Media and tech worlds must work together. There is not a shred of a doubt about it. The former have lost the dual battle for growth and economic performance; the latter are attracting eyeballs and endless funding. Still. When combined, their relevance to society can be greater than the sum of their respective parts.
Last week in New York, I was asked to share my views on the matter. This was before an audience of 350 media executives gathered for the Inma World Congress. Most were looking for ways to effectively partner with digital companies. As I worked on my speech, I asked my tech world contacts how they see us, the media crowd. Here are some quotes, from people who requested not to be identified.
“You guys, are geared to compete rather than collaborate. You’re not getting that collaboration is the new name for the game”. “Even among yourselves, you are unable to cooperate on key industrial issues, shooting yourselves in the foot as a result”. “Your internal organizations are still plagued by a culture of silos. The winners will be the ones who break silos”.
Tech executives also underline they see media companies as co-managed with unions – the consequence being a wage system that discourages rewarding valuable individuals. Media companies are also viewed as having a tech-averse culture. “Media don’t understand that their business has become engineering-intensive. Their investment in technology is grossly insufficient”.
Symmetrically, I collected adjectives summing up media people’s perception of the tech world. “Arrogant, condescending”: true, old media people always have the feeling of being looked down upon by the guys in chinos. “Nerdy, left-brained”: well, it goes along with the flip-flops and the hoodie… “Wealthy”, (I’ll come to that later). “Alien to the notion of value for content”: also true; and that might be the most difficult obstacle to a reconciliation.
More than anything else, techies view the contents news outlets painstakingly put together as an annoyance. They don’t have a clue, nor are they interested in getting one, to the complex, costly and often dangerous process of collecting original information. “Euro-ignorant”: let’s just recall what the geographic distribution looks like in large tech corporations. The often-used EMEA acronym encompasses Europe, Middle East, and Africa, i.e. from Germany to Burundi. Practically, when landing in Silicon Valley from Paris, you’re often made to feel you’re dropping in from the Third World.
“Contract Nuts”: when a 30 pages contract lands in your inbox from California, written in knotty legal English (even for a France-based deal), stipulating the relevant jurisdiction will be the Santa Clara County Superior Court, you can’t help but feeling a bit bewildered and put off. In dealing with tech companies, the amount of money spent in legal fees suddenly appears out of proportions. We have no choice but getting used to it.
The only identical critic, evenly spread on both sides, concerns bureaucracy: medias point at intricate technostructures staffed with legions of people working on the same subject; tech people mock news media needing six weeks to sign the innocuous non-disclosure agreement covering a routine project.
Let’s stop for a moment on the financial issue. Three key factors differentiate the tech from the media world.
1 / Size. The combined revenue of the US newspaper + magazine industry, all sources combined is about $60bn. This is sector is facing the following: Apple (most likely $100bn in revenue this year); Google ($29bn last year); Microsoft ($62bn) or Yahoo ($6bn). As for stock valuations over the last 10 years, consider the graphic below. It shows the performances of three mostly newspapers groups with market values above $1bn: Gannett Co. (market cap: $3.5bn), The Washington Post Co. ($3.33bn), The New York Times Co. ($1.13bn). Over the last 10 years, their stock prices went like this :
Now, on the same 10-year scale, let’s superimpose, Apple, Google, Microsoft; the scale flattens quite a bit:
You get the point. The media industry faces dramatic value depletion.
2 / Access to cash. Technology companies have access to a huge pool of money. After years of disappointing results, the Venture Capital industry is red hot again. In a previous Monday Note, I mentioned Flipboard – great app for the iPad, 32 people, no revenue – with a current valuation of $200m, roughly the equivalent of the McClatchy Company with its 20 newspapers, 7700 employees, 24% EBITDA for a revenue of $1.4bn.
3 / How to spend it. In itself, the cash allocation illustrates the cultural gap. In a tech company, once a project is approved, money will be injected until the outcome becomes clear: success or failure. As I asked an exec in a large tech group what the budget of the project we were discussing was, he answered: “Look, honestly I’ve never seen any spreadsheets on this. This project has been decided at the highest level of the corporation. We’ll pour money into it until it works or closes”.
By contrast, in a media company, investment will be kept at a bare minimum. Any engagement is set as low as possible: temporary staffing, outsourced work, everything is in penny-pinching mode. Not exactly the “No Guts, No Glory” way…
Nevertheless, the more I’m involved in digital media projects, the more I’m convinced that both worlds need a rapprochement. Medias have a lot to learn from tech companies. The way they conduct projects, their relentless drive for innovation, their bold imagination, coupled with a systematic and agile “Test & Learn” approach… For the news industry, drawing inspiration from such a culture is a matter or survival.
As for the tech ventures, they must admit they need the media industry more than they like to think. Flipboard, Google Reader, Bing: all aggregators would lose a great deal of their appeal if they no longer had original contents to aggregate or organize.
Over the past fifteen years, we kept hearing stories telling us Google or Yahoo could swallow any old media in a single gulp. It didn’t happen. Nor did these deep-pocketed corporations find within themselves the vision and skills to create a decent news gathering operation from scratch. The reason is simple and complicated: it’s a métier of its own; thousands of people have been practicing and evolving it for decades.
People like me, working on both sides of the fence, strongly believe in the virtues of cross-pollination. On the media side, it might have to start by finding out what we expect from the tech world, whether they are aggregators, distributors, or search engines. Then, we’ll need to change the way we innovate. In a nutshell, screw the bean-counters that will strangle decisive investments while being unable to stop the hemorrhage in their “legacy” businesses; assign small teams on a small numbers of really (as opposed to cosmetically) crucial projects; do more prototypes and less spreadsheets. Be bold and fearless. As the techies like to say: Go big, or go home!
Failure must be an option. Paralysis is not.