufficiently that, whether or not we do pay money for them, we would be willing to pay for them, whether by subscription or a la carte purchase. We would pay for this “premium” content, despite the vast amount of “free” information available, because the quality, authoritativeness, and credibility are significantly better than what we can get for free.

To be sure, we currently can get for free a great deal of such premium content, but that’s not going to continue for much longer. Advertising revenue alone will not sustain the creation of such superior information – the efficacy and adequacy of online advertising, always questionable, is proving more and more insufficient to support top-tier media creation. So, creators of premium content will be forced to either charge (if they already don’t) for their content or lower its quality. If they do the latter, they will be supplanted by the anchor communities.

Over time, I believe truly “free” sources of premium content will greatly diminish in number, if not vanish. Those that survive, however, will be very strong and will offer ever-higher quality content and services in order to justify charging and to distinguish themselves from potentially competitive anchor communities and individuals. Anchor sources will include future (or even present) iterations of companies such as the New York Times, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, ESPN, the Atlantic Monthly, or the general or specialty media to which we currently subscribe or occasionally read or buy.

Many or most of us will happily pay for such quality, because even if our anchor communities provide much of the information and insight we want, anchor communities are inherently limited in the depth, context, and consistency they supply. I’ll discuss this in my next Blog post (“Personal Networks are Built on Low-Outlay Information”).

We also will pay for premium online content because the surviving content providers will make it ever-easier to gain the information we want, when we want it. A model for this is Apple’s wildly successful iTunes music store. We may be able to get almost everything iTunes sells for free somewhere on the Internet, but the service’s ease of use and reliability – the iTunes experience – has made the mainstream comfortable paying for music. The same is happening with text and other online media.

So, we need both anchor communities and anchor sources. They will complement each other and coexist – they already are intertwining precisely for this reason (the New York Times provides links to social networking platforms such as Facebook, which actively invites the inclusion of links to for-pay content). If you don’t believe you need both, you will, sooner or later, be forced to embrace both either by social norms (where all your friends are), personal interest (it’s where the best content you want resides), or economics (you’re at a competitive disadvantage in many jobs if you don’t stay informed about your industry).

In a nutshell, anchor communities are tremendous at culling up overlooked or underemphasized information, identifying content that meets our personal interests, and responding to real-time events. However, as sole sources of content, social networks can’t consistently supply a concise survey of events and topics or extensive analysis of these subjects.

Conversely, anchor sources are comparatively slow and do not yet personalize their content that well. However, they very succinctly provide a comprehensive snapshot of events, offer depth and analysis, and do so in a very reliable way.

Ultimately, each of us will need to develop a “personal knowledge strategy,” one that blends anchor communities and sources to meet our individual interests and goals. These strategies will enable us to efficiently navigate and filter the ever-expanded ocean of online information. “Efficiently” is the key word, because of all the resources in one’s life, time is one of the scarcest, and will become ever more so in our hyper-competitive, 24X7 modern world. In the past, we would pay content experts at one of a few large companies to comprehensively find, retrieve, and deliver information to us, either because the information was not accessible (twenty years ago, how else would we obtain an article about Croatia?) or because it would take great amounts of time and energy to acquire it ourselves.

Now, the information is accessible, but there is so much of it that one or two broad providers alone will not suffice. Anchor communities will help a great deal, but we also will pay experts to help us filter the flood and provide the context and insight that enable us to make sense of what matters most to us. Because, even if we have vast amounts of free time (which most of us don’t), we will never have the expertise in every topic of interest to us, and those that do have the expertise can’t afford to give great amounts of their time away for free.

And to turn the maelstrom of modern media into our personal ponds, we’ll be happy for all the help we can get.

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